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An Accomplishment Very Few Even Attempt, Let Alone Achieve

By Neil Heller · Practice Advisor · U.S.

Photo of Neil Heller
Neil taking a dip in the bay.

Diabetes has tragically impacted my family, likely causing my mother-in-law's vascular dementia. The only word to describe our situation is heartbreaking. Could the situation have been prevented? Perhaps.

Motivated to impact the at-risk diabetes community, I wanted to use my Time2Give in an immersive experience, fully engaged in a transformation program. Through my swim club, I came across PATHSTAR, a nonprofit committed to inspiring and revitalizing sustainable health and wellbeing practices within Native American communities by providing experiential learning opportunities.

PATHSTAR needed "swim angels" to accompany, encourage and prepare their swimmers for a supremely challenging journey from Alcatraz to San Francisco. The daunting task covers a distance of about 1.5 miles, or 2.4 kilometers. Near the mouth of the Pacific Ocean adjacent to the Golden Gate, the bay waters are notorious for their fierce currents and chilling temperatures that range seasonally from 51.3 to 59.2 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees to 15 degrees Celsius).

Photo of the group before a swim.
Group photo of before our daily swim practice–check out the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

PATHSTAR, runs a year-round program culminating with a swim week to educate and encourage wholesome nutrition and an active lifestyle. A typical swim week day starts with a swim at South End Rowing Club at San Francisco's Aquatic Park. Before their first swim at South End, most swimmers had limited or no open-water experience. The program builds cold water acclimation by increasing swimming time from 30 minutes to 60 minutes over the course of the week.

Following the daily swim, participants enjoyed physical challenges like hiking up the Hyde Street hill, Pilates, yoga, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, kayaking in Sausalito, and touring Alcatraz. Plus, learning experiences are available, such as planning meals, recording food logs, understanding personality habits, acting with life coaching, and gardening with horticulture experts.

I'm not a lifelong swimmer, nor an elite athlete and before the summer of 2015, I hadn't swam in open water, or cold water. I relearned to swim three years ago when an injury prevented me from cycling, my primary mode of exercise. As my swimming improved, I thought about swimming from Alcatraz. I wasn't sure how someone begins to train for such an endeavor, physically and mentally. It took me six months to decide to try an Alcatraz crossing, and three more months of weekly training wearing a wetsuit in the San Francisco Bay to prepare for the swim.

At some point in our lives, we may experience a midlife crisis, or evolution. Over the past few years, if something made me uncomfortable, I wanted to get comfortable with it. I follow the process of hard work to improve, not just a quick fix. Swimming in murky cold waters allegedly infested by sharks made me very uncomfortable. I won't even get into how it makes my extremely supportive wife feel!

So, I could not think of a better opportunity to face my fears, return my wetsuit, and literally jump back in San Francisco Bay with just my bathing suit, swim cap and goggles.

I took my first plunge without a wetsuit this past spring. I lasted 25 minutes in the cold water and then shook for 90 minutes while trying to get warm. The next week, I shook for only 60 minutes after the swim. Over time, both my mind and body acclimated to the cold water.

Now, I regularly swim 60 to 75 minutes in San Francisco Bay. And I have enjoyed some epic experiences like swimming under the Golden Gate Bridge and jumping off Pier 39–much to the amazement of the locals and tourists.

The Swim Day

On the day of the swim, we met at South End Rowing Club at 5:45 a.m. The sun had not yet risen, and dense fog limited visibility. Fog horns could be heard through the darkness. The water temperature was down to 56F degrees. Choppy water coupled with a 15-mph wind made for conditions far rougher than during our eight practice swims.

Our six swimmers ages 14 to 58 from across the U.S. gathered with 50 volunteers for the swim briefing, which began with traditional Native American music by the Boys from Omak. Following the safety briefing on currents, tides, and conditions, each swimmer was assigned a swim pod with two swim angels and two kayakers. In addition, there were four rigid inflatable support boats to ensure maximum safety. The briefing ended with a smudging ceremony where we created a smoke bath with sage to purify and cleanse our bodies, aura and energy. It was exciting and an honor to begin our final challenge immersed in Native American traditions.

We took the Hyperfish from Fisherman's Wharf and departed for Alcatraz. As the fog lifted, we saw hundreds of people gathered on Alcatraz's hills for the Indigenous Peoples Day sunrise ceremony. We heard their cheers of encouragement and saw their waving flags. As we swam, the USS San Francisco submarine passed a few hundred yards behind us. Nobody knew what was lurking below us!

Photo of Donna during the swim.
Donna catching her breath as we make the crossing. I'm in the foreground and podmate Mary in the background¬–It's a rough out there

It was a tough crossing. The chop moved us up and down, the wind pushed us east, and the ebb current never kicked in. We could not establish a regular rhythm, making breathing even more challenging. We fought, we swam, we made it across and met the other pods. With only a few hundred yards left, we knew this swim would be completed. As we approached the beach, we heard our families and friends cheering to greet us and celebrate our accomplishment.

Getting out of the water was a defining moment. It's an accomplishment few people will attempt, let alone achieve. I was deeply impressed by the perseverance and can-do attitude of everyone and would be honored to swim with each of them again.

Cisco's Time2Give program enabled me to take this great opportunity to volunteer and help raise awareness for this amazing cause that is close to my heart. At the same time, I got to step outside my comfort zone and take part in this great adventure.

If you'd like to try swimming in San Francisco Bay, come and join me sometime. Let's be swim angels together next year, working with truly amazing Stars.

#WeAreCisco #fullspeed #ciscorocks

PATHSTAR Swimmers Shawna and Theresa enjoying our swim at San Francisco's Aquatic Park.
Group shot during one of our practice swims with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Our flotilla as we prepare to jump from the Hyperfish.
The USS San Francisco passing a few hundred yards behind while we swam.

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