Ben Tuff swimming in the ocean.
“Swim Tuff: How I Swam My Way Out of the Bottle” will premiere at the Plaza Theatre on June 13.

Most of us will probably never swim more than a couple lengths of a pool at one time. But when Ben Tuff goes swimming, his mile count tends to reach the double digits. 

But the new documentary “Swim Tuff: How I Swam My Way Out of the Bottle” isn’t just about Tuff’s gnarly long-distance swims. It’s about his recovery journey as well. 

Tuff, who quit drinking 11 years ago, now focuses his energy on his time in the water. For Tuff, swimming has become a way to center himself and find purpose. Through his swims, he raises money for the organization Clean Ocean Access, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit that aims to improve the health of our oceans. 

“It was a very small organization when I first got involved,” Tuff said. “There are other environmental organizations that are out there that have a much bigger budget, but I wanted to make a mark with my swimming on someone who could really use the money, and where every dollar will be well spent.” 

Tuff will make his mark again with the June 13 premiere of the documentary at Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre. This marks a return for Tuff, who moved to Atlanta in middle school and attended The Lovett School through graduation. The film was directed by Matt Corliss, who previously worked in the camera and electrical department on the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” and Tuff serves as an executive producer. 

The film chronicles a 24-mile swim that Tuff made in 2022 from Providence to Jamestown. Rough Draft Atlanta recently spoke to Tuff about his journey with sobriety and swimming. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Free tickets to the June 13 premiere are available online

When did you first start considering making a documentary about this part of your life?

Ben Tuff: 11 years ago I got sober, and I think for a lot of people – and definitely for me – you’re in this kind of newborn phase of life, because you’re really feeling for the first time. For me, I was feeling and processing anything that came my way for the first time in a healthy way since I was quite young. Once I got used to that, you know, after five or six years, I was ready to really put that out to other people. I did that through AA, and through meetings. I was a teacher at the time, and speaking to some of my students who had parents who were having difficulties, or any of my past students who were then having difficulties, I helped them with that. 

It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that Matt Corliss, my producer, he called me up. He had met my twin brother, and he had heard about my crazy swims. He didn’t really know about the sobriety part. He just knew that I did these crazy swims and that I raised a lot of money for environmental causes. When I started to tell him about my journey of sobriety, he said – whoa. This is a much bigger story and documentary. He said, this isn’t a story about crazy feats. This is a story about recovery. He said, we’re going to knock this one out of the park, if you’re willing to open up and just be you, and allow me to document all of that along the way, then this is going to be an amazing piece of art. 

I was like, let’s do it! I’ve got a big swim coming up, it’ll be about 24 miles. I’m swimming from Providence, Rhode Island to Jamestown, Rhode Island, and I’d love to have you there. He was like, great – I’ll be up in six weeks. I’ll fly over from Boulder, Colorado, and I’ll spend four or five days just shadowing you around, getting a feel for you. We’ll try to raise some money and get going from there. Now, here we are two weeks out from the completion of the film and getting ready to go down to Atlanta to show it for the first time in a public setting, which is amazing. 

I was going to ask how you knew Matt. Off the cuff, you seem like sort of an open book, but I have to imagine that when you’re telling such a personal story, there are decisions that go into who you are going to be trusting to tell that story for you. Was making that choice difficult for you, and what was it about Matt that made you trust him? 

Tuff: It was my twin brother who actually introduced Matt to the whole idea. And he was like, where’s Matt going to stay, did you rent a hotel? I was like, no I just have a blow-up mattress upstairs. And then he was like, what? You’re putting him on a blow-up mattress? And I was like, yeah. We don’t really care, he’s cool with that. [He said] what are you guys going to do for dinner? I was like, well I got some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We’re going to just make some peanut butter and jelly and then go play in the trampoline park. And he’s like, what is going on? From the get-go, Matt and I kind of hit it off. 

The one thing I didn’t want this documentary to be was to be a Debbie Downer – the destruction of one’s life only to be resurrected in the end. Because I find that most of the recounting of sobriety stories spend 75% of the time in the worst place possible. While it is important to acknowledge the worst place that one can go, it’s not the whole story. The whole story is what happens afterwards. Matt and I both agreed that we would focus this film on what happens after as a result of giving up vices, of changing one’s views on life, and adopting new ways. Especially for my wife, who didn’t necessarily want to go there, didn’t want to think about all of the terrible paths and everything that we’ve worked so much to go beyond, or get through over the last 11 years. 

He was like, listen Gretchen [Ben’s wife] – this isn’t about the negative times. This is about creating a story that’s true to Ben and his recovery to inspire others to make that same change in their lives. Period. And that’s it. 

It’s interesting you say that, because I did notice that you don’t dwell too much on what happened before you started recovery. Obviously, you have to get into it a little bit because it is part of the story. But I wondered how you went about making the decisions to include what you included about those hard times? I’m sure it was difficult looking back on it all. 

Tuff: For me it’s a part of life, right? It’s easier for me to acknowledge those down points or those periods of time in regards to alcoholism or addiction. But … everybody carries the weight of some transgression, or some idea of life that they could have done differently. 

I want to get that message out, that my movie isn’t just for people who are suffering addiction, or people who are dealing with others in addiction. It’s about life, and it’s learning how to live life in a much more purposeful, meaningful, and enjoyable way. 

Moving toward the swimming part of this, what was it about swimming that called you to it?

Tuff: Well, you know, swimming was more drowning when I first started. It was like roaming in, and I’ll try and figure it out. Again, a piece of that is my fault, because I’m so stubborn and I wouldn’t take a lesson. I’m sure I could have figured it out a lot easier. But it was my journey, and I wanted to do it for myself, and I wanted to do it just on my own. It was probably about two months in when I really started to get control of my breathing that I started to find the peace in the water. It’s that methodical movement in freestyle of kicking, of your whole body being in line, and your breath being 100% controlled the whole time, especially in open water.

I think that that’s a piece of it that really allows me to be more in tune with my surroundings, when I’m in open water.  Because yes, I’m in a beautiful open lake or an ocean, and I’m at peace with it. But there also aren’t any walls to kick off of every 25 or 50 yards, which when you do kind of takes you out of your rhythm a little bit, and out of your breath. You’re not quite at one with the water. This is different from running or biking. Running is very jarring for me. It’s up and down, and it hurts my knees, and I was always cramping up. And then biking, I was constantly worried about getting run over by a car, so that was tough. But as soon as I could get in the water, within minutes, I found my mind going to other places. This was a time that I could connect with my higher power. I could connect with my thoughts. I could work through any issues. 

There isn’t a single swim, even the worst of all the swims I’ve ever done, there isn’t a swim that at the end I’ve come out of it and said, ugh – that was awful. I wish I didn’t do that today. No matter what, I come out with a positive. Like, that was awesome. I worked through this or that. There was something to really hit home about. 

I’m glad you brought that up. You mention in the documentary, having this designated time – I mean hours and hours – to just think. I think a lot of people see swimming or running or whatever the exercise as a time to get out of their head, and I thought it was interesting that you see it in the opposite way. 

Tuff: Right, right. And everyone’s like, 15 hours? Like, how can you swim for 15 hours? My wife is a very talented Ironman athlete. I remember in the beginning watching her compete in Ironman for 11 hours, and I’m like, that’s insane – going that hard for 11 hours. But it’s all broken up into three sports, and when you do something for 15 hours straight, just repetitively, it could become a very lonely existence, and boring existence if you make it that. Or it can become a place where you can accomplish a lot in your mind.

You didn’t direct this film, but you do serve as an executive producer. Had you had any sort of filmmaking experience before? 

Tuff: The closest I ever got was when I was like 14, and we spliced together all these videos for an English project with my friend Knox in Atlanta. The main character was our iguana, Jollymon, and we were actually halfway decent at putting all this together. But since then, I literally had no idea what went into making a film, though I did have an appreciation for really good documentaries and good films. Especially if they were about topics that kind of hit home for me.

What was the most challenging thing about that process? 

Tuff: For me, it was that it takes so much time. It’s just like, okay, can we be done yet? You can’t rush anything, right? Billy Lefler and Lawrence KatzLawrence is from Atlanta, he’s one of the musicians – he had a large part of the film from the musical side. He wrote all the songs as he watched the movie. He and Billy just kind of put it together. Lawrence was in the band The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and moved from Hollywood to Atlanta, where he grew up as well, he went to North Atlanta. 

You can’t rush that creative thinking and the creative spirit. So I learned to kind of appreciate that and give everybody their space and time. But I was also conscious of the fact that the more time it takes the more money it takes. 

All in all, it was only about $70,000 put into this film … [The small budget] makes it that much more special, I think. Because everybody who took part in it, they weren’t doing it for money. They weren’t doing it for fame. They were doing it because they believed in me and in what kind of a message the film would bring to others.

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.