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San Francisco Swim Across America and Alcatraz Crossing

This past weekend I participated in two separate events, both of which served a great cause, and were incredibly memorable experiences.  As a “pool” swimmer, I don’t often go looking for open-water swims when I want to have a relaxing weekend.  But when I do have a chance to participate in a Swim Across America, I’ll jump in anywhere.

After a week video filming in the Bay Area, I traveled to San Francisco, where I was greeted by my friends Janel Jorgansen, Craig Beardsley, and John Moffet.  Getting together with these great old friends is an event in itself, but when there’s a reason as important as the SAA, it’s even more special.

Saturday morning found us, along with more than 100 other swimmers, on a boat headed out to just under the Golden Gate Bridge.  I’ve swum under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the George Washington Bridge in NYC, around Boston Harbor, and now the GGB.  For someone who doesn’t do open-water swimming, there’s a bit of a resumé starting… I’m gonna have to be careful here or people may actually think I ENJOY this stuff.

The water temp was a brisk 58° (14C), which isn’t bad as far as these swims are concerned, but it was pretty choppy.   With the cold water and big waves, it was easy to get separated from the pack.  At one point I couldn’t see anyone, and my goggle situation didn’t help.  Every time I took a breath to the right (my favorite side), I either swallowed water or my right goggle filled with water.  I had to stop multiple times to fix the goggles, and make sure I was heading on the right course.  Thanks to another friend, Mike Bruner, I had the exact building to sight on, so I wasn’t too nervous.  Thanks, also, to Roque Santos, who loaned us a bunch of his great BlueSeventy wetsuits, and some BlueSeventy neoprene beanie caps (which I didn’t know how to put on properly).

I followed one of the boats for a bit, and when it took off, I noticed a couple other swimmers to the left and headed to them.  Turned out one was Roque, so I had a nice swim, only to be tackled by him as we ran to the finish.  Since SAA isn’t really a race, this kind of behavior was encouraged and the favor was returned.  Great way to end the swim.

During the reception afterward, we heard the doctors who would be receiving the money raised by SAA.  We got to meet many survivors, as well as a few of the people our SAA groups were swimming for.  Particularly moving was the group of Stanford Swim Team Captains that assembled to swim for their friend Ken, who came up to speak carrying his daughter in his arms.  It’s moments like this that make these events come to life, and make it real.  He spoke of the friendship of his fellow Stanford swimmers and his family that has kept him fighting and pushing the disease into remission.  Another story came from an old friend from upstate NY, Dave Barra.  We used to swim together in NY from time to time, and it was great to see an old friend.  He was swimming for Grant, a young boy who’s successfully battling the disease.  When Grant spoke, I remembered how lucky I am to have two healthy children.  These events come with so much reality, so much hope, and so much success, it continues to get harder and harder to miss them.

Fourteen Olympians came to the Golden Gate Swim:  two water-polo players from the 2008 team, a rower, and swimmers spanning 1976 to nearly the present.  The best part was the water-polo players, who came with many friends and who passed the ball from swimmer to swimmer as they swam the 1.5 miles from the bridge to the finish.  The ball was covered with names of people we were all swimming for.  I wasn’t able to find them during the swim, but they all came out with smiles, and with the ball.

Sunday morning came early, and Craig and I got some coffee, and grabbed a cab to the  South End Rowing Club.  From there, we were given the opportunity to swim from Alcatraz back to the club.  As it turned out, only 6 of us would make the crossing on this morning.  With the Nike Women’s marathon passing by the club, there was so much life and healthy energy in the air so early in the morning.  It was cold out, and the water certainly hadn’t gotten any warmer, so we weren’t really sure how easy or difficult this was going to be.

Walking around the club, talking to Bob Roper, the World Record Holder for swimming the Golden Gate Bridge span way back in 1967, we started to realize just what an opportunity this was going to be.  Virtually a private crossing.  He explained the tides, and explained why we’d be going when he had planned… to make it as easy as possible for us (THANK YOU!).  We looked at the pictures on the walls, the commemorations for a group of three swimmers who had made their 500th crossing.  Bob told us about the 8-year-old swimmer he was working with who not only made the crossing, but also started AT the club, swam out to Alcatraz, swam around it, and swam BACK!  I had to make this… and I’d better not complain, or take any of it for granted.

On the boat ride across, the winds picked up, but the water looked nice and smooth.  Janel reminded, again, that this was NOT a race, but rather a gift to us for our help, and to Team Grant for raising so much money for the event.  Janel told us to take it all in, this was her 2nd crossing, and she told how much she appreciated her first crossing.  She reminded us to stop, look around, and realize just where we were.  It was good advice.

As we neared the island prison, our handlers were on the radio and found out a very large container vessel was coming and we needed to get in.  We determined whom we’d stay with if we got separated, and I was chosen to swim with my friend Dave Barra, who does all of this with NO wetsuit.  He’s a seasoned open-water swimmer and it was going to be his first crossing as well.  We jumped from our boat, swam to the island, quickly stood for a picture, and grabbed a rock.  We each carried this rock back from Alcatraz as a symbol that we’d made it… hoping that we would.  With stern instructions from our boat’s captain to listen and watch him, we were told to get moving.

Dave and I swam away from Craig, Janel, Molly, and George, the 12-year-old friend of Grant.  Again, every part of the weekend was simply inspirational.  Dave and I took our time, we looked around, noticing that we were positioned between the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate.  Behind us was Alcatraz, and in front of us was San Francisco.  We took our time and soaked it in, listening to Janel’s advice.  A short 30 minutes later, it was over.  It was almost sad that it was over; I actually wanted to go back in.  I thought of swimming back out to greet the others, but didn’t want to interfere with their experience.  I really enjoyed it, and want to do it again.  Not that I’m in love with open-water swimming yet (for me, I still don’t like the fishies under there).  I know just how tough it is out there at times, and have great respect for those who compete regularly in harsh conditions.

I only hope and wish everyone could join us in future swims.  Once you realize why these swims are held, and how important the money that’s raised is to the research locations where the funds end up, the swims become secondary, but very memorable.  The friends that you make will be lifelong, and the lives you save may hit closer to home than you can ever realize.

Thank you Janel and Bob for the gift of Alcatraz.  I’ve got my rock and will keep it close to me.  You’re the best.

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