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.