Kindness.

In the seven short years of my swimming career, I have learned the importance of making these goals bigger than myself. It is about giving back to the community. 

Participating in the first ever swim across the Dead Sea last November was a true highlight of my life. A once in a lifetime experience as part of an international team, we came together to rally around a single mission: raising global awareness for the depletion of that critical body of water. A feat made possible by unprecedented diplomatic approval from both the Israelis and Jordanians. A wonderful moment in time when a politicized region demonstrated to the world that cooperation is possible. Deeply affected by this gesture, I wondered if such diplomacy could be replicated in a region closer to home. 

This year I have gathered a team of 12 swimmers from around the world, and on Friday 5th May, guided by six kayakers and a support vessel, we will embark on the first ever swim across the border from the USA to Mexico. We call this swim the Pan-American Colibrí Swim. While the distance is not much when compared to other swims I have completed, the distance is not important; the goal of our swim is to cast a global spotlight on human rights. We will start at Imperial Beach and end at Playas de Tijuana, a distance of approximately 10km. As part of our message we hope to raise funds and awareness for the Colibrí Center for Human Rights

I feel so proud to be a part of this team. Our swim has yet to begin, but for much of this year, we have worked together tirelessly in that tiny slither of time afforded to each us, only after our work and family commitments have been satisfied. Driven by an ever-present enthusiasm, this has been a global collaboration across different time zones, religions and languages. A colossal undertaking of Speedo Diplomacy made possible through our shared connection of empathy, anchored firmly on the conviction that no human should suffer, and a fundamental belief that we are all capable of making a difference in the world, a place that at times feels insufferable.

While I am aware that unfortunately human rights are highly politicized across the globe, this swim is not a protest. This swim is about love, kindness and empathy for others while raising funds and awareness for the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, an organization worthy of support. Nothing more, nothing less.

Politics simply should not matter. It about compassion for others, and knowing that we - as global citizens -  have a duty to help each other, however we can. Indeed, this is about giving back.

We have specifically chosen not to align with any politicians, instead leading from the heart with authenticity. Most importantly we have been particularly diligent to operate clearly within the bounds of the law, and have the full support and approval from the US Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security, Mexican Navy, and Mexican Immigration authorities. The process of interacting with each of these agencies has been nothing short of incredible. A reminder that if one gives kindness and respect, oftentimes you receive that in return. And last but not least, we have the endorsement of world-renowned singer and humanitarian, Sting who generously gave us his time crafting a video message of support.

Arriving in Mexican waters, we will be escorted by the Mexican Navy. Walking up on land in Mexico we will be greeted by 200 children from underserved communities in Tijuana, many of whom have never even seen the ocean. We are literally handing our message to the next generation, in the hope that they can see with their own eyes that they too can have impact, and can do this lawfully, and with grace. Mexican officials will formally process us on the beach, providing all necessary passport stamps. Then we will host a ceremony in Rosarito alongside the children, and return across the border via car later that day.

As a team we are motivated by our shared desire to be of service, utilizing our passion for swimming as a universal expression of kindness and unity. We hope that perhaps, and even for the briefest of moments, the world can come together around a common understanding of human suffering, and connect with an open heart to see “them” - the migrants – as “us.” 

 

More details on our swim below:

http://www.colibricenter.org/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtrlqC2BvS0

http://dailynews.openwaterswimming.com/2017/04/madswimmer-always-swimming-for-cause.html

http://dailynews.openwaterswimming.com/2017/04/pan-american-colibri-swim-crosses.html

http://dailynews.openwaterswimming.com/2017/04/nado-panamericano-colibri-by-mariel.html

http://dailynews.openwaterswimming.com/2017/04/dan-simonelli-on-pan-american-colibri.html

http://dailynews.openwaterswimming.com/2017/04/behind-scenes-of-open-water-event.html

http://openwaterpedia.com/index.php?title=Pan-American_Colibri_Crossing

http://dailynews.openwaterswimming.com/2017/04/king-from-imperial-beach-to-playas-de.html?m=1

Buoyancy.

Leaving Jerusalem on our way to the Dead Sea, I am struck by the overwhelming energy and excitement that fills the bus. Having met in person for the very first time only 24 hours prior, our team has instantly united with a connectedness of purpose and meaning. Having followed the previous aquatic quests of many of these swimmers with much admiration, to finally come together from across the globe for this incredible cause feels particularly significant.

As our bus winds its way through the endless desert land – barren and seemingly uninhabitable - except for the handful of remote Bedouin settlements scattered across the land; shanty homes of this nomadic farming community surrounded by small makeshift fences housing modest flocks of sheep. Devoid of modern comforts, amazingly these small collectives are completely self-sufficient, despite the arid surroundings. Being a New Zealander who grew up on a sheep and cattle farm surrounded by an abundance of fertile, lush and very green landscape, I am awestruck with the sight of a lone Bedouin farmer leading his small flock, small as it is, of sheep across this desolate land. Even more amazing to consider that this iconic scene has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years.

Continuing our drive to the lowest point on earth (400 meters/ 1410 feet below sea level) along the twists and turns of the renowned Highway 90, Evan announces exuberantly over the loud speaker “ladies and gentlemen, we have just officially gone below sea level!!” With the pressure building in our ears as we make our way even further below sea level, this sensation is the oddly familiar; it is exactly the same feeling as taking off from land in an aircraft and flying towards cruising altitude. We observe with a child-like giddiness the novelty of our travel into this new terrestrial territory, and very quickly share an experience around releasing the pressure in our ears using a variety of methods - feigning a yawn or chewing gum to clear our ears. 

Seeing the Dead Sea for the first time is nothing short of extraordinary. This strange greenish-blueish body of water set against a barren backdrop, except for nearby date palm plantations set along the perimeter, is mirage–like. It is easy to mistake the Sea for an abundance of life. Yet the depletion and the ill-health of this body of water is readily apparent; the water line has receded many kilometers in my lifetime alone. This is undeniable proof of a rapid decline, and the reason we are all here today. Random collections of huge sink holes collapse deep into the earth. Indeed it is a sobering sight. Health spas set up decades ago are now abandoned due to the lack of proximity to the water line. Remnants of outdoor showers that were once mere steps from the Dead Sea, litter the land some 2-3 kms from the sea. 

After a brief pit-stop at our generous accommodations at Ein Gedi, we are ready to swim in the Dead Sea together for the first time. Now seated on the tractor-trailer transportation, we make our final journey towards the Sea, though still at least 2 kms away. Approaching the Sea, we are welcomed by a narrow passageway showcasing each of our national flags, my Mum squeezes my hand with an acknowledgment of the journey ahead. I am the only New Zealander on the team, and very very proud. Personalized kits await our arrival containing team shirts and swimsuits thanks to the generosity of our sponsors.

A lifeguard is stationed at the small authorized public swimming zone along the water’s edge in case of an emergency - something we witness during this first practice swim in the sea. Without warning a tourist flips over on his stomach, face down, flailing and unable to right himself (the density of the water makes it very difficult to turn your body over if you are unexpectedly face down). Together with the lifeguard, a few of our teammates come to his rescue.

Indeed, as a swimmer, it is a strange notion not to be able to dive into a body of water without full face protection. To know that you cannot – under any circumstance - swallow the water, or inhale the water. And the fact that you cannot do either, oddly makes me want to do it even more. Each body of water that I have had the privilege of experiencing has a unique taste and sensation. But knowing the risks of the Dead Sea, and I will not dare test those limits; there is no question, we must wear our specialized masks. Yet wearing the mask in this environment is very different from where I practiced – at sea level in my training pool and in the San Francisco Bay. Here the air feels thicker with oxygen making it easier to breathe, yet the air temperature is a stifling and very dry 78 degrees, and the restriction of the mask begins to trigger my sense of claustrophobia.  It feels awkward and cumbersome to say the least. 

Determined to fulfill my commitment to the team and the cause, I keep my fears and complaints to myself. It is a huge honor to be here, and tremendously exciting. And so, after eight long months of apprehension, my moment of truth is finally realized in a single, very memorable moment; gingerly tiptoeing barefoot across the crystalized bed of salt in the shallow water I make my way to a depth in which I can actually float. It is not easy for any of us. Equal gasps of anguish, and giggles of disbelief fill the air. We must all be mad. Moving further from the shore and closer to the Sea, my high pain tolerance is duly tested. Ultimately, however, the discomfort yields to an overwhelming sense of wonderment and disbelief. Here I am about to launch my body into the Dead Sea for the very first time!!!

Finally, desperate to relieve the pain of the sharp crystalized salt on the bed of the sea floor slicing my feet, I carefully slip my body into a depth of about 5 inches, only to feel my body pop up instantaneously to the surface, and remarkably effortlessly. It is the strangest feeling. “We’re floating! We’re FLOATING!!” I exclaim. The repetition of my delight is only exceeded by my immense grin.  I am completely captivated by the surreal sensation of the salinity of the water allowing for such buoyancy. Cautioned against shaving my legs or underarms in preparation for the swim, I am still surprised to experience previously undetected cuts over my body, with an undeniable, piercing pain. 

After a couple of hours of planned drills in the Sea, we return to Ein Gedi to rest. I soon discover my body is covered with a rash. All over my body. I look like I have a terrible case of the measles. After some hesitation and consultation with Mum, I decide to seek medical treatment from the lead Intensive Care surgeon.  Due to my recent medical history with pulmonary edema and a pneumothorax, he orders a full body check, finally deciding that some medication might help with my condition. He cautions, however, that if my rash has not cleared by morning, he will not consent to me participating in the swim. 

Masked.

Masked.jpg

Back in February 2016, an interesting proposition was put to me... would I be interested in joining a team of international swimmers to swim across the Dead Sea? A feat that had never before been accomplished, let alone attempted. Politics aside, one of the reasons why no one has ever swum across the Dead sea is because it is completely inhospitable for any life form.

Due to the exceptionally high sodium content if the water is ingested by humans, the outcome is severe sodium poisoning and extreme electrolyte imbalance, both of which are potentially fatal. The salt can cause blindness, and if the water is inhaled it can cause respiratory distress.  Despite these known risks, a group of purpose-driven swimmers decided to hatch a crazy plan to get the world’s attention on an important cause: to raise international awareness for the depletion of the Dead Sea – a critical body of water for the region - with the hope of initiating legislation for the rehabilitation and protection of the Sea. A worthy cause, and I was honored for the invitation. Without hesitation, I said yes.

The likelihood of the swim occurring however, was not guaranteed. We needed official and unprecedented approval from both Jordan and Israel. For this reason the swim plan was not announced publicly until just a few months prior to the swim. Considerable logistical and diplomatic planning occurred behind the scenes by a devoted group of both Israelis and Jordanians. Without their persistence and hard work over the course of 18 months, this swim would have never been possible.

Shared by three communities - the Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians, the Dead Sea is truly remarkable. The salt concentration of the water fluctuates at 33% (ten times more saline than the ocean), allowing for exceptional buoyancy. It is the lowest point on earth, approximately 1400 feet below sea level. The air is oxygen rich, with the highest recorded atmospheric pressure on the planet. Ultraviolet rays are less intense than at sea level, making sunburn less likely despite the desert surroundings and very warm air temperatures. Additionally, there are minimal pollens and allergens in the air, attracting those people seeking relief from a variety of aliments for thousands of years. Many such therapeutic health claims are now backed by recent research. At over 3 million years old, the Dead Sea is indeed a magical place.

Modern tourists travel to the Dead Sea to experience floating effortlessly on the surface of the water while reading a newspaper or book. This bizarre but fun moment is a “must-have” photo opportunity. Visitors are warned to avoid water contact with their eyes, nose and mouth. You cannot dive into the water. Freshly shaven skin is to be avoided for even the most minuscule cut will cause excruciating pain. Because the salt has crystalized on the floor of the sea you must have water shoes or flip flops to enter the water, or risk a very slow and painful entry with the possibility of experiencing deep gashes on the bottom of your feet from the sharp and uneven surface of the salt.

In planning the swim, we knew the 10 mile (15 km) journey would take some hours. Because no one had ever been in the Dead Sea water for any length of time, it was unknown what the effect would be on our bodies. Part of the plan therefore was to bring aboard a highly experienced medical team, including a top Israeli intensive care surgeon. Unlike traditional marathon swims with goggles, we would have to wear full face masks to protect our eyes, nose and mouth from the water. The day my own specialized mask arrived in the mail, my irrational fear of tight spaces set in immediately, and I wondered how on earth I would swim 5 minutes wearing this mask, let alone 8-10 hours. Though committed to the cause and the swim, I resigned myself to the possibility that this swim might not make my top ten list of wise decisions…

 

 

Unity.

In less than 48 hours, I will be a part of an international delegation of open water swimmers from around the world in an attempt to swim across the Dead Sea.

At 40 miles long, and 11 miles across at its widest point, the Dead Sea is strategically situated on the border of Israel and Jordan. A region that is often brought to our attention for political, rather than environmental reasons.

Because 95% of the water from the Jordan River Basin is now diverted to agriculture in Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, the Dead Sea is at serious risk of disappearing in our lifetime. The Sea is shrinking at a rate of 1 meter per year, with the shoreline receding by a further 5 meters.

It is with this sense of purpose that we are able to use our skills as open water swimmers to give this critical body of water the international significance and awareness that it rightly deserves.

In a world in which we are so divided over so many issues, this is a chance for us to transcend division and bring unity.  

This swim has never been attempted before for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the 34% concentration of salinity making it 10 times more saline than the ocean. The risks are potentially fatal if the water is ingested which is why we will all wear specialized face masks and be accompanied by an experienced team of medics. This is not a traditional marathon swim.

As one of 28 swimmers from South Africa, England, America, Jordan, Israel, and New Zealand, I am but one small component of this massive undertaking.  There will be a flotilla of seven support boats, which will travel together to accommodate the needs and abilities of each swimmer. Therefore, we have set no time limit, but our goal is to reach Israel as a team. We are estimating that this swim could take up to 8 hours.

 

 

Reflections.

Photo credit: Robert Petersen

Photo credit: Robert Petersen

It has been a week since my swim, and I have taken this time to reflect upon the challenge I set out to achieve, while reminding myself of the reasons why I undertook this in the first place.

Despite being so well prepared – both physically and mentally - it wasn’t to be. As weather conditions deteriorated, and showed no signs of abating, after 24 hours and 17 minutes my swim was over. It was clear Mother Nature had a different plan for me, and I am completely at peace with that.  Indeed, this swim was never about me to begin with. It was about bringing attention to a worthy cause very dear to my heart, Warrior Canine Connection, and the daily struggles that veterans face upon reintegration back into society while suffering from the invisible wounds of war. 

A year ago I would have deemed my non-completion of the swim as failure, but my experiences have brought me to a different place where I am able to recognize that it depends how you frame success in your mind. If my journey and my challenge has enabled just one person to reach out and ask for help, then I have succeeded. 

Thank you one and all, most especially my incredible crew for supporting me along this journey.

Devotion.

In the final approach to my swim next week, many people have asked why I have chosen this particular swim. Why put such effort and hard work into another swim when I have already had the privilege of swimming around the world completing the Oceans Seven, and most recently a solo crossing from the Farallon Islands back here in San Francisco? I guess it is fair to say I have had more than my share of swims. And along the way, I have been blessed with worldwide publicity.

I feel fundamentally compelled to use this attention and goodwill to help others. For there is something truly special when you put your mind and body on the line for others. And I am fortunate to be part of a team of like-minded individuals called Night Train Swimmers. Every year we select a charity or two to raise funds and awareness for.  I proudly serve on the Advisory Board of Warrior Canine Connection, a pioneering organization that uses canine connection therapy to help veterans and service members suffering from post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury reconnect with their lives and their families. And I have been waiting for the right opportunity to highlight this cause through my swimming.

I am doing this swim to honor all who have served and suffered greatly as a result. Specifically, those who have returned seemingly physically whole, but are faced with the invisible wounds of war, most notably post traumatic stress.

I am doing this swim to honor my late Grandfather, who volunteered for WWII, spending 4.5 years away from his fiancée (my late Grandmother) fighting in the East Africa campaign. I remember staying with my Grandparents as a young child and waking up in the middle of the night to the sounds of his terrible nightmares. Back then there was no formal recognition of post traumatic stress. Yet in many ways I think living on a farm surrounded by animals saved my Grandfather. A devoted animal lover, he was my role model, my cheerleader and my friend who taught me so much about what is important in life. He was a firm believer in giving back. The values about life which he exemplified so honorably and consistently were gifted to me with unending love. My promise to him is to demonstrate this for as long as I live. And so while he is no longer with me, he is within me.

Many of my close friends here in the US are veterans and service members. This swim is a unique opportunity for me to honor each of them and to create meaning out of my own commitment to a cause that is dear to my heart.

Politics simply do not matter. It about compassion for others, and knowing that we - as a community, a nation, a world -  have a duty to help each other, however we can. Indeed, this is about giving back.  Significantly there would not be a family in America that is not affected either directly or indirectly by the services veterans provide on our behalf, and the enduring struggle they face as they rebuild their lives and try to reintegrate back into civilian life.

I am well aware that the struggle I will face in the 45 hour duration of my swim pales into insignificance as compared to their own struggles on a daily basis. 

If you are able to donate to my swim you can do that here.  Any donation would be greatly appreciated. If you are unable to donate, I would be most grateful if you could help spread the word by sharing this blog post. I think Warrior Canine Connection is a worthy cause that deserves our help. 

Lest we forget.

 

Becoming.

The journey of preparing for a marathon swim is like no other. It can be an all-consuming process. It is a commitment to the self; setting a goal for the mind and body, and seeing just how far you can go. It takes work, a lot of work, much of which happens under the cover of darkness before anyone else wakes. An exhaustive and emotional voyage, a truly transformative experience, occurring in parallel with a seemingly normal, regular life.  But it can be tremendously isolating. For the bigger the goal, the more work and sacrifice it demands. Strangely enough this prescriptive regime suits me. I am “all or nothing,” never in between. Is it worth it? I think so. For there is nothing quite like building up to a goal that I set for myself, knowing that there is an end point, whatever the outcome. There are no guarantees that all the work will pay off. I am at the mercy of Mother Nature, inviting myself to her intimidating aquatic grandstand, and trying my best to keep up. An intricate and improvisational dance with the unknown, where I am no longer in control. It is scary, nerve-racking, but tremendously exciting.

There are no prizes in this sport. No gold medals, no promises of financial windfall. Something much much better. And it lays just on the other side where you are most uncomfortable and where you are most fearful: it is the gratitude of realizing you are capable of far more than you ever dreamed possible, where you push yourself beyond the imaginable and into a new and beautiful expanse of the self where the soul evolves and the heart expands. An overwhelming journey that begins with a first stroke, a commitment to do something you did not think you could do. 

Not only do you need to train the body to be physically fit for long periods in the water, but you  also have to be able to withstand the conditions – cold water, warm water, strong currents. As the vessel which carries my soul across the water, it must be as sea worthy as possible. This includes maintaining a certain weight to protect my body against the elements. I like to think of this as my insurance policy. Certainly not a “money back guarantee” but a chance – a hope – of making it to completion. 

As I begin to emerge from my training regime for the first time since the New Year and enter the taper phase where I reduce my mileage and focus on rest, I am beginning to grasp the enormity of my efforts. I have already exceeded what I previously imagined for myself: two years ago I almost died from jellyfish toxicity, last year I swam from the Farallon Islands. This year I have clocked in hundreds of miles and I feel tremendously vibrant. Everyday I am reminded what a privilege it is to be able to push my mind and body if I allow it, and I am extremely grateful.

This swim is quite different from anything I have ever attempted. The amount of time I will spend in the water will far exceed any swim I have previously completed. At least 45 hours of non-stop swimming, taking me through two days and two nights. And as such, I knew I needed to train my mind and body to be familiar with not only staying awake for over 45 hours, but also being able to move continuously. The last three months of my training focused not only on gaining fitness, but doing this while sleep deprived. A typical Friday involved waking up at 4am, swimming in the Bay before work, working a full day at Adobe, returning home for dinner and then swimming through the night. Depending on where I was in my training schedule, I would swim 9, 10, 11 or 12 hours. Watching the sunrise on a Saturday as I finished my overnight swim, I would begin an entirely new day and stay awake. I would not nap, instead I would keep myself busy until my head would finally hit my pillow – albeit abruptly – around 9pm that evening. After a full night’s rest, I would swim again on Sunday. And I did this for three months.

I will be swimming down rivers for the majority of my swim. Mirroring the twists and turns of the river, I fully expect my mind to wander. I have been told to expect hallucinations during the second night of swimming. There will be no sharks or jellyfish in the water, but there might be a few creatures to dodge in my thoughts. To be able to push my mind into a new mental realm purely by physical exertion is fascinating to me. I hope I still feel that way on the second night when I might be convinced my crew are vicious pirates or some other equally crazy thought. There will be potentially dangerous underwater snags to avoid. Also, fresh water lacks the buoyancy generously provided in my salt water swims. Much of this swim will take me through narrow winding passages.  Unlike previous swims across enormous channels of ocean where my support boat navigated the space picking the best current to direct me, my course for this swim is predetermined and restricted by the natural geography of the rivers I will pass through. 

However, as with my previous swims there are some distinct similarities. I will follow traditional marathon swimming rules: I will wear a regular swimsuit, latex swim cap, goggles and earplugs. I will not touch or rest on the boat at anytime. The only contact I will have with my team will be visual and auditory.  

At the end of the day, regardless of the outcome, I know I can put my hand on my heart and tell myself I gave it everything. 

 

"Becoming is better than being." – Carol S. Dweck.

 

Thereafter.

I can hardly believe that exactly one year has passed since my Farallon Islands swim. On August 8th 2015 at 4:22pm I swam underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, successfully completing a personal goal that was so big and so scary I had no idea I would return safely. In fact, I fully prepared not to return, accepting my fate with resignation and preparing for the worst. Oddly enough I was completely at peace with that possibility, for as the hours slipped away in the final approach to my swim, I found myself in a magical and tranquilizing vortex where all reason and fear dissipated effortlessly. It was just me, my team and my goal. Nothing else mattered.

With each of these goals, when you achieve them there is something that happens deep within the soul. I have had the great fortune of plumbing the depths of a sense of self that did not exist 10 years ago, 5 years ago or even a year ago. And it is constantly evolving.  

I am forever changed, reaching a deeper understanding, a deeper sense of who I am, and where I am at. And it is tremendously freeing. Each of these adventures have been both healing and nourishing. A transformative process – a spiritual awakening.

After my Farallon Islands swim I thought I would be done. I thought I would feel a complete and overwhelming sense of satisfaction and personal achievement. For this was the one swim that was missing from my heart, and I knew it had to be mine. And while I definitely feel at peace with having completed this goal, I cannot help but continue to be motivated by the thereafter, the next chapter in my journey. Because not a day goes by where I do not honor what happened to my leg in 2007. I now live everyday of my life paying deference to that second chance. I will never forget the fear of the unknown as I was told unequivocally “we saved your leg but we don’t know what, if any, functionally you will ever have.” Without knowing how I would do it, I took a leap of faith into the unknown, determined to prove all the medical experts wrong. And those two years I spent learning to walk again gave me a glimpse into the realm of possibilities, that anything is attainable when you set your mind, your body and your heart to a goal, and dare to dream.

So I am not quite done. Because, with each all-consuming journey towards that edge - a tantalizing boundary where my mind and body are truly challenged -  my sense of self not only blossoms, it thrives. Of course it is scary, but for me that is precisely the draw, because if it does not challenge you, it does not change you. Adventure allows me to realize previously unimaginable dreams.

I still want to see how far I can go. I want to see if I can push that edge just a little bit further. So next month, I will attempt a 45-hour non-stop swim from Sacramento to San Francisco.

In the five years that I have been a member of a non-profit team of adventurers called Night Train Swimmers I have learned the importance of making these goals bigger than myself. It is about giving back to the community. I have been waiting for the right opportunity to pursue a fundraising swim for Warrior Canine Connection, an organization that is very near and dear to my heart. I am hoping to bring much deserved attention to this very worthy organization that supports veterans and service members on their own journey to wellness.    

Fear.

We are all afraid of something.  And maybe, just maybe, we are afraid of more than one thing. I know I am.  Fear of losing my family, friends and loved ones is top of my list. Fear of failure is a very close second. Working my way through this list of fears (and it is a long list, trust me) includes fear of rejection, embarrassment, and not living up to my own expectations and goals for myself. Fear of sharks? Sure, but more of a healthy respect and strange adoration for these rather large marine fish, since I am often passing through their living room. I think they are beautiful creatures, even if their toothy smiles and athleticism for attacking their prey is a little intimidating. Each of my fears present different parameters required to conquer, some of these fears are simply out of my control, while others, with some persistence and effort, are easily overcome.  

Ever since I was a small child, I have been terrified of big waves onshore.  My Summer holidays at the beach with my brothers always seemed to include at least one frightening incident where I was held under by a massive wave, and tossed and turned like a rag doll through the surf. I would retreat to the beach with a few tears, seeking comfort with my warm dry towel, and eventually calming my nerves with a delicious ice cream. Over the years I would return to that same beach, though a little more timid and cautious than the year before. Every year I was lured by the promise of warm sand, salty water, ice creams on the beach, family time, and the seemingly endless freedom of school holidays.  Fast forward many years, school holidays ended, university and work obligations took over. And in my mind the waves became bigger and scarier.

As a fairly newcomer to the sport of open water swimming, over the last 6 years, onshore waves have been an almost unavoidable component of my adventures. Determined to conquer my fear, I have since attempted to employ the exposure method during many of my swims.  In 2012, I planned to swim the annual Bay to Breakers swim. A challenging South End Rowing Club swim that involves jumping underneath the Bay Bridge and swimming 11 miles along the San Francisco waterfront, underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and exiting at the notoriously rough and dangerous Ocean Beach. But I did not finish that swim. Terrified of the waves I could see breaking onshore, I opted for a DNF (Did Not Finish) and retreated to the support boat for a ride home. I was so disappointed in myself.  

As my passion for swimming consumed me, I continued to swim around the world, carefully avoiding swims that involved surf exits. Except for one. The Oceans Seven challenge includes the infamous Molokai Channel, a very rough 35 mile swim with a surf exit. At the time no one really knew just how afraid I was of big waves, eclipsing more common fears of a possible Tiger shark encounter and the pain I ultimately endured from Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish stings. Yet thanks to a few strokes of bad luck (or good luck) after swimming for almost 20 hours from Molokai to Oahu, horrendous conditions (25 knot winds, and shifting tides) made an exit from the water at the usual infamous surf spot, Sandy's Beach, impossible. Instead I had to swim further down the coast and climb a 15 foot rock wall. Even to this day, I cannot adequately express the overwhelming relief and joy I felt with this scenario.

Aware that if I wanted to continue enjoying the ocean as a swimmer, I would ultimately have to overcome this fear, I began sharing my concerns with friends. And amazing things happened. Everyone rallied to help, pushing me a little bit each time. Last year I even swam in pre-dawn waters at Lindamar with 6-8 feet waves. Despite screams of fear, lots of hand-holding through the surf and some laughter from my friends (I seem to provide high entertainment value), I did it.

This morning I faced my fear once again, finally returning to complete the Bay to Breakers swim. It may have taken me four years, but I did it. And I did not do it alone. I asked for help, and feel tremendously grateful for the support I received. Escorted by my Aussie training partner, Simon in a kayak and my swim pod with Asha and Amy, we cruised through near perfect conditions along the San Francisco waterfront. As we passed underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, we were even accompanied by few humpback whales who seemed to flick their tails in delight and encouragement just 100 yards away. The Aussie and Asha eventually guided me towards Ocean Beach and through the surf, all the while talking me through my doubts. Designated “surf angels” were even waiting to provide me with further assistance. Even my dear friend Joe Flahaven, who will be turning 80 next week, showed up on his surf board to help me. Walking up on that beach was an amazing feeling, as I was greeted by more friends from the club who woke up early to welcome all the swimmers home.


Swimming 30 miles from the Farallon Islands through shark inhabited water does not make me fearless. Crazy perhaps, but certainly not fearless. I was terrified of that swim for many reasons, not the least of which was fear of failure. I was also very concerned that I might not return home alive. In fact, I meticulously prepared for that scenario. But that is another story. Despite this, somehow I was able to harness that negative feeling of fear – of complete and utter terror – to fuel the tremendous excitement I ultimately felt, allowing me to slip into the water in the middle of the night on August 7th and begin my journey back to San Francisco. Reflecting on this experience, I know that what allowed me to stay in the water, and ultimately complete my swim was my incredible team of very special friends (and my Mum!) who dedicated their time and efforts shepherding me tirelessly through numerous obstacles of cold water, self-doubt, and extreme vomiting.

I honestly believe that if something scares you, or if you think you cannot do something, that is exactly when you should do it. And you do not need to face that fear alone. The key to all of this is surrounding yourself with friends and family who support you and believe in you. Most importantly, the real magic is not necessarily conquering that fear, the treasure is asking for help and witnessing those who show up. It is an incredible feeling, and well worth the risk of rejection, failure and even loss.

Whole.

As my physical therapist sits opposite me at the end of the vinyl table I have been instructed to lay on, I know I now literally face my first real journey into the unknown.  The table feels so cold and sterile, except for the strangely comforting aroma of physical therapy creams that permeate through the room. With my legs stretched out, my therapist places his hands carefully one inch on either side of my right foot. “Kim, move your right foot out to tap my left hand.” Nothing moves. I try again. Still, nothing. I try one more time. Nothing moves. Sensing my frustration and being on the verge of tears, he reassures me that everything will be okay.

Reflecting on this first physical therapy session in August 2007, which occurred just weeks after the first two of four major surgeries, I could never imagine where I am today. With the odds stacked firmly against me, under the care of a podiatrist, orthopedic surgeon, neurologist and plastic surgeon - my crutches already an extension of my physical self - any hope of walking unassisted lay in the hands of future surgeries, physical therapy, and fate. Determined to recover, I returned to that same physical therapy table four days per week, for two years.  At the mercy of nerve generation, each session was tiring and disheartening; progress was both slow and limited.

Even as my physical therapy treatment concluded in 2009, I still walked with a limp, and I could not walk long distances. Adding to my discomfort I had to wear an ankle-foot orthotic (AFO) to even be able to walk down the street. I remember nervously starting work again for the first time since my injury and struggling with how to conceal my AFO, while maintaining some semblance of fashion sensibility. Everyday I would slide the white plastic sole of the AFO into the same pair of black leather sneakers, and wear a pair of loose fitting jeans that hid the plastic support attached to my calf muscle with white Velcro. Eventually I graduated to custom orthotics that fit discretely into any shoe.

Still, I longed to be reunited with that physical freedom I had been blessed with my entire life but had never truly appreciated. As a former ballerina, I was lucky to have avoided any major injury. My body - once a finely tuned machine that would do whatever I asked of it - no longer responded effortlessly.  I felt trapped and lost. In October 2009 I found myself drawn towards swimming as a way of seeking movement and joined a local pool in San Francisco. A decision that changed everything for me, the water became a haven for me, freeing me from that physical and mental confinement. Weightless in the water, I moved across the surface just like everyone else.  And while my technique was obviously lacking, I still made it to the other side of the pool, and back again. It certainly was not pretty, and it took me a little longer to finish my laps, but I did it. 

One month later I jumped in the San Francisco Bay with my friends Jordan and Mike, and never looked back.

What I did not realize over the course of the next six years is this: while swimming became a retreat filled with self-discovery, it also allowed me to conveniently ignore the physical limitations of my right leg. Ironically I embraced my aesthetic limitations - I absolutely love my scars. Those discolored patches across my leg are part of the fabric of my soul, reminding me that anything is possible.  But sporadic prompts in the form of excruciating nerve pain did little to force me to address the fact that my body was not whole.

Two months after my Farallon Islands swim, I could not walk comfortably up an iconic hill near my home in San Francisco. Shocked by how awkward and painful it felt, I knew I had to face what I had been dreading. I joined a gym and hired a trainer. I jokingly asked Jonathan to break me, yet after four months of weight training and strength exercises, he has rebuilt me. For the first time in almost nine years, my body feels nearly whole. My right leg is once again part of me.

Coincidentally I am currently experiencing my longest stretch of time without nerve pain. Three solid months and counting. And while there remains permanent nerve damage to my leg, and I still rely on custom orthotics to walk a distance more than 50 yards (so I am not exactly walking completely unassisted) I consider myself pretty lucky, all things considered. This afternoon I ran hill sprints up that same hill I struggled to walk up last October: a 39 second sprint up a 45 degree angle for 150 yards, to be exact. And it felt magic.

Serenity.

Photo credit: Kate Webber

Photo credit: Kate Webber

As 2015 came to close, the endless torrent of unrest that had flooded my thoughts finally slackened, revealing the most beautiful and pristine pool of tranquility.  I do not think I ever remember feeling so content. That persistent internal conflict which had consumed me following my successful Farallon Islands swim, gradually gave way to a much-needed reprieve. Until last month I had been unable to even partially grasp the reality of my achievement; a special dream I had worked tirelessly to realize, felt oddly abstract. Countless press interviews, several notable award nominations and documentary filming occurring in parallel only compounded my detachment. It was all so surreal, I could not help but feel as though it was someone else’s story. 

And while I vividly remembered the fear, pain and exhaustion of this journey as my incredible team expertly shepherded me safely across the Gulf of the Farallones, I was unable to believe that I had not only completed it, but also come back alive. With increased shark activity around the islands leading up to my swim, my constant and dominating fear of failure was trumped by a fear of a devastating shark attack. News of my good friend Simon’s close encounter with a Great White shark during his swim, just three miles from the islands, and a mere 10 days before the beginning of my swim window, was especially sobering. As I counted down the days, hours and minutes, I quietly prepared for not coming back; all of my personal affairs were in order, including my laundry - clean and folded - just in case. 

Blessed with a safe passage, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. Congratulatory acknowledgments for my accomplishment spread across national and international news outlets, and I received thousands of emails and messages from family, friends and strangers. Despite this whirlwind and even the addition of permanent scars on my torso caused by chaffing from my swimsuit, I could not comprehend what had occurred. For months I vacillated aimlessly between disbelief and shock, giving way to a storm of denial and detachment. 

In the days and weeks following my swim, I tried unsuccessfully to process my experience. Viewing the news clips online, reading text messages, emails and Facebook posts… none of it seemed real. And all I could do was cry. Tears not of sadness, but of thankfulness and absolute disbelief. This disconnect lasted so many months that I am embarrassed to admit that today many of these messages remain unanswered, including voice-mails I have yet to listen to. The few messages I replied to months ago felt vacuous at best, lacking the honest emotion and gratitude I have felt intensely during the last five months. My swim was such an incredibly life-affirming experience that it left me completely awe-struck with just how powerful the mind and body can be if you allow yourself the opportunity to face your fears. After a short period of answering emails and methodically checking them off my “to-do” list, I stopped.

Instead I watched with amazement as my body transformed effortlessly. My physical self, it seemed, was ready to move on. But as that armor which had shielded me from cold Pacific waters - an almost 40lb weight loss – slipped from my frame, I felt a deep loss. I simply was not ready to let go of the experience I had yet to process, despite this dramatic physical metamorphosis.  

Ironically, an unexpected near-death experience in early December provided the breakthrough I needed. After a freak accident on land, I found myself in an ambulance – lights blazing and sirens blaring - on my way to a local hospital. Unable to breathe and in excruciating pain, I was diagnosed with a punctured right lung and admitted for treatment.

During the days of my hospital stay, I endured countless chest x-rays, blood tests and constant pain medication. Face-to-face with my mortality following the most unexpected mishap, I had no choice but to surrender. Hooked up to an oxygen machine, I was literally stuck, granting my mind with a peculiar but precious opportunity to catch up. Indeed, the running away from my thoughts came to an abrupt end. 

Walking leisurely through the long lush grass with my canine friend Macy, we pass the old walnut tree, a curious pet lamb, and two equally friendly calves. As the blazing hot sun begins to set in the west, a glorious pink glow floods the blue horizon. We make our way down the meandering track to the lake that forms the picturesque centerpiece on my parent’s sheep and cattle farm. Surrounded by hundred year-old oak, copper beech and eucalyptus trees, I spot the calm waters adorned with pink and white water lilies, and smile. Sitting for a moment to appreciate finally being home with my family, an important annual trip that seemed uncertain until I received medical clearance less than 48 hours before my flight, I am struck by the timing of a much needed and long awaited realization.

I really did do it. I swam from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

Possibilities.

Photo credit: Kate Webber

In the three months since my Farallon Islands swim, much has changed. And equally much has not changed. For me this is the ultimate struggle; having the patience to trust the process when I am enticed by agents of change, especially when it scares me and takes considerable effort. For when you stretch beyond your capabilities, possibilities of Self begin to sparkle in the distance above. A mesmerizing sight, glistening with an allure that is captivating in the truest sense.  With each bold step toward reaching those possibilities, there adds a richness to my soul I know I can never achieve if I did not forge ahead. I do not want to stay the same, I want to explore how far I can possibly go. And the only way out is to cross the chasm of vulnerability, despite the cacophony of self-doubt and fear that echo persistently off the canyon walls.

None of these swims are simply athletic events, but a particular stage of metamorphosis. They change you. And that is precisely where I thrive. Such that the soul crawling out of the water onto dry land completing a swim - crying and exhausted - is a completely different embodiment from the one who jumped off a boat, in the middle of the night and surrendered herself to the magic of the unknown. The swim is merely the catalyst that forces me into the exploration of a new realm of Self.  An unpredictable journey that only truly commences when you return to land. And for me the struggle in the aftermath is far more tumultuous than swimming through the craziest swells of the wild and untamed ocean. Indeed, elbowing my way out of this cocoon I have outgrown is a painful tussle.

Yet as uncomfortable and isolating this new space is, I remind myself that this is exactly what I signed up for: the beauty is in the battle. And it is so scary. Yet I know now that if I can endure this discomfort of patience and fear of vulnerability, the most authentic gift of life lays just on the other side.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”  — Marianne Williamson

Clarity.

“3 minutes, Kim. 3 minutes.” Standing backstage at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, a mere three minutes from my most important speaking engagement so far, I feel the adrenaline surge forcibly through my veins. Well-timed and now pretty reliable, adrenaline is for me, a life force like none other, igniting ever fiber of my being. I feel so alive as I imagine all the cells within my body light up in chain reaction, ready to go. With my heart racing uncontrollably, I visualize myself sitting anxiously on the swim platform at the stern of the boat, readying myself to slip into the unknown. A leap of faith that is so familiar and exciting, yet tremendously terrifying.

Three days prior, I was given the distinct honor of a private tour of the Farallon Islands. Invited by the lead scientist following the successful completion of my solo swim in August, it was a dream come true. Ordinarily, the only human visitors to the island are a select team of scientists who study the flora and fauna year round. Stepping onto the barren moonscape, I am awe-struck. A chorus of well-fed sea lions barks loudly, as if announcing my arrival. I am home. Touring the Southeast islands with my generous and informative guide, I see a perspective of this sanctuary few will ever have, and I am so grateful. Carefully navigating the rocky narrow path to the lighthouse, I locate the cove where I began my swim nine weeks ago. Still struggling with a persistent disbelief of this achievement, I realize I need to move forward. Intuitively I know that if I admit to this accomplishment, what else does it mean I am capable of achieving for myself? In many ways this is far scarier that the toothiest shark and most venomous jellyfish. Back on the boat, I change into my swimsuit. The buoy in the cove where I started my swim is just 100 yards away, and against the advice of the scientists, I decide I need to swim. Immersing myself in the turbulent yet crystal clear water I look curiously for my pinniped friends. No one is swimming today except me. And I know why. Touching the buoy, I take a moment to look back at the islands and the boat. It is a beautiful sight and a marvelous first stroke forward in this journey.

“Ok Kim, time to go.” Seconds later I am walking out onto the stage in front of an audience of 7000, a vast sea of opinions and expectations that is completely unpredictable, yet thrilling nonetheless. I have no idea what will happen. But I am learning that with bold step forward in my life, the rewards inevitably outweigh the risks. I cannot help but be seduced by the thrill.  As the spotlight follows me to center stage, I focus on the first job at hand: not tripping. Taking a moment to breathe, a wave of calmness engulfs my body. “Ladies and gentlemen, the one, the only, Mr. Nick Offerman.”

Eight years ago, as I lay in the intensive care unit of a local hospital, facing the near amputation of my right leg and an unlikely future as able-bodied, I could have never imagined my life as it is today. It has been a long uncertain journey of rehabilitation in every sense of the word, an unpredictable exploration of my true Self. And finally today,  I now know - more than ever before - where I am headed. As my Mum always says, “If you’re going to dream, you might as well dream big….”

Dream.

Photo credit: Matt Donoghue

Photo credit: Matt Donoghue

This week was the 1st anniversary of my Oceans Seven challenge. On September 2nd 2014 with a successful crossing of the North Channel from Northern Ireland to Scotland, I became the first New Zealander and the 6th person ever to complete this challenge, the aquatic version of the Seven Summits of mountaineering. Yet the realization of this dream came not without significant personal cost. Stung hundreds of times by Lions Mane jellyfish during my 13 hour swim in 54 degree water, I was hospitalized twice, including five days in a specialized cardiac ward. I am truly lucky to be alive. Focused on the difficult and uncertain recovery that lay ahead, I was unable to fully grasp the gravity of my situation until months afterwards. And, in many ways, I felt the luster of any personal satisfaction from this milestone, completing 7 of the toughest swims in the world, had been tarnished by my ill-health.

Many people thought my swimming days were over. A part of me wondered the same. My heart, lungs and liver were so severely compromised I feared I would never have the opportunity to once again feel the absolute exhilaration and fulfillment of swimming in the wild untamed ocean. In early February at what became my final medical checkup, I was completely blindsided by an unexpected clean bill of health. Indeed, my body had made a miraculous recovery. And in that moment of relief and disbelief, I interpreted this occasion as permission to move forward. I knew I had to make the most of this blessing, and that I had to celebrate this second chance in the most daring way possible: I would chase my one special dream, born years ago.


On May 20th 2011, battling horrific weather conditions and huge swells, I became the first and only woman on a 6 person team to swim to the Farallon Islands. An experience so thrilling and so transformative, I fell hopelessly in love with those islands. Two weeks later I organized the first ever all-women’s relay team to swim that same route. Another life-changing experience, but I was left yearning for more. I wanted to become the first woman to swim solo from those islands to San Francisco. A massive dream no doubt, and at the time for me it was virtually impossible (I had only been swimming for 18 months). Despite this limitation, my dream was officially born. A feat so big, so risky, I knew that if I shared my aspiration with anyone other than a close circle of friends, people would surely be convinced I were crazy.

Fast forward a few years to 2015, I had visited those islands dozens of times and frolicked in the water just as many. A few more relay swims later and my completion of the Oceans Seven challenge, not the least of which was my unexpected full recovery from the North Channel, I was finally in a mental and physical position to take this goal seriously. In the best shape of my life, the Farallon Islands situated 30 miles off the coast of California, were realistically within my reach.  As the months of training quietly ticked by, I began to plan my swim. Every night I marveled at the Golden Gate Bridge, that glorious orange colored finish line, from the comfort of my bedroom window. 

Twenty-seven days ago, my golden dream was realized. I became the 1st woman in history to swim from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge. A world record, but, most importantly for me, I completed a very personal goal that was so big, so daunting that it absolutely terrified me. Increased shark activity leading up to my swim made a safe passage questionable. It was a calculated risk for sure. Yet somehow, for some reason, I made it out alive. Under the watchful eye of my incredible team including my amazingly supportive Mum, I crossed underneath the Golden Gate Bridge at 4:22pm on August 8th 2015 completing my swim.

As the days and weeks press on, I have no idea where or how to begin processing my achievement. This swim was much more than an athletic event. It was a spiritual passage from a place that is tremendously alluring in all its mystery and untamed beauty. With each visit to the Farallon Islands over the past four years,  I have conscientiously paid deference to the water and its inhabitants in the hope that one day I would be able to achieve my dream. (The pinniped population at the islands have been especially welcoming over the years).  Without question, my preparation for this swim was meticulous: a mentally and physically demanding all-consuming goal. For me there was no choice. I needed to know that regardless of the outcome, I had done everything possible to prepare. I knew from experience that much of the swim would be out of my control. Truly each aquatic journey is a complete and utter surrender to the mystery and the mercy of the sea. I know that I can only control that which I can control. The rest is in the hands of Mother Nature (for me this is part of the draw). Yet never in my wildest dreams did I fully consider or prepare for the possibility of accomplishing my dream. While countless scenarios flooded my mind as I fantasized about my swim, they were deliberately fleeting for fear of jinxing my goal.

But here I am. Gradually emerging from the emotional vulnerability of my post-swim daze and the media whirlwind that has carried me through the last four weeks, wondering what the heck just happened. However, there is one thing I know for sure: never be afraid to dream big. And never be afraid to chase that dream relentlessly. Even if it scares you or others doubt you. Take comfort in knowing that eventually you will discover what it all means. That is the real treasure. Not necessarily achieving the dream, but trusting the process and seeing what happens next.

Acceptance.

PHOTO CREDIT: KATE WEBbeR

PHOTO CREDIT: KATE WEBbeR

I often think about that moment on April 25th 2015 jumping in the water at dusk near the Farallon Islands. Four years ago I could never imagined having another opportunity to once again push myself to a place of absolute terror and excitement. A voluntary jump off a boat as the sun is setting to endure the imagined monsters of the dark, at the Farallon Islands, is for me utterly thrilling but also equally terrifying.  My swim on this evening would last for exactly one hour. Not a moment less and not a moment more. After 13 hours of swimming as a team, diligently rotating through hour long shifts, we were almost at the islands. Our original intention for a round trip (Golden Gate Bridge to the Farallon Islands and back to the Golden Gate Bridge) relay swim (a total of 60 miles) had been thwarted by an unforgiving and furious wind. It was unsafe to continue swimming another 30 miles back to San Francisco. Conscious of the very real danger of losing a swimmer or encountering difficulty with the boat in these challenging conditions, we were all satisfied and grateful for the opportunity to instead complete a one-way safely, concluding at the Farallon Islands.  

With 1.3 nautical miles to go until reaching the buoy in Fishermen’s Cove located in the Southeast corner, it was my turn to jump in the water. At precisely 8pm I once again launched myself willingly into the unknown. A moment of complete  and utter abandonment of control, hoping – praying – I would be safe. A chilly 51 degrees, I felt the cool water numb my body within minutes. Goosebumps pricked across my skin. With the wind blowing 24 knots, and my heart beating just as frantically,  I found it difficult to find any rhythm with my stroke. I prayed for the cold to paralyze the terrifying thoughts racing hysterically in my head as soon as possible. Alone with my mind in the darkening water, I focused on my breathing,  made more difficult by the erratic spray of sea water engulfing my body with each breath I took. Every minute seem to pass by ever so gradually. A slow motion replay of my swim under a starry sky for the last mile of the women’s relay swim back in 2011. Yet again my goal was the silhouette of the islands positioned a mile away against a setting sun and rising moon. A familiar scene etched in my mind from that experience, now dreamlike.

As the inky black waters swirled around me, I could not help but wonder how on earth I came to be in this sort of situation yet again. An experience so exhilarating it is at the same time off-the-charts frightening. After some delayed but much needed soul searching in the ominous ocean alone, I arrived at an eerie, focused calm. With my breathing under control, I felt the cold envelope my mind in a glorious and welcomed numbness. Just get the job done I told myself. Focus on the familiarity of the boat on your left as you breathe. And do not breathe to your right. (In this moment I rationalized avoiding breathing on my right for fear of seeing what might launch towards me from the ocean depth. A minor tweak that seemed to allay my fears almost completely as I focused on the boat just 5 feet to my left). I also took comfort in knowing that my entire team were watching should anything go wrong.

Experiencing a delightful trance as I continued to swim towards my goal, a green light plunged in the water a few feet to my left. My intense focus was broken, but for the very best possible reason. It was Kate, one of my teammates who jumped in as planned for support, halfway through my shift. Now swimming in complete darkness,  all that I could see of Kate was the little green blinky light attached to her goggles. I cannot fully describe how meaningful it was for me to have one of my teammates voluntarily risk her life to provide the comfort and support like none other. It was a team effort of gold standards and she chose her moment as the escort swimmer in the most momentous way imaginable. Swimming side-by-side, I would be lying if I did not admit to taking some comfort knowing that the odds were now 50:50. A morbid thought, but the truth in that moment.

With conditions deteriorating significantly, we both thought we had lost track of the boat. “Where are you?!!” I shouted through the darkness as the adrenaline roared through my body. “I’m right here” came this soft calm voice through the darkness. Seconds later the boat appeared over another wave. Kate and I soon finished my hour long and unremarkable shift together before climbing onto the platform at the stern of the boat. Before I had a chance to count my blessings, a massive wave forced me back in the water. Frantic, I swam towards the boat careful not to hit my head on the swim platform that literally levitated before my eyes as another massive wave appeared. The Aussie, Simon, completed our relay in style. Touching the buoy ten minutes later for an official finish after charging towards the islands with an impressive butterfly stroke. 

Weather permitting, next week I will return to these special islands for another swim. Longer in duration, and exponentially more terrifying, most importantly it will be a spiritual homecoming. The Farallon Islands are otherworldly. An isolated untamed wonder that I feel drawn to and connected to like nothing else. I look forward to once again surrendering to its great unimaginable terror and beauty, while praying for continued acceptance. Each of my passages across the sea have been deeply personal journeys in an environment for which I am merely a guest. I am simply passing through. It is not my habitat, yet I have been tremendously grateful for the opportunities to pass safely, often times with a friendly sea creature escort. I do not think that I will ever fully comprehend the magic of being accepted as a friend and not a foe by these beautiful animals. 

As the days and hours tick by approaching my swim window, I can only control what I can control. Nothing more, nothing less. And I accept that.

People often ask me if I am scared. Of course I am. But that is exactly why I need to do this. 

Photo Credit: Kate webber

Photo Credit: Kate webber

Roulette.

Photo credit: Kate Webber

Rotating obediently through hour long shifts in the following order: Patti, me, Simon Ashley, Emily and David, made our way towards the Farallon Islands. This specific swim rotation was assigned prior to beginning our adventure and could not be changed once the swim started. This meant my individual shifts were 8am – 9am, 1pm – 2pm, 8pm – 9pm, and so on, until the swim was completed. As the gloomy morning cloud finally surrendered to the wonderfully bright sunlight of the afternoon, so too did our hopes of completing a double relay. Though the sun was shining, Mother Nature was not exactly cooperative; at times the wind was gusting 35 knots, fueling massive swells and erratic white caps that persistently slapped the hull of the boat as it listed side-to-side in the turbulent water. Swimmers were momentarily lost within the deep troughs that mirrored the intimidating height of the cresting waves. An exhilarating experience as a swimmer, but fairly risky. Should anything go wrong, it was extremely challenging to exit the water quickly and climb onto the boat.

Despite this difficulty, as seasoned rough water swimmers, we were determined to finish one leg – touching the buoy at the Farallon Islands - before heading back to San Francisco. The hours ticked by, and we all wondered who might be the swimmer who jumped in near the Farallon Islands at night to swim their shift. For me, the idea of swimming at the Farallon Islands – day or night -  is both terrifying and exhilarating. I was struck by Vito’s eerie but accurate description of this experience as “being in heaven and talking to the devil at the same time.” I could not agree more. This strange and mysterious outcropping of jagged islands – 30 miles off the coast of California – is tremendously alluring, but also immensely scary. No one just “swims” at the Farallones. It is a remote location known most commonly for Great White sharks who frequent the area in high numbers at certain times of the year. And there are only a handful of human residents, stationed there specifically to study the surrounding biology.

So the idea of swimming at the Farallon Islands at night is perhaps best categorized in a completely different realm: crazy. Strangely enough this is something I have done before, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be in a position to consider this experience again. In June 2011, during the first (and only all-women’s relay swim), and less than a mile away from the Farallon Islands it was my turn to swim the last leg in the dark. It became without question the most frightening thing I had ever done in my life.  I have watched the video footage of that swim countless times - and I am still unable to believe that I was able to do that.  Yet I continue to watch that footage to remind myself of the unexpected treasures that emerge from within when I face my fears. That experience was truly life-changing.  

Fast-forward four years later… I watched with nervous anticipation as the sun began its descent towards the horizon. It was becoming more and more likely that either Simon or myself would be swimming near the Farallon Islands in the dark. The stakes of our aquatic game of roulette increased exponentially, as did my heart palpitations.

Photo Credit: Kate Webber

Photo Credit: Kate Webber


Alive.

Photo Credit: Kate Webber

Taking one last deep breath before I jumped into the sea, I felt my lungs expand with ease. Despite being mere seconds away from beginning my first shift in this historic swim, I was overwhelmed with a glorious sense of personal consciousness. I knew I really shouldn’t be there. Less than 8 months ago, I was discharged from a respiratory ward, only to be admitted into a specialized cardiac ward a few days later. It took four long months but against all odds, I made a remarkable and full recovery. Following official confirmation of my unexpected return to full health in February, I set in place a training plan almost immediately.

An invitation to participate in the relay just a few months later was the reassurance I needed to know that I could once again return to the sea. And, equally important, confidence my teammates believed in me. A relay swim relies on the strength and endurance of all teammates to persevere and complete the challenge; if a teammate can no longer swim – for whatever reason – the event is over.

Seconds away from jumping, as oxygen filled every sac within my lungs, drawing life into my being, lingering remnants of self-doubt and nervousness were stifled. All that remained was the most beautiful ether of calm. And I was reminded – ever so briefly – of gratitude.

The wind had picked up significantly in the 20 minutes prior to my shift. Despite these challenging conditions, Vito continued to expertly navigate the boat through the infamous Potato Patch, a notoriously rough stretch of water between the Golden Gate Bridge and Point Bonita. Massive swells challenged the boat (and the effectiveness of our anti-seasickness patches), heaving us forward and sideways, devoid of rhythm.  Only one hour into our 30 hour adventure, this was a well-timed reminder of our very small and insignificant presence in the Pacific. With my penchant for rough water a worst–kept secret, Vito assured me that I would most certainly get my money’s worth. I could not have been more excited. Seconds later, I plunged myself into the wild turbulent cool 55 degree water. 

Photo credit: Kate Webber

PHoto CREDIT: Dave OGden

PHoto CREDIT: Dave OGden

My world for the next hour became a powerful and endless blue-green expanse littered with energetic white caps. Completely and utterly at the mercy of Mother Nature, I was immediately tossed side to side. I felt my body launch across the crest of a massive wave. As the erratic waves slapped my face, swallowing seawater was unavoidable. I must have swallowed at least a gallon. Moments later I caught myself laughing like a crazy lady with each unexpected gesture from the sea. An awkward dance ensued as I tried my best to decipher some choreography. Yet I soon realized Mother Nature was determined to deny me the opportunity to lead, or time to catch up. Pushed near the starboard side of the boat, only to be forced back into the sea, I continued to stroke forward. At times disorienting, I found a certain pleasure in surrendering to the sea; it was exhilarating. Unfortunately for my teammates, however, this meant listening to my involuntary yelps of “Woo!” for an entire hour. I was so happy. And I was so delightfully alive. 

Jump.

Photo Credit: Kate Webber

As the boat pulled away from the dock at precisely 6:30am, talk of less than optimal weather conditions filled the boat; high winds and rough water most certainly lay ahead. With a collective love for swimming in rough water, our decision was to stick to the plan and see how far we could go. Our team of six would rotate in hour long shifts until we reached the Farallon Islands. Whomever was the swimmer in the water upon arriving at the islands would touch the buoy in the cove, turn around, and head back towards the Golden Gate Bridge as our rotation continued. If successful, this would be the first-ever round-trip Farallon Islands swim, covering approximately 60 miles to the islands and back to San Francisco.

Finally positioned at our starting point underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, our first swimmer Patti, jumped into the water at 7am. Watching from the comfort of the boat, I marveled at Patti’s impressive form as she rode the powerful yet calm outgoing ebb tide into the ocean. Another crazy Night Train Swimmers' adventure had officially begun, and there was no turning back. Within minutes of Patti’s jump, Mother Nature provided us with the most spectacular invitation: a glorious rainbow emerged as the most ornate and remarkable gateway into the Pacific. I could not help but inquire the significance of the rainbow and very quickly determined this was not just a sign, but an official pledge from Mother Nature of a safe passage.  With my turn to jump in next, I found some comfort in knowing we were protected.

Photo Credit: Kate Webber

Though my nerves were slightly subdued thanks to the calming effects of the anti-seasickness patch, and now the rainbow, I could not help but fidget anxiously. For me, that first jump in the water for any swim is always the most nerve-wracking, and tremendously exciting. With well over 30 minutes until my shift, and eager to channel my nervous energy,  I moved downstairs towards the bow of the boat to get ready. This was something I needed to do alone, for fear of scaring my teammates. Already suited up in my swimsuit, I kept my layers on to stay warm. With water temperatures hovering at 55 F degrees (12 C), I wanted to be as warm as possible when I jumped in. Once I located my goggles and earplugs in my meticulously organized swim bag, an important decision still loomed: tinted or clear goggles? I peered through the tiny cabin window and noted Patti motoring along effortlessly. I also observed the sun had made a triumphant return through the grey and ominous clouds. I felt my face come alive with delight and relief: tinted goggles!

For the remaining minutes until I jumped, I sat quietly on the edge of the bunk bed. As my heart thumped through my chest, I questioned my sanity and checked my watch obsessively. With 5 minutes to go, I peeled off my warm jacket, pants, wool socks and Ugg boots. Once outside, I stepped over the stern of the boat and stood on the swim platform. As the cool water lapped invitingly at my feet, I made a last minute attempt to calm my nerves. Taking a few deep breaths, I waited patiently for instruction. Seconds later my teammates indicated to Patti that her hour long shift had concluded. “Boat in neutral” yelled Vito from the helm. “Neutral” confirmed David. Patti swam towards the boat. “Ok, Kim. Time to jump.”

Remembrance.

Arriving at Kate’s house with Ashley and Bruno, I try my best to focus on any last minute organization. Despite the mental fog of the anti-seasickness medication, I have not forgotten what today really means. For New Zealanders and Australians, April 25th or ANZAC Day is considered the most important national day on the calendar. ANZAC Day (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) commemorates those "who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.” On this day the public wear little red paper poppies in remembrance while attending dawn parades that take place throughout New Zealand and Australia. Historically, the poppies are linked to the battlefield deaths during the Allied invasion of Gallipoli in WWI and now symbolize remembrance.

Every year on April 25th, despite living thousands of miles away from home, I wear a red poppy to honor my late Grandfather who served in WWII, fighting in the North Africa campaign and who received many formal accolades for his efforts on behalf of our country. He will forever remain one of the most influential people in my life for his steadfast and unwavering character, his unconditional love of animals, his selfless love for and commitment to my Grandmother and family as well as for a life full of beating the odds. I miss him so much and choose to honor him not just on ANZAC Day but each and every day. Today I will be wearing my red poppy with immense pride.

Now rearranging my gear to fit in Kate’s car for the trip over the Golden Gate Bridge to the yacht club in Tiburon, I search for my red poppy. After some time rummaging, I locate my meticulously packed swim kit. For each of my swims I carry this special kit onboard the support boat, which contains a variety of different items that may become necessary. Extra goggles, swim caps, glow sticks, ear plugs, jellyfish repellent lotion, sunscreen, feminine hygiene products, safety pins, and even a couple of epinephrine pens. All are very practical and neatly packed into this kit. For the uninitiated, I am happy to provide an exhaustive list, but as a brief disclaimer, please do not use these items as a sanity check. We all know the answer to that query. Every single item has a designated location in the clear plastic pockets that line the interior of the bag. There is even one special pocket containing sentimental items: a small rock from New Zealand, a Challenge Coin gifted to me by my good friend Mike Thornton, as well as a Challenge Coin gifted to me by a Marine and his wife at work. And last, but not least, I also carry a decorative ANZAC Day Poppy, in honor of my late Grandfather.

I locate this small red paper Poppy, and pin it to my down jacket. And because our swim today coincides with the 100th anniversary of ANZAC Day, I packed an extra Poppy for my Australian swim buddy, Simon to wear during the relay. It is an honor to join my Australian buddy for this historic swim on this historic day.

 

Rolling.

I remember the first time I wore a prescription anti seasickness patch. It was early 2011. I was fortunate to be a part of some of the early attempts at completing the first ever relay swim to the Farallon Islands. This was months before successfully achieving the goal in May that year. Prior to joining Night Train Swimmers, I really had not spent much time on boats let alone swum in high seas, and was warned by my fellow swimmers that the water is notoriously rough as you head into the Pacific Ocean. Once seasick, there is no cure except to return to land. This is an impossible remedy when you are on a 15-16 hour adventure at sea, trying to set a world record. 

“Here, put this on,” urged my teammate. The only woman on this team of six, and eager to show that I would not be a burden, I willingly accepted a handful of Scopolamine patches from my teammate. With adrenaline now pumping furiously through my veins and feeling incredibly nervous, I made my way to the tiny bathroom on the boat to take a private moment to compose myself and properly apply the patch. Alone, I took a closer look at the packaging and noted that the correct position for the patch was just behind the ear. Careful not to mess this up, it was – at the time – both obvious and logical that since I have two ears, I should place a patch behind each ear. Needless to say, once the medicine reached my system, the side effects were somewhat exaggerated and not entirely pleasant.

Having learned my lesson the hard way, the night before every swim as I carefully place one patch behind one ear, I cannot help but laugh at that rookie moment. While I have since spent much time on the high seas in and out of the water, I continue to err on the side of caution with regard to preventing seasickness. The patch goes on religiously just before I go to sleep one last time on land. 

I set multiple alarms: 4:35am, 4:40am and 4:45am, just to be sure. The plan was to meet at Kate’s house and carpool with Ashley and Bruno over the Golden Gate Bridge to the San Francisco Yacht Club in Tiburon. After a restless night, spent rechecking and checking my alarm clock to make sure I had not overslept an excited nervousness swirled uncontrollably within my body. Suddenly it was time to get up. Thankfully everything was packed the night before, because for me one of the side effects of the Scopolamine patch is a somewhat dazed and very relaxed demeanor I know I have get things in order before the medicine enters my blood stream. I become incredibly distracted (more so than usual) and my eyes dilate. Basically, I look like I am using illegal drugs: not my best look. 

After spending an indeterminate amount of time getting dressed and rummaging through my meticulously packed bags, somehow I focus enough to call an Uber. I soon make my way downstairs lugging a sleeping bag, two swim bags, and one bag of food for the boat. Checking my reflection one last time in the lobby mirror I cannot help but notice my eyes are as big as saucers. With the full potency of the patch now in effect, I am feeling very relaxed and confident as I saunter out onto the street to wait for the Uber.