By Christina Barron
The Washington Post
— This has been a big year for world records.
On Sunday, Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a capsule that had been lifted 24 miles above Earth by a balloon. When he landed safely four minutes later, he had set five world records, including one for the greatest free-fall distance.
And during the summer, Michael Phelps broke the 48-year-old record for the most Olympic medals.
You can bet both of those feats will be included in a book that keeps track of all kinds of statistics: "Guinness World Records." The Guinness book, which is updated every year, is filled with the biggest, fastest, oldest and some of the strangest things people have done to get attention. (Last year, 1,039 people at Kings Dominion set a record for the most people dressed as vampires.)
You might wonder how Guinness checks all the records. That's where Mike Janela comes in. The 27-year-old is head of the U.S. records management team for Guinness. He and eight other people examine evidence, write rules for new records and sometimes travel from their home base in New York to verify records in person. Each team member has a specialty.
"I'm a sports guy," says Janela, who wanted to be a television sports commentator when he was a kid. "I started in sports-specific records. That's my area of comfort and expertise."
So he has been on hand when some interesting sports-related records have been set. One of Janela's most memorable was Gary Saavedra's 2011 attempt to surf for the longest time and over the longest distance.
"He wanted to do it in open water" instead of in a wave pool, Janela said. "He was able to secure the Panama Canal. . . . I'm on this boat. I'm sitting here with a GPS tracking him. He almost hits four hours — three hours and 55 minutes. . . . Finally his leg muscles gave out. But he was totally fine."
Saavedra rode the wave created by a speedboat for 41.3 miles. Janela said it was especially strange to see Saavedra surfing alongside huge container ships.
That record involved one person, but often a record-setting attempt will require a large group. Janela said that dealing with hundreds or thousands of people sometimes makes his job tricky.
"It can be very difficult to organize and count people. Sometimes there is no counting system in place," he said. "The hardest work is before the event."
One event that involved a lot of counting was the record for the world's largest toast, which was set April 20 at Fenway Park. That day marked the 100th anniversary of the ballpark, and the Boston Red Sox provided every fan in attendance with a glass and a bottle of grape juice. Janela said he and a lot of helpers counted as the crowd of 32,904 raised a glass to mark the occasion.
Janela also has met the woman with the longest fingernails (19 feet, 9 inches for all 10) and the person with the tallest mohawk (44.6 inches — that's almost four feet).
Growing hair and drinking grape juice don't involve risk of injury, but Janela said people ask Guinness about setting records that are dangerous. In cases that involve kids, Janela said his team sometimes has to say no.
"If you're under 16, we don't accept a circumnavigation [traveling around the world] or really extreme athletic feats," he said.
But Janela said Guinness doesn't want to discourage kids. "We always provide alternative record ideas. We don't want to turn anyone away."