Sacramento, Sep 9, 2016
Just before noon, Kim Chambers, 39, stood on a floating dock at the Sacramento Yacht Club as Kala Sherman-Presser one of her support team, rubbed lanolin under Chambers’ arms, and the seams of her swimsuit. She wore a Night Train Swimmers cap, turquoise framed goggles, and the scorch marks of an acupuncturist’s glass cups – the type Michael Phelps made famous in Rio. She was the modern day archetype of a serious swimmer.
Vito Bialla, 67, a millionaire businessman and legendary Bay Area endurance athlete, watched her carefully. They’d hatched this plot together over beers last year – and he’d taken care of many of the costs. For the next two days, her team would travel aboard Bialla’s boat – The Sequel – and follow along as she attempted to swim from Sacramento to Tiburon, a tony Marin County town nestled on the western edge of the San Francisco Bay. Nobody knew for sure how long it would take because nobody had ever completed it solo before (there have been two successful relays of the Sacramento River Delta). If all went well, Bialla thought, it could take as much as 44 hours of non-stop swimming to cover a distance spanning 93 miles.
Chambers’ crew chief, Aussie born Simon Dominguez, dug into a tub of zinc oxide sunscreen used to protect babies in the California sun, and began slathering creamy white paste over every inch of her exposed skin. She’d soon be caked head to toe. The sun beat down, the mercury climbed and the calm, green Sacramento River gurgled its invitation.
With ten minutes to go, Bialla called the crew aboard and shoved off. At the starting point, the width of the river is over 100 meters wide. Toward the end she’d be swimming in a bay 12-miles across. In terms of diversity of terrain, temperature variation and tidal shifts, this would be one of the most intense marathon swims ever attempted, and if successful, under English Channel rules, it would be the longest solo, unassisted swim ever accomplished by a woman (Diana Nyad’s 110 mile swim from Havana to Florida is considered an assisted swim because she was touched along the way), and the longest ever in California history. It was also a fundraiser for Warrior-K9 connection, a non-profit working to combat PTSD in returning veterans, which provided even more motivation. The timing of her swim was no accident. Her goal was to step out of the water on September 11.
“This is your swim!” Dominguez shouted.
“You got this, Kim!” Sherman-Presser said.
“You know, I’ve never swum in a river before,” Chambers observed, half joking, “which way do I go?” Her team cackled from the support boat and pointed downstream. She smiled, shook off some of the excess energy she’d built up from tapering her monumental training regiment, and said, “I feel like a caged tiger. Unleash me into the wild!”
Marathon swimming occupies that rare niche in the sports world, at once easily relatable and totally incomprehensible. Most of us swim, a handful swim seriously, but even serious pool swimmers often shy away from long distance, open water swims, especially in cold water without a wetsuit.
By it’s strictest definition, a marathon swim must be at least 10km long and in an open body of water. It debuted as an Olympic event in 2008 in Beijing, but for most of the estimated 8,000 marathon swimmers worldwide, 10km is a starting point. Most swim far longer and follow the English Channel rules. The swimmer cannot be touched along the way. There are no breaks, and no wetsuits allowed. Even rash guards are verboten. All swimmers wear is a streamlined swimsuit, goggles and a swim cap.
The longest solo of all time was American John Sigmund’s 292-mile float down the Mississippi River in 1940. It took him just shy of 90 hours to edge fellow American Charles Zibelman’s 288-mile swim down the Hudson River, which he’d accomplished two years before. Yet, while amazing feats, those were current-aided downstream river swims. In fact, the ten longest swims in history were all river swims.
On the open sea, currents and wind aren’t always cooperative, the water is frequently colder, and, well, the swimmer is part of the food chain. Ocean crossings are also more widely celebrated. While few pay attention to river swims, nearly everyone has heard of the English Channel. First crossed by Royal Navy Captain Matthew Webb in 1875, it remains the glittering jewel in the crown known as the Ocean’s Seven. Akin to the Seven Summits in mountaineering, the Ocean’s Seven includes seven iconic channel crossings in Japan, Europe, Africa, New Zealand and Hawaii.
Chambers grew up a budding ballerina on a New Zealand sheep farm, and competed on stage from the time she was three. Bialla thinks those years in the dance studio foreshadowed the grit she would flash in the water decades later. “Standing on your toes when your feet are bleeding, with your coach screaming at you while you’re in constant pain,” he said, “that’s hard.”
After attending high school in Auckland, she followed her older brother to University of California at Berkeley. A long-legged blonde beauty, at 5’10” and 110 pounds, long distance swimming wasn’t on her radar. By the time she was 30, she had a high paying job in tech, was part socialite part shopaholic, and living what she calls, “a superficial life.”
A hard fall in 2007 changed everything.
Dressed in expensive high heels and a chic pants suit she lost her footing and slid down the steep staircase that led to her apartment. She bashed her leg on a large ceramic pot at the bottom of the stairs, but didn’t break the skin, and there was no blood. Within minutes, however, her right leg started swelling and the pain was unbearable. She blacked out, waking up in the ER where she was diagnosed with acute compartment syndrome sustained from blunt force trauma. The surgeons had sliced five-inch long gashes along either side of her calf to relieve the pressure. When she came to after surgery she was told they’d saved her leg but didn’t know what, if any, function she’d ever have again.
“If I’d arrived thirty minutes later I would have lost my leg,” she said. Chambers endured four surgeries over nine months and was on crutches almost the entire time. “It was like someone had just pulled the rug out from underneath my life, and it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Two years later, in November 2009, she was still frustrated with her lack of dexterity on land, so a friend suggested she take up swimming. He brought her to the Dolphin Club, one of two famed swimming and rowing clubs (South End Rowing Club is the other) adjacent to San Francisco’s Hyde Street Pier. She swam just 200 yards that day, but the cold-water, empty space and freedom of movement reinvigorated her, and when she emerged from the 54-degree water, she was hooked.
“The next month I joined the Dolphin Club,” she said.
She was about to tap into one of the world’s most impassioned and accomplished marathon swim communities. Steve Munatones, founder of the World Open Water Swimming Association, compares what the Bay Area swim club scene does for swimmers to what New York street ball culture does for aspiring collegiate and professional basketball players.
“These clubs have infrastructure, history and ambiance,” Munatones said. The clubs date from the 1870s, their halls are lined with plaques engraved with names of those who have accomplished the most famous channel crossings in the world. Walking the wood paneled hallways, you can feel the possibilities, and when new swimmers join up and set a goal to swim, say, the English Channel they are encouraged to do it.
“It’s a secret society of adventurers,” Chambers said, one populated by people of all ages, backgrounds, and tax brackets.
In 2010, Chambers swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco, her first crossing of any kind, and was recruited to be a part of an English Channel relay swim in 2011. While she was training for that swim she caught the eye of Vito Bialla and the Night Train Swimmers – a hardcore subculture within that swim club universe. Bialla wasn’t terribly impressed with her form but noticed something deeper.
“She was an awful swimmer,” he said, “but she had the eye of the tiger.” Bialla was in the midst of prepping a relay team to swim 30-miles from the Farallon Islands back to the Golden Gate Bridge, and one of his swimmers dropped out. He asked Kim to step in.
She’d heard of the Farralons before. An otherworldly archipelago of jagged rock, known as the Devil’s Teeth, The Farralon Islands are a nature preserve home to countless seals and sea lions, which provide nutrition for a robust great white shark population. The swim was scheduled for May, when the water is still a chilly 53 degrees. Chambers was both terrified and intrigued. She was in.
Two weeks after they finished she brought a team of six women out to the Farralons to run it back. They were the first all-women’s team ever to make the crossing. Soon after, Bialla began telling friends that Chambers would become one of the best open water swimmers in the world.
In the fall of 2011, after an unsuccessful attempt to cross the English Channel, she started training in the pool like never before, and in March 2012 she embarked on a 19-month odyssey to conquer the Ocean’s Seven. One by one, she checked them off. Sometimes conditions were kind. The waters of the English Channel and Tsugaru Strait were unusually smooth for her. The Kaiwi Channel between Molokai and Oahu was frothed with 25-knot winds, and the last one, the 21-mile North Channel crossing between Northern Ireland and Scotland, nearly killed her.
In the first hour, she was stung by a lion’s mane jellyfish, and continued to get stung for hours. “It was like swimming through a minefield,” she said. Instead of keeping her warm, her energy went to fighting off the poison. Soon she had trouble breathing, but she didn’t quit. “I don’t remember touching the rocks at Scotland at all,” she said. But when she slumped into the arms of her team after a swim of thirteen hours and six minutes, she became the sixth person ever to accomplish the Ocean’s Seven and the only woman ever to do it. Her reward was five days in the ICU.
Still, she’d never attempted anything like Sacramento Delta before.
The first 50 miles is downstream in fresh water that ranges between 68-70 degrees, but amidst the hay fields and wind farms of Rio Vista, the river mouth opens and the tidal flow begins to express itself bringing challenging currents and an influx of frigid water.
Hall Of Fame marathon swimmer Skip Storch, who once circumnavigated Manhattan three times in one shot – an 85.5 mile swim – called it “a very tricky gadget swim” thanks to those shifting tides.
Steve Munatones gave it a degree of difficulty of 9.8 out of 10. “Imagine running a marathon and the last 6 hours being straight up hill. Hitting the cold water will add physiological stress at a time when you don’t want it. She’ll have already missed a sleep cycle.”
Then there are the hallucinations to contend with. During one 24-hour swim, Storch saw three dancing hippos twirling before his open eyes. “It was right out of Fantasia,” he said.
Bialla, a veteran of three ultra marathon races once bent down to tie his running shoes and saw bats fluttering and baring their teeth. Munatones knows of athletes who thought their support team were pirates, and another who thought a mermaid was swimming with them. “Those are the rules of the road when you swim in water for over 24 hours,” he said.
Chambers prepared herself the best she could. She bulked up to 183 pounds to keep warm, planned a strict eating and drinking schedule, with pit stops every thirty minutes for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, salty mashed potatoes, and water supercharged with electrolytes. Plus every Friday for three months she swam through the night in Tiburon’s Belvedere Lagoon. Afterward she would return to her prim and bright studio apartment for a bite and a shower, then walk the streets all day long, absorbing the intoxicating beauty of San Francisco.
Standing on the dock, with two minutes to go before launch she was prepared as she could possibly be. Bialla steered The Sequel toward center of the river and her crew counted down the seconds, “6…5…4…” when they hit zero, she raised her arms high and leapt into the river, feet first. She moved alongside the boat with smooth, easy strokes. Within five minutes her gentle splashes were barely visible in the distance, until she slipped around the first bend in what promised to be a long, harrowing journey.
The day before, she discussed her motivation to put her mind and body through such stress and pain. “The real treasure from doing the swims,” she said, “is realizing that you are capable of far more than you think you are.”
Still she’d never swam more than 20 hours in a row in her life and now she’d have to double that. Thankfully, the first part of the swim through historic Steamboat Slough couldn’t have gone much better. Word had spread and as she swam beneath a series of small town drawbridges, crowds gathered to cheer her on.
She reached Rio Vista Bridge in sixteen hours, 32 nautical miles from her launch point. She’d already swum further than she ever had before, and was right on schedule, but there’s a reason wind farms have sprouted on the golden hills opposite the cow pastures of Sherman Island, just downstream. Soon the wind would blow past sixteen knots, and for the next eight-plus hours she would travel less than seven miles. The chop was so bad and the water so shallow she could barely lift her arms over the waves, and kept getting tangled in river reeds. After daybreak the Delta became inundated with giddy kite surfers riding the gales.
At 12:17pm on Saturday September 10, after joining the so-called 24-hour club, her crew called her over to the boat and shared the weather forecast. The winds would pick up rather than relent. It was then that they agreed to call off the swim. She climbed aboard The Sequel, Vito Bialla poured her a shot of his beloved Jagermeister, and she downed it with a smile.
“I would have loved to have finished tomorrow,” she said, “but you control what you can control, and then you get in the water and its up to mother nature and fate. The good news is, I lost 15 pounds, and I get to have beers with the crew tonight.”