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Trial by Water

Could this 57-year-old meet his ultimate challenge: swimming the frigid waters from Alcatraz to the San Francisco shore?

Two years before my father died, he and I swam together. He was 79, and though weakened by age, and recovering from a stroke, Dad churned through the water, slow but steady, like a steamboat on the Mississippi. He was always an expert swimmer and graceful diver, and he had insisted that all seven of his children learn to swim at an early age. I competed—happily, despite mediocre results— until I was 12 or so, but my most pleasurable aquatic experiences took place well beyond the confines of pools. I’ve never been able to resist the allure of open water, plunging gleefully, sometimes recklessly, into rivers, lakes, and seas everywhere I’ve traveled.

As the years passed, the more I appreciated my father’s prescient gift, though it took on special meaning when I turned 40. My life had devolved into a sedentary routine. I commuted to work by train, a monotonous trip lasting an hour and a half each way, and five years of such cattle-car coming and going had saddled me with excess weight. Reversing my decline, I knew, would be an exercise in self- induced misery. Choose something you enjoy, the fitness gurus always advise, because that increases your chances of weathering the hellish first stage of physical redemption. So I did. I returned to the pool.

What a sobering day that was, that first day, when swimming a mere ten laps exhausted my much depleted resources. Keeping me going was a mixture of blind hope (Eventually this will be fun), newfound fear (If I don’t do this now, soon I won’t be able to do anything), and anger at myself (You idiot, how could you let this happen?). I wish I could report that swimming instantly became an undiluted joy, but it took months. Progress was painfully incremental. Lapses were numerous and came with discouraging setbacks. Yet gradually, one lap at a time, one workout at a time, I lengthened my swims. Then I focused on increasing speed. I lost more than 30 pounds. I firmed up, felt younger, more energetic. Three years on, I was swimming two miles, five days a week. And I was having fun, great fun. I’d converted my agony into a gratifying addiction.

Many of the 517 swimmers were serious athletes. Oh, man, I thought—I’m out of my league.

With the renewed vigor came a growing desire to test myself in open water, the ocean especially, which I indulged every time I left my home in southwestern Montana for a seaside locale. A few years ago, during an offhand moment while teaching at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, I found myself waxing enthusiastically about sea swimming. A student suggested that I try one of the organized events in San Francisco Bay, perhaps an Alcatraz crossing. I laughed it off, thinking that such a feat was beyond the capabilities of my fiftysomething body. But every time I drove over the Bay Bridge or Golden Gate Bridge, or walked the steep, seaward streets of the city, my gaze was drawn to the island, then to the rough, churning reach that separated it from the waterfront.

And I wondered: Was crossing that actually possible?

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