April 25, 2016

In September this year marks 40 years since the first time I came time to California. On that occasion I’d arrived full of emotion, finally getting off a path on which I didn’t see chance of success. I had been stuck in a vicious circle from which I sensed there would not be a happy ending.

I was fortunate that Shirley and Bill Lee chose to adopt me. My life changed drastically from one day to the next. Their generosity provided me the possibility of a completely different life than the one I would have had if I’d taken what Mexico offered me. Fate brought me to Stanford, and the rest is history.

On Wednesday I returned to what I consider my second home, the place I escape to when I have to meditate, when I need to find direction, when I want to imagine the unimaginable.

I have been feeling an urgency to complete what I’ve not yet accomplished, so I have returned to San Francisco. This is where it all started, and probably where it will all finish. I have two seas left to cross, two seas with cold waters, and this will be my home to train for them.

In the coming months San Francisco will be my training center. I come here to experience the cold water and the gradual changes it brings to my face, ears, hands and feet. They lose sensitivity until I have a feeling of complete numbness, and then I pass through that stage and reach a point where I seem to feel heat.

In the area known as Aquatic Park are two clubs founded in the late nineteenth century, the South End Rowing Club (SERC) and the Dolphin Club (DC). Both clubs are for members but are open at certain times for the general public. Last November was my first visit to the SERC. I learned to leave my towel in the sauna before going down to the water, and not to leave the area marked as “the cove.”

A month after Moloka’i, my visit to Palo Alto, to celebrate the birthday of my son David, would coincide with my first long training session of 3 hours. It would also be an opportunity to assess how I felt in cold water.

Last Wednesday was my first foray. The water was 13.7 degrees Celsius—56.6º F. It hurt a lot…I could barely finish. Thursday the temperature was even lower and by Friday I had to swim with wind and rain. All day I felt of pain where I could feel pain, and, in my extremities, a complete lack of feeling.

On Friday I got an email from Ranie Pearce from San Francisco’s swimming community telling me that Suzie Dodds had told her I would go swimming, and that she wanted to talk to me about my swim. She has a date to cross Moloka’i in the coming months. She invited me to stay after my training to talk and meet other swimmers. Looking forward to the possibility of getting to know other swimmers reason, I arrived early Saturday to complete my 3 hours.

While driving to the swim I spoke by phone with Nora. We discussed what my strategy would be for the swim, how I would take my feedings, and how I should leave open the possibility of cutting the swim short if I felt bad.

I arrived at the SERC feeling secure about my routine. Paying my visitor’s fee, I went upstairs and left my stuff near the window. I put my towel in the sauna and went down to the beach. I’d brought 5 bottles of water and my Accel Gel. I organized them all, made sure my garbage bag was in place and began to swim.

My intention was to make 12 laps of the course, probably finding out hours later that I’ve taken the most boring route possible. However, I didn’t know about any other possibilities and did not want to take unnecessary risks.

I felt good after one hour, and though I hit a bump at the hour and a half mark, I finished the 3 hours without problem. The really disappointing thing is that the water was not as cold as I wanted—only 13.5 degrees Celsius, which didn’t accomplish anything in terms of the cold water qualification I need for the North Channel.

After leaving the water I found to Ranie who, like most of the people gathered there, had just finished a local swim. She introduced me to several people, including Simon Dominguez. We agreed to meet in a few minutes.

I climbed into the locker room, got the sauna and I realized that all these people are part of a community. They meet, they share stories, they enjoy drinks. I congratulate myself, thinking that perhaps I’m going through a process of initiation.

After my sauna I go down to the dining room without really knowing what to expect. I know no one, but they told me to join them anyway. I see the meal—rice, salad, beans, a hearty stew, and strawberries. As I get to the strawberry course, I serve myself a modest plate along with a coffee. Simon called me over and introduced me to Kimberly Chambers. I could not believe I was looking at one of the Goddesses of the Seven Seas. Even more unbelievable is when she congratulated me for my Moloka’i crossing and told she followed the swim. Wow, I’ve touched Olympus!

Out of nowhere came the question, “When are you coming back? Do you want to swim tomorrow?” I had two options—either lie, or take the opportunity. “I leave at 13:30,” I tell her, “but I can come tomorrow to swim. When do you start? ”

“Six in the morning,” Kimberly answered.

“I’m in,” I say.

I returned to Palo Alto and like a little kid I told Lucia that my new friends have invited me to swim on Sunday. I’ll have to get up at 4:15 AM to arrive on time. I want a good swim.

At night Simon sent me an email confirming our appointment. I am reassured that someone will open the door to the SERC for me, because I certainly don’t have the key.

At 5:30 I am at the door. I ring the doorbell, but no one opens it. 5:40 comes and I’m still outside. I hope this has not been a big practical joke. Finally, at 5:47 hours someone appears and I can get inside. Simon comes into the dressing room and things start to flow.

By 5.58 pm we are on the beach, swim ready for the big Sunday swim. I know everyone has a different distance, but apparently we are all going to start the same route together.

Swimming in a large group is difficult. There are several rhythms and the key is to quickly find where you belong.

My bet is that if I stay near Kimberly one of two things will happen, that she will be generous enough to swim at my pace, or that she will let me know that my pace is too slow and I can find another partner.

I’m not mistaken: from the moment we started we find that we are in sync, swimming at the same pace. Arriving at the first stop me when nothing announces that she talks a lot and asks me if I like to chat while swimming.

I cannot answer that while talk a lot on my mind, I do not like to talk out loud while swimming, and that I usually swim alone.

So I say yes, sure, I’m a talker! During the first stop we talked, and during the second we talked and the third stop we talked. And these were “serious matters” we talked about. As I told her, “in the water we can solve the problems the world.” I ask her if I can quote her in my blog. “Go ahead,” she answers.

We finished the swim, and I left happy knowing that in my next swims in San Francisco I will be able to count Susan and Mauricio among other new friends.

Aquatic Park San Francisco

With Kimberly Chambers