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  • Janice Strootman

The Alcatraz Swim

The Alcatraz Swim

An essay by Janice Strootman “Three, two, one, jump!” yelled the boatswain. The ferry was bouncing wildly, the engines were off, and we were turning green. The Coast Guard delayed the event twice due to bad weather. I had a red helium balloon tied to my goggles, and two swim caps fastened to my head—both to help spot me among the other 500 swimmers in the bay. Coach Mike said, “Remember to swim fast to the front of the ferry to avoid other jumpers. Your pilot will find you.” I jumped into sixty-degree water that smacked me in the face. I swam towards the bow, not realizing that the ferry had turned and was facing the opposite direction. A wall of water hit me from the side and caused me to gulp saltwater. A jet skier roared right in front of me, creating another wall of water that smacked me again. I started coughing. I put my head down and started swimming, not knowing whether I was heading the right way. I was not. Another jet skier shouted that he’d call for a “grate-ski” to come and redirect me. I am not sure I heard that correctly, as I am seventy years old and can’t hear very well without my hearing aids. Shortly, a grate ski appeared and the driver yelled “Hang on!” I grabbed the end and he took off full throttle. I flew into the air and bounced hard up and down on the waves several times! I felt like my ribs, arms, and legs would break from the impact, so I let go. How did I get here?

Back in October, I had had dinner with Mike, whom I hadn’t seen for over twenty years. We used to lifeguard together. He said, “I remember you always wanted to do the Alcatraz swim. When are you doing it?” I stared in disbelief and said, “You remember that?” I should have added “but that was twenty-five years ago, not now.” But I didn’t. I hadn’t been in a pool for over a year and didn’t know if I could swim one length, let alone 1.5 miles. Mike said he would go back to San Francisco and check things out—and I said I would see if I could swim the distance. I went to the YMCA and swam 106 lengths of the pool without stopping. I was very tired when I finished, but knew I could do it. Mike and I emailed back and forth several times, and before long I had registered for the swim. We would be Mike’s guests in Mill Valley. I made a personal commitment to swimming three miles a week at the local YMCA. I also swam 2.8 miles across Torch Lake in Traverse City, Michigan while visiting friends there. When summertime came, I swam in 50-meter outdoor pools. The local swim coach told me I didn’t need to make changes to my breaststroke, but I did need to swim—a lot—which I did until we left on August 30. Mike said he was going to throw me in the bay every day so I could adjust to water conditions, and he did! I did not take into account the cold September water in San Francisco Bay (60-63 degrees) or rough water conditions. The first day was miserable. The cold took my breath away and my fingers and toes became numb. My stomach hurt and my hamstrings cramped up. Not a great start. I slept for three hours at Mike’s house and when I awoke, I had a good talk with myself and tried to get my mind, body and the bay in synch with each other. I knew I had six days to prepare so I had better “Just Do It.” The second day was better. I did stretching exercises on land and in the water before submerging. I told myself the water wasn’t that cold and swam a leisurely half-mile. My endurance was tested, and I went home and slept another three hours. The third day, the wind was blowing the harbor flags straight out. Whitecaps danced on the water inside the piers and the ships in the harbor were swaying. Mike wanted to do the full mile and one-half so I took a deep breath and told myself again to “Just Do It.” When we swam out to the ships, the waves were over my head and I got vertigo. I stopped trying to see Mike’s orange swim cap and just put my head down and swam. This proved to be very helpful during the actual swim.

When I caught up to Mike, he asked if I could feel my fingers. I said, “Yes,” but he said, “I can’t. I have to get out.” We had just about done the 1.5 miles, so I asked if we could complete it He nodded. I did some shallow-water exercises before heading to the locker room. Mike told me I wouldn’t have any trouble with the swim so I could take the next day off. It was great to go sightseeing with friends—and have a break from swimming. Friday, Mike took us to beautiful Muir Woods. He stopped to show us some egrets on the boardwalk. As we walked, husband Denny took a picture, and I noticed a couple cuddling on a park bench who then stood up and yelled “Surprise!” I was shocked—it was our daughter and son-in-law. I couldn’t believe they had flown all the way from Hawaii for the weekend—to watch me swim! We spent the day hiking and catching up. When they said their goodbyes in the late afternoon, they said they would wave from the pier at the finish on Saturday morning. That evening, I checked in at the South End Swim Club. I picked up a packet that included my number, ankle bracelet, ferry token, t-shirt and a written schedule for the next morning. At the pasta feed, I ate everything on my plate! Speakers talked about their swim experiences and gave motivational talks. We chatted with a 75-year-old woman who was also doing the swim. I guess I wouldn’t be the oldest this year! Back in the water…September 20, 2019. I spotted a kayak on top of a wave and then saw it disappear in a trough. Now I knew I was in for the swim of my life, and if I didn’t get going, I would be in trouble. A woman had drowned one year, and I didn’t want to be this year’s statistic. I put my head down and swam, one breaststroke at a time. I could vaguely see the cityscape in the distance, so I swam toward that. I was a little angry and very determined. Where was my pilot? Mike insisted it was crucial that I have a pilot (a person in a kayak watching over a swimmer) so I wouldn’t have to worry where I was going and nothing would hit me. Instead, I was out in the bay without a designated person to keep track of me. I swam and I swam and I swam, trying to avoid gulping saltwater, but think I swallowed at least ten salty gulps during the swim. After a long while, I saw a jet ski idling in the water just ahead of me. I flagged him down and asked if I was going in the right direction. He motioned to the right. I abruptly turned and kept swimming. I needed to find the opening between the two piers, which was like looking for a needle in a haystack. The fog was thick and the water cold. Finally, I saw the opening and knew I had swum a mile. The swim is 1.5 miles so I still had a ways to go to get to shore. The waves were not over my head when I got into the opening so breathing was easier. My family was waving and cheering as I swam through it. I had a good rhythm going so I just kept it up until my feet could touch the bottom. I saw the dim outline of a blue balloon arch on shore so I figured that’s where I needed to go. When I exited the water, a lot of people, some in swimsuits and others in jackets and coats, were still on the beach. Why were they there if they had finished? I would have been in the hot shower! Apparently, my daughter had told the announcer about me and a cheering section gathered. Oh my! I was embarrassed by the attention! People I didn’t know were clapping me on the back and shaking my hand and hugging me as I walked through a tunnel of spectators. I stepped on a mat that recorded the chip in my ankle bracelet. I had finished! I headed for my wonderful husband of forty-eight years who was holding my favorite beach towel. Nothing felt better than his arms (and the towel) encircling me. Next I felt my daughter’s arms around me and her kiss on my cheek. I felt so grateful for my family. The feeling was euphoric and surreal. I had never trained for anything in my life before, and now I had experienced it. My hat goes off to the athletes of the world who do this every day, and I’m fortunate I was able to get a small glimpse of what their world is like.


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