Digging Deep

In 2011, I had my pelvis surgically broken to fix my right hip dysplasia. In 2012, I had my pelvis surgically broken again to correct my left hip dysplasia and started swimming again after 17 years. In August 2013, I did my first open water swim in Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay. In September 2014, I did my first channel swim with the 12.4 miles from Anacapa Island to Oxnard. In August 2015, I swam across the Catalina Channel, one of the Ocean’s Seven.

Holy f***.

I’m not a fast swimmer by any means. Stubborn? Yes. Fast? Hahaha..no. Yet something that my primary observer, Paula Selby, said after my swim has been running through my mind since then. She was one of the few people who could have pulled me during my Catalina swim. She didn’t though since she knew that I was still mentally with it during the swim and that I could finish it. It didn’t dawn on me until a few friends asked about it, but I never once thought during the swim that I wanted to be pulled and end it. As much pain and suffering I experienced during the swim, I never once had the desire to get out of the water. Even when I stopped a couple of times because I was exhausted and hating life and hearing Paula say “Why is she stopping?”, I was never thinking “do I really want to be doing this? Should I get out now?” I was more thinking about despite how much pain I was in, there was absolutely no way in f***ing hell that I was ever swimming any of those miles that I had just done to repeat this swim again. Damnit, I was doing this ONCE.

I had a great crew that I had picked specifically for their unique talents, skills, and background. A core group of people that I could trust to get me across as they were the best of the best. I wanted a small tight knit group of minimal people on board because for me, the less people the better. It’s like a wedding where you have your wedding party of those who you trust are going to take care of you in your most important hour. I was shutting out everyone and everything else. It was a very long 17 hours 25 minutes 48 seconds and during that time for the most part, no one else in my life existed except for those 4 crew members on the boat. My observers were just flys on the wall, like they are supposed to be.

I was stressed before the swim. It was nerve wracking to be driving to San Pedro on 14 August 2015, like I’d done plenty of times before but this time it was for MY Catalina swim. I was excited and nervous at the same time. I was texting back and forth with Jim who was giving me encouragement and support along with making me laugh (as he says, to bring some normalcy to the day). I got to the boat and immediately threw my stuff into my bunk (lowest bunk on the starboard side of the stern). I talked to Jim to get some nervous energy out before Cathy and I headed to dinner.


Sunset at 22nd Street Landing, San Pedro, California.

Neil and Paula are running late which is fine since I’d alerted Captain Greg already. Greg does his usual safety and rules speech (varies a bit each time I’ve noticed as he forgets to mention things). Paula does hers for the CCSF which really Cathy is the only one in the room who isn’t a CCSF observer. She says that the wind is going to pick up around noon and we’ll be getting 4-foot swells and a strong current going west to east. F***. The boat’s taken off which is when I usually make a beeline for my bunk but I have to go over my feeds with my crew. Peter’s concerned that I’m planning on taking in too many calories and I tell Peter to do whatever he wants to take care of me then. THAT should show just how much trust I have in this man. I ask if I can go to bed now and he lets me. I text with Jim a little bit from my bunk while listening to Imagine Dragons on my ipod before falling asleep.


And we’re off!

Bottom Scratcher is in neutral. Show time.

What is it with boats going into neutral and cars going into park that wakes me up? That and physically touching me while I’m asleep which I don’t recommend since I’m sure I’ll literally die of a heart attack from that move one day. I get out of my bunk and start getting ready. Cathy and I are much closer friends after she helps me lube and sunblock up whether she likes it or not.

Neil’s already in the water waiting for me. I text Jim that I’m jumping now. Cathy and Peter make sure that the Spot Tracker is working. It’s really weird going into water that doesn’t give me hypothermic shock. And clear. I’ve never swam into Doc’s Cove before and didn’t know there was a little net around it. I get up on the beach and wait for Neil to relay to me that Paula said that I can start swimming. I start and remember what Neil says: “Stay within 1 yard from me as that’s what Captain Greg likes. Kelley, let’s have some fun!”


On my way to jump for my Catalina Channel solo swim on the night of 14 August 2015.

I stick to Neil and his kayak like a barnacle. I am slightly freaked out by night swimming with bioluminescence going on because you can see EVERYTHING. Sharks are like spiders..I know they’re there and would just rather not see them in the open ocean. Reef sharks are a different story as I think those are really cool to see while swimming or diving. I love being able to be smack next to Neil as he uses a Hobie that uses foot pedals instead of a paddle.

Within a couple of hours a small pod of dolphins swims beneath me heading west to east. I was hoping they’d turn north to join me but no such luck. I’d love to have the magical experience I had during my Anacapa swim of literally swimming with that pod of 50 dolphins up close and personal for 2 hours. This was better than nothing though.

I’m getting stung mostly on my right side. I know from Anacapa and my Catalina relay though that the jellies in this channel don’t really affect me. At one point I feel what must have been a long jellyfish tentacle wrap around my leg as it goes down. I’d only have three marks on my left forearm after the countless stings I experienced on this swim. I was stung a few times at the top of my shoulder when it was starting to hurt which would have worked out well if the jellies had aimed a little lower to the actual muscles that were sore.

I see one bioilluminated creature for a split second that looked and moved like a shark down below. Not big enough to be a threat and my usual policies go into place of: a) if you make it to your next feed then it wasn’t interested in you and b) if it is interested in you then that’s a better way to go than being hit by MUNI.

I’m swimming close enough to Neil that I feel a huge sense of security with him right there. I can have constant eye contact with him while swimming. I SO want one of these Hobies.


Swimming next to Neil van der Byl and his awesome Hobie.

Cathy trades off with Neil and gets her first experience with guiding a channel swim. I’m glad that she gets to experience this after all of her help for my swims over the last 2 years. The winds had picked up and Paula tells Cathy that hopefully Cathy has some wind protection. Cathy carries me into daybreak.

Neil gets back in and starts telling me what my stroke count is which is very useful. He doesn’t want me to drop below 50 spm and asks me to dig deep and bring it back up again. Mentally I start thinking about a couple of Green Day songs (names elude me now which is totally embarrassing and I’ll remember at like 2 AM in my sleep). Neil said he’s proud which how I dug deep to get stroke count back up and rewards me with a cookie.

When my right arm really started giving way around the 11th hour, I pulled out literally my only swimming trick I have: I switched to backstroke. I had talked with Evan earlier in the week about what the limits were, if any, for switching strokes and he said there were none since was truly freestyle out there. I happily flip on my back and Neil is blown away with how my stroke count shoots up to well over 60 spm. He says that I’m very efficient at backstroke and I tell him that it was actually my stroke in high school and my backstroke was faster than my freestyle.

I’m back with Cathy on kayak and still doing backstroke. My back is getting cold and I can still see Catalina looking relatively close and San Pedro doesn’t look close at all. Crap…how much farther do we have? I kind of don’t want to know. I’m looking at the sun position and know that it’s just after 12 NOON and looking at where the sun should be when I’m about done. That seems like a far way away from its current place. The waves and wind have picked up so I’m getting slapped in the face and so much salt water up my nose that it feels like someone set my sinuses on fire each and every time. I can’t breathe out of my nose. I’m literally wimpering. I don’t want to swim anymore and I don’t want to get out either. I only start swimming again because I put too much into this to get here and there’s no way that I’m repeating those last several miles ever again.


Swimming with Peter Hayden while Cathy Harrington is on kayak duty.

Howard gets into the water with me and gives me a “magic pill” from Peter. Know how they teach you to never take pills that you don’t know what they are? That rule doesn’t apply when you’re in the middle of a channel and your crew is telling you to swallow this pill and keep swimming. Ask questions later. I’m happy to have Howard in the water with me and haven’t gotten to swim with him in several months.

I’m still in a lot of pain and have almost hit my ibuprofen limit for a 24 hour period. Peter gets in to swim wtih me and gives me another mysterious pill and tells me to do some freestyle with him. I know he’s trying to get me to stretch my right shoulder out and I do whatever he tells me to do. Peter has a beautiful stroke and I entertain myself with watching him and trying to imitate his movements too. It works as I start to feel less pain my right shoulder. Not painless, but less pain.

Cathy gets in to buddy swim and I’m humored with seeing that she’s wearing her new tankini. She’s doing some breastroke which makes me feel bad that I’m going SO slow that she can’t do freestyle like she normally does when we swim together back at home. I stop bilaterally breathing so I don’t have to see her breastroke and swim obviously super slow next to me. Howard and Peter are much faster than me and can slow their stroke down to match my speed. Cathy eventually figures it out though which helps.

I do ask how much longer I have and the first distance I remember is having about 5 nautical miles to go. Ah crap. Okay, you can do this. Shut up and swim. I remember looking and seeing the 4-foot swells going east. I’m in pain and not enjoying this yet seem to have some sense of humor still along with my brain being okay. I remember Howard giving me another “magic pill” when he jumps in for a second time. I can see Neil saying a lot to those back on the boat. I’m not sure what’s going on. I’m told that we have 1 nautical mile to go and that my next feed will be my last before we hit shore. Awesome!

I get to the next feed though and look towards San Pedro. We’re nowhere near it. DAMNIT.


Feeding during my Catalina Channel solo swim on 15 August 2015.

Neil tells me that we missed the second landing spot and now we’re finding another one. Being in the middle of open water, I don’t realize that I swim in place for an entire hour. I feel like I’ve been swimming forever and not even sure where we’re heading. I get the sense that we’re so close and I just want this swim to be over with NOW. I’ve come WAY too far and have experienced WAY too much pain to quit not and like hell we’re not going to finish this swim. Neil then tells me that they’ve given up on the second spot and that we’re going to swim with the current as there’s another sandy beach for me to land on. I ask him how long it’ll take and he said 45 minutes or less. Okay, that’s a Pier 7 (to club) swim back at home. I can do that easily. I tell him “OH HELL YEAH!” and get moving. Cathy’s in the water with me and swimming on front of me. She’s not allowed to get to shore before me and I don’t want to feel like I’m trying to catch up to her either. I tell her to stay behind me and she obliges. I almost cry in my goggles with the thought of finally finishing this swim.

I see sand finally appearing beneath me and almost don’t believe it. I can actually see the beach and people on it. Oh my god this swim really is finally going to end. I’m actually going to do this. I get to a reef wall and start looking behind me to where the water is breaking. Not too much of an issue actually. I step on the reef wall and my right foot shoots right through it and I scrape a few of my toes in the process. I keep making my way to shore and get out of the water. I’m surprised my legs still work. A lifeguard asks if I’m the one who just swam from Catalina and I say “yes.” He congratulates me. I do the usual end-of-swim stand that looks kind of like you’re about to do a cartwheel. After several seconds I drop my arms. I’m sure other people on the beach are wondering WTF was I doing. Cathy comes up on shore and we hug. She reminds me to grab a rock and I stuff it into my swimsuit. A couple of other people congratulate me on my swim. I’m exhausted and just happy that the swim is finally over.

I remember how after Anacapa I was waist-deep in water with Gracie van der Byl to head back to the boat and couldn’t get myself to actually start swimming again. This time I’m with Cathy and we’re both having trouble getting back over that reef wall with the waves. Someone on shore directs us to a break in the reef wall that we can swim out to meet Neil. Neil has me get up on the back of the kayak so he can give me a lift back to the boat. He goes back and gets Cathy.


My Catalina crew: (left to right) Cathy Harrington, Howard Burns, Neil van der Byl, Peter Hayden, and Kevin Colleran (actually one of my CCSF observers).

I’m back on Bottom Scratcher and in disbelief that the swim is finally over. I jokingly ask Paula if it’s still Saturday. I find out that it took me 17 hours 25 minutes 48 seconds to reach shore. Paula says that it’s a good time given the conditions that I got. I get my phone and text Jim that I’m done. Captain Greg tells me that he would have left me for dead during Hour 14 and was surprised to see me still swimming. He was even practicing “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes to play when I would have quit. He said that he’s piloted over 200 Catalina swims and I’m the toughest broad he’s ever met. I’m surprisingly able to stand and talk on the boat. Unlike Anacapa, I don’t feel mentally out of it and like I’m still moving all over the place. I go to change out of my swimsuit and need help as I can’t really use my shoulders or upper arms. My crew is amazing and unloads everything off the boat and tells me to not carry anything.


The actual route I swam across the Catalina Channel.

Cathy drives me to my best friend Susie’s house which I stay awake for the drive although start falling asleep a little towards the end of it. Susie gets me whatever I want for dinner which I ask for a classic Peruvian dinner: pollo a la brasa, papas fritas, helado de lucuma, and alfajores. She also throws in some yuca frita. I’m really not hungry and can barely eat, except for the ice cream. Cathy goes to bed really early. I can’t really sleep for more than a couple of hours. I go through my text messages, emails, and Facebook posts. I’m floored by the support from friends, family, and my fellow South Enders. I can’t believe so many people were watching the spot tracker and cheering me on. Some stayed up all night and day to watch my swim. Looking at the Spot Tracker, you can see just how far east I got pushed. My crew estimated that this added another 3 hours to my swim. I swam about 21.5 miles, which is about 1.5 miles more than a normal Catalina swim. Several incredible marathon swimmers like Joe Locke tell me that they don’t think they could have lasted 17 hours in the water and that I had a real incredible swim.


The chalkboard by the front door and the whiteboard in the women’s locker room at the club after my swim. So surprised to see this! Feeling the love!!!

I did wake up early Monday morning, 2 days later, with my arm joints feeling like they were on fire.

If you had asked me before the swim if I could have lasted 17.5 hours in the water, I don’t know if I’d have said “yes.” The 10 hour training swim I did in Laguna with Peter on kayak was hard on me mentally to go into. I’m glad that I didn’t know that I’d be swimming for another 6 hours after my right shoulder started hurting. Not many people have swam 17+ hours regardless of their swim speed. Water time is water time where you’re losing body heat and in a non-natural position. My nutrition was so spot on that I didn’t get nauseous or puke once which surprised Paula. Given the amount of time I was eating abnormal food and swimming, it would have been common to have thrown up at least once. I know it was a hard swim regardless and it was some of the most pain that I’ve felt. I’m surprised to realize that quitting was never an option in my head and never crossed my mind during my swim. My friend Simon told me afterwards that there are people who you can look at in the eye and know that they’ll do it and he sees that in my eyes. I saw that he had emailed me before my swim asking if I wanted to quickly chat with him which I regret not doing as he’s always offered such strong encouragement. He’s believed in me at times when I failed to believe in myself.

My biggest fear was disappointing my crew and everyone who had supported me. I didn’t want to waste their time and energy that they had spent on me. Kevin flew down from Idaho to observe my swim and I didn’t want that to be in vain. The rest of my crew gave up time away from their friends and family and other life obligations to be on that boat with me. I’d have felt like an utter failure if I didn’t finish. I think that may have been why I was so determined to finish this swim. I also seriously really hate unfinished business. Perhaps this is something only marathon swimmers understand as wasting an entire crew’s time is just the worst feeling in the world. Never matters what they say about it was worth it, you did a great effort, blah blah blah…they were supporting you and you let them and yourself down. It may sound cliche, but the love and support that I have from my friends and family are really what helps get me through this on a very deep level.


Red line shows the normal straight-shot path most people get to swim versus what I actually got the sheer pleasure of suffering through.

It wasn’t until the following Tuesday, 18 August that I finally slept the entire night once I was back at home. I’m still recovering also as I have a pinched right shoulder. My physical therapist / swimming friend Romy took a look at my shoulder last week after dinner and pointed out that she can get her hand under my shoulderblade when I’m lying flat. She gave me some exercises to do to stretch it out and I need to look into deep tissue massage. She taped it up too which I keep hearing makes me look like a badass. I’ve been back in the water a couple of times and primarily stick to backstroke since freestyle hurts my shoulder too much. I learned just how strong of a person I am during this swim.

I completed a solo swim across the Catalina Channel 2 years and 5 days after my first open water swim ever.

Glad I did it and even more glad that it’s over. Never swimming Catalina solo again.

I’m looking forward to taking next year off from any big solo swims. I’ve got plans for 2017 and 2018 though that I already started planning a few months ago. Until then, I’ve got a very pretty Orbea that’s feeling neglected.


First day back at the club with my right shoulder taped up.

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5 Responses to Digging Deep

  1. Mark Fritzke says:

    Wow; I love to read about endurance quests; Everest, polar explorers, etc. and I never thought I would be similarly amazed by swimming; Great Blog! Thanks for the inspiration into what is possible when it looks impossible.

  2. timpmooney says:

    Thanks for sharing Kelley. You are an inspiration, well and a badass 🙂

  3. lucy says:

    great adventure! I love stories like this…it makes me want to have my own adventure as well. you are awesome.

  4. Kate Robarts says:

    I’ve just found this, Kelley, after swimming my own long Catalina marathon. Such a wonderful account. Many congratulations and thank you for sharing it.

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