The Makings of a Marathon Swimmer

My journey to becoming a marathon swimmer started at birth, I just didn’t know it most of my life. I can tie everything in my life together like a row of dominoes on how I got to where I am today. My destiny with marathon swimming was truly a lifetime in the making.

I was born with hip dysplasia, a deformation of the pelvis at the joint, on both sides. I never had any issues growing up with all the figure skating, gymnastics, ballet, jazz, tap, swimming, etc. The only injuries I had back then were from figure skating that involved stitches and tendinitis. My parents threw me into a pool at Serra High School in 1979 when I was 2 years old for swim classes. I have a copy of that video somewhere. I only swam on the swim team in high school to get out of PE class. I didn’t consider myself a swimmer back then even. I wasn’t fast or even “middle of the pack” (why is EVERYONE “middle of the pack” btw? That’s impossible!), I didn’t swim outside of swim season, and the best part of practice was when it was over.

Fate started stepping in in 2010. I sustained a second-degree shoulder separation when I dropped my motorcycle. I was seen by Dr. Van Pelt at St. Francis Memorial Hospital who prescribed physical therapy. I had an awesome PT named Leonard who reminded me of George Takei. There was another PT there that I noticed and may have talked to once or twice and didn’t think much about after my shoulder was healed. I had no idea the impact that he’d have on my life later.

After my first hip dysplasia surgery in 2011, I thought about going back to St. Francis for PT and instead decided to go to Stanford PT since it was a lot closer to my job in Mountain View. While attending PT, I noticed another therapist there who looked really familiar and couldn’t place him. I eventually recognized him as being the same one that I had seen at St. Francis the year before. My PT was sick one day and I had to schedule a substitute. I had no way to get there with the first opening with another PT so I got scheduled the the next day with some guy named “Matt.” Sure, okay, whatever. I got off the phone and thought “Who the hell is Matt?” At my substitute appointment, the PT that I had recognized from St. Francis came out and said “Kelley? Do you recognize me from somewhere?” I said “You used to work at St. Francis.” and he said “That’s right!” We got along and he was a WAY better PT than the first one I had been assigned at Stanford so I asked him about switching to him as my PT full-time. I had been making little progress and he actually asked me if I was doing my exercises at home (nice weather we’re having..). I also got the entire 30+ minutes with him during my appointment whereas the other one was usually with another patient at the same time so I got very little time with her.

One day Matt told me that he was crewing for his best friend Jamie’s 111-mile Sacramento River swim that weekend. He told me to go to to view their progress, etc. I was in Chicago visiting relatives that weekend and would check in periodically on my cousin Kathy’s computer to see where Jamie was on the river along with the updates and photos posted by the crew. It was exciting to see this in real time! At my next appointment I told Matt that I had been tracking them that weekend and he said “Did you see the pictures of me?” Er..yes. 😉

After my second surgery to correct my hip dysplasia, I got interested in swimming again for exercise. I asked Matt about it and he said the important thing was that I felt safe around a pool deck as I didn’t want to slip and fall. I started off with just 15 minutes at a 24 Hour Fitness which grew to 30 minutes then 45 minutes. I had no idea how long the pool was and it was small and crowded since they don’t do circle swimming there. I wanted to know my yardage so I started looking to find a 25 yard pool. I started swimming at the San Mateo Athletic Club and asked my mom to pay the $175 application fee as a Birthday / Christmas gift.

Soon after, I met Romy Havard at my cousin Kathy’s baby shower. Romy and Kathy had gone to physical therapy school together (damnit..can’t I get away from physical therapists?). Kathy introduced us since we were both swimmers. Romy encouraged me to join Masters and said that if I’m doing 5000 yards without a problem that I should really look into open water swimming. I wasn’t sure. Aren’t both of those things for super fast serious swimmers?

I’m rarely on Twitter and sometime must have “followed” Jamie on it. I forgot about it until a rare time of being on there and seeing Jamie post about his decision to try for a Tahoe 360 (60 – 65 miles around the edges of Lake Tahoe!). He was doing it for a local Tahoe charity and I made a donation immediately. Somehow I saw another post of Jamie’s on Facebook talking about doing a Myrtle Huddlestone Honorary Swim (Tahoe horizontal crossing). I commented saying that I wanted to do it as my first OWS and had no idea how to do OW though. Jamie responded nearly immediately saying that he’d help me. HOLY CRAP. Jamie was a rockstar celebrity to me by then!

The first time I talked with Jamie on the phone, he told me to join my local Masters program, if I had one. I’d always been envious and in awe of the San Mateo Masters as I’d see their banner at the pool. I had had a bad experience trying to do Masters in college (2 lanes, super fast, no coach, water splashing everywhere). Jamie was ultra supportive though. I emailed Tom Reudy, head coach for SMM. In 3 sentences or less, the outpouring of love from this guy about swimming and encouraging me to join them with no obligation…I left work, stopped by SMAC, signed up for Masters without having ever met Tom even. His email was THAT powerful. I did my first practice with them that Sunday.

My Tahoe swim never happened and things didn’t end there. I was committed to Jamie’s Swim Camp. Jamie had also encouraged me to join the “Did You Swim Today?” Facebook group. I noticed this woman posting all the time named Lynn Kubasek. I thought she must be some rockstar celebrity also as she seemed like she knew everyone.

Swim Camp came and by this time I had done the unthinkable and moved from San Francisco to Pasadena. I cried for weeks over that decision as for 35+ years I had always said that I was never moving from San Francisco. Tom and the San Mateo Masters was one of the top 3 things that made it so difficult to move. The others being that I LOVE San Francisco (it’s the greatest city and HOME) and it culture who I am. I finally did my first real open water swims and I was hooked! I told Jamie after the first one in Emerald Bay that I never wanted to swim in a pool again! 🙂

When I left swim camp, Jamie told me “Swim with Lynn” several times. Lynn lives in Laguna Beach which is about 75 minutes from me. She and Patsee Ober invited me to come swim with them in the ocean at Laguna Beach. Lynn added me to their Google Groups. I met other OC swimmers like Marc, Howard, Scott, Cherie, Julian, Peter, Carol, etc. In 2014, I plan on swimming with them at least one day every weekend that I’m running back to SF or anywhere else.

Open water swimming and my natural endurance (I can crank out a 10 KM at any given time without much effort and my usual daily workout is 6.1 KM) led me to start inquiring about a longer race than the usual 1 – 2 miles that most open water races are. Lynn and Evan Morrison, another OW swimming friend I met at Jamie’s Swim Camp, said that the Semana Nautica 10 KM would be perfect. The Marathon Swimmers Forum has been working on establishing a set of general rules for what counts as a “marathon swim” which are effectively English Channel Rules (most people apply this to every swim whether or not it’s in the EC). I agree with it 100%.

So on 13 July 2014, I am planning on doing my first marathon swim in accordance with the MSF rules. It’s the minimum distance (10 KM) where I will not be getting out of the water or holding onto anyone or anything, touching people, no one is touching me, I’m only wearing a swimsuit, cap, goggles, and sunblock, I’ll start from land and walk out of the water on my own.

I have big plans in 2015 of a REAL swim that I never imagined and now I’m so giddy about it that it’s hard to think about anything else! It’s going to be with the guys from Laguna Beach and we’re crewing for each other which also means that I’ll have them by my side (and in the water for those of us doing tandem!) every stroke of the way. I don’t want to say too much until we get permits though. I’m a little older, a little wiser, and have an incredible network of swimming friends that I didn’t have 1.5 years ago when I first got back into a pool.

I’ve gone from the not-really-a-swimmer in high school to the Masters swimmer that shows up even when it’s practically a monsoon outside and that Coach leaves the whiteboard with after practice because even though I’m slow, they know that I’m going to finish the entire workout and then maybe tack on a few KM afterwards.

I’m not nervous about these marathon swims. I’m WAY too excited to be nervous. It feels like this is something that I was supposed to do in my life. These are the people that I was supposed to know. Every part of it unfolds and surprised me with how awesome it is. Swimming has turned out to be a very enriching part of my life and taking me to destinations unknown. I met the right people at the right times. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I have a deep connection with everyone who got me to where I am today as it was all inter-related. At times I didn’t know why I had met some of these people and now it’s becoming more clear. I wasn’t lucky that I met any of these people…I was meant to meet them. All of this is beyond my wildest dreams and I’m excited too to see where else this takes me as it’s just been one jaw-dropping moment after another.

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