By Stephen Bond
A long swim was made better because we were a team.
Five years ago when I first heard about the Alcatraz swim, I put it on my bucket list. It sounded like a thrilling challenge . . . swimming 1.5 miles from the former penitentiary across the San Francisco Bay to the mainland. From the movies I had seen, no one had ever “escaped from Alcatraz,” and this would be my chance! However, when I heard the water was a brisk 55 degrees, I decided to wait until the year I turned 60 years old. I wanted to show the young bucks that I still “had it in the tank!”
Well, I just had my birthday and I just completed the “escape from Alcatraz” swim. It was epic! Three of us from Summit Christian Church made the swim together: Charlene Wardlow, Ed Henricks, and myself. We also brought Bryan Rogers and Dana Sorenson as a video crew. Being part of a team made all the difference! Doing life with others is always better, especially when you’re swimming across San Francisco Bay!
Encouragement is a tangible benefit to being on a team. For months prior to the race, Charlie, Ed, and I would challenge each other by sharing how much we were swimming to train for Alcatraz. I kept pushing myself harder, knowing that Charlie and Ed were also amping up their workouts. And it was incredibly special knowing all three of us would be stepping out of our comfort zones and jumping into the bay together!
We checked in for the race at 5:30 a.m. Saturday, June 7. There were 900 other swimmers entered so, once again, it was encouraging to have my teammates nearby. The swimmers came in all ages, shapes, and sizes, and we paraded together from the Aquatic Park to the two ferries that took us on the 20-minute ride to Alcatraz, the former maximum-security penitentiary. Each ferry carried about 450 swimmers. Talk about energy! Everyone’s heart was pumping hard in anticipation of the race ahead!
It took 10 minutes to get all 900 swimmers into the water. I was in the middle of the pack. By the time I got to the doorway and looked 10 feet down into the frigid bay, there was no time to reconsider. Off we went! Geronimo! Oddly enough, my first thought when I hit the water was, This isn’t as cold as I thought it would be! I guess I was expecting it to be heart-stopping cold, but it was only face-numbing cold!
The first thing Ed, Charlie, and I did was to group together in the water. We wanted to make sure “team Summit” was OK before the race actually began. As I looked around at the other swimmers, it occurred to me how many of them were alone. We all know what it’s like to feel alone in the middle of a crowd. But since I was part of “team Summit,” I never felt alone. It was awesome!
Once all the swimmers were in the water, the ferries let out two long horn blasts, and the race was on. Most of us wore the standard-issue, bright yellow swim cap. Race organizers require everyone to wear the yellow cap so the swimmers can be spotted at a distance. But with nearly 900 bobbing yellow caps, if I had disappeared under the water, they probably wouldn’t have realized I was gone for weeks!
Fortunately for me, Ed had put a bright pink cap over his yellow cap. That made it much easier to identify him in the throes of the race. The swells in the bay were fairly strong, so it was quite a chore to keep Ed in my field of vision. But his pink cap saved the day! I’ve been swimming seriously for years, and I’m a strong swimmer. But Ed is an even better swimmer—he’s stronger and younger. So my strategy was to stay close to Ed and follow him across the bay.
If you think about it, that’s also a decent way to proceed on our spiritual journey. Find someone who’s a bit stronger in the Lord and then draft alongside them as they plow ahead in their faith walk!
The brackish black water posed some difficulty. There was zero visibility. I couldn’t even see my hand when it entered the water above my head as I took each stroke. Because of this, occasionally I found myself swimming over other swimmers . . . thud, thud, crunch, crunch, kick, kick. But I always did it in the name of the Lord! It made for a bumpy swim across the bay. Now, if any of those racers want to track me down, you can tell them I was the guy in the bright yellow swim cap!
After about 40 minutes, Ed and I made it into the Aquatic Park, which is a huge, walled-off area in the bay where people swim freely without worrying about being run over by ocean liners. I know it’s mind-boggling, but there are actually a bunch of folks who swim in the 55-degree bay water every day for fun!
Ed and I crossed the finish line together, clocking in at 47 minutes. Ed could have gone faster, but he paced himself so I could keep up. That’s what teammates do—they bring out the best in each other. Now, I know you might be thinking, what happened to Charlie? Actually, Charlie was the real hero in the race. Ed and I wore wet suits, but Charlie swam in only her Speedo. She came in shortly after Ed and me and we all celebrated successfully escaping from Alcatraz!
Stephen Bond serves as senior pastor with Summit Christian Church in Sparks, Nevada.