by Dylan Steiner
Alcatraz Island: An iconic landmark, home of the infamous gangster, Al Capone. To inmates it represented isolation; not a single prisoner was able to escape. Yet I stood shivering, facing across the Bay to the prison. I was going to swim around the island and back to San Francisco. I was wary of the perils in the 55° water and wore no wetsuit to prevent a quick descent into hypothermia.
I prepared for this swim for weeks, training in the Bay in the foggy summer mornings, before the bustle of ship traffic and the arrival of fishermen. Open water swimming combined my passion for swimming with my love of the outdoors; it placed me in the middle of an expansive body of water situated far away from safety and among the unpredictability of the elements.
My previous swims seemed meager compared to this undertaking. In the weeks leading up to the swim I carefully considered this venture. While I had completed Bay swims for two summers, the longest time I endured the frigid water was 40 minutes. This swim would take 90 minutes, and while conditions were optimal, the water temperature was not. This trial was about facing the cold, facing the way the cold would wear away my fortitude.
The coordinator of the swim sounded the horn, and I immediately raced into the pull of the tide, leading my teammates into unexplored waters. The cold stung my face, and my heartbeat quickened. Within minutes I reached the breakwater, and the main channel. Our team had calculated the magnitude of the flood and ebb of the tide; we coordinated with the Coast Guard to regulate boat traffic. But we were still at the mercy of any disgruntled ship captains.
I set a strong pace for my teammates, and we strenuously approached the east side of Alcatraz. I circumnavigated the island, appreciating its natural beauty: civil-war era buildings were eroded by sea wind; elderly trees hovered over wooden docks; the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast pierced the silence with its foghorn.
Upon rounding the corner, I faced a formidable sight: an immense container ship was slowly progressing across the channel, and I began to battle the malevolent waves it was generating.
I had to make the difficult commitment to keep going. A small power boat escorted us; if I wanted to quit, I could; I was exhausted; I fought the urge to surrender. I could no longer feel my fingers, and kicking my legs was torturous.
My confidence wavered, but I ignored the pain, reaching the opening to Aquatic Park and a warm welcome.
I now know that I will be able to overcome whatever obstacles I may face as a swimmer and as a person. Only through facing difficulties, will I be able to redefine my limitations: the mind is stronger than the body; swimming is more about psychology than physicality. I discovered what I am capable of as a human being.