You are there — giving you a feel for the Alcatraz experience
Far from routine this year. For the first time ever we got fogged out of the normal route. But I still did the swim. The water was cold and rough…just like I like it. And over $4,000 raised for Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program (so far)!
Thursday — KRON TV interview
I came out to San Francisco a day early because KRON TV4 scheduled an appearance for me on the 6 pm sports cast with Gary Radnich. So I moved my flight up a day and got to SFO around 1 pm on Thursday instead of Friday. Then, since I was a bit early, I hung out with my friend Mary Voss next door to the studios and went over to their building about an hour early just to watch and see what things look like during a live newscast.
The studio is an open room with lots cameras and teleprompters and stuff as well as lots of people moving around while Pam Moore, the evening anchor, is doing her thing. It seemed surprisingly busy and noisy for a place doing a live broadcast but I was told the mics are highly directional and the extraneous noise is never heard. One guy with a headphone moves around adjusting cameras and props and yelling out “30 seconds” to the next speaker. The weather girl wore a nice top but had on grubby pants and flip flops. She sat back at her desk during off timesconstantly brushing her platinum blonde hair, checking her makeup, and reading a fashion magazine while having girl talk with the traffic girl. When it was time for her bit she walked across the studio to stand in front of the green screen and primped her hair and adjusted her cleavage-showing top right till it was her moment. I did not get the sense of a trained meteorologist. Instead I think I was seeing someone who looked good, had a great voice, and was trained to listen to commands in her ear piece while reading the screens to the side of the green screen that told the weather story.
Pam Moore, the evening anchor, on the other hand worked hard. She read her notes ahead of her next segment. She practiced (even memorized) lines and she went from head down studious to smiling at the camera in half a second with Mr. Headphones counting down to her how long until she was live. She was very friendly when she finally noticed I was sitting back in the dark corner of their studio.
As was Mr. Gary Radnich when he came out. I have no idea where he had been but it was already 6:35 before he even walked into the studio. Last-second Gary is very relaxed, affable and friendly. He had gotten the pitch about me from my PR team and had the story down cold. I had given the book trailer DVD to them ahead of time so that might have helped. Mr. Headphones had set up a small table and two comfortable high cushioned stools for an intimate interview setting. During the final commercial break before Sports I was installed on one of those stools. That is when Gary strolled in. He sat next to Pam to give the sports headlines. Like many sports anchors he was light and breezy in his delivery. Very informal and ad-libbing during some sections. They did a preview of my being a special guest before Gary’s section and then again at the end as they went to commercial break. Then Gary moved over to the stool next to me.
I handed Gary an autographed copy of Who Says I Can’t which he was very appreciative of and then we went live. He introduced me (pronouncing my last name wrong — the whole point of the guy at Ellis Island giving my family the name Rosenberg was so that Americans would never pronounce it wrong) and gave the dramatic TV intro thing with my story but it was basically correct if a little over-dramatic. The interview was one of the better ones I have had and later it seemed like a fair number of people actually did see it probably because it was prime time. But KRON, who used to be NBC for the Bay, is in sorry shape so I don’t think they have great viewership. Still, Gary has been a fixture in SF sports for decades so he definitely has a following. He focused on the fact that I was the only amputee doing the Alcatraz swim. Little did he (or I) know that come the day of the swim I would find out that a paraplegic would be doing the swim for the first time ever.
When the interview was over, Gary and the others were very friendly and gracious and I headed out the door to get going up to Petaluma where I was going to spend the night with my cousin Ronnie so as to have some nice social time and to save on hotel nights.
Friday — Santa Cruz
Carole would not arrive to SFO until 12:30 so I used the morning in Petaluma to work a bit. Carole arrived on the same Virgin America flight I did just one day later. We were due in Palo Alto at 5:30 so we had at least four hours to kill in the area. We decided to do that at Stanford Shopping Center.
I had the bad timing of just having gotten a new leg before this trip and that is never an easy transition. The leg hurt a lot by now because a prosthesis requires a lot of tweaks before it is just right and those tweaks were still ahead of us. So I spent the entire weekend as legless as possible to give my poor skin a break. I got to test all my theories about staring while walking around the shopping center legless. It’s very hard to be non-self conscious in this situation even though I have 37 years of experience to supposedly become immune to people staring. You never get immune completely.
Dinner was with my second cousin, sister of the co-founder of my little Rocketvox startup. Two nights before the swim my attention is already diverted from being very sociable. This year that would build into an issue more than any previous year. Already I was totally abstaining from alcohol to be as tip-top as I could be by Sunday morning. We had a great barbeque in their backyard in a little neighborhood of Palo Alto. Then it was finally time to head over infamous highway 17 to Santa Cruz to settle in for the night before the final practice swim. Driving highway 17 all these years (14) since we moved away made no difference. Every curve and bump in that highway are wired into my lower brain stem. It’s a totally weird road in that you ride in the left lane to cruise and sneak over to the right lane only to pass. That’s because the big trucks hang in the right lane so you have to stay left to survive but if someone slower than you is doing the same thing you have to sneak to the right to pass them before the next sand truck slows you down again. All the curves are constant radius so you can tell land-lubbers who “square off” the curves. Most people hate the road and call it a death trap. I get a thrill every time I get to do it at full speed. The only time I too hate it is when it’s locked solid with too much commuter or weekend beach traffic. When I really got to know this road well was when we lived on the Santa Cruz side, I worked in Sunnyvale and the Loma Prieta earthquake had just occurred and practically destroyed the road.
Santa Cruz seems in decline. The seedy hotels, the gang feel to the beach/boardwalk area, and all our old friends saying that many areas are now dangerous contributes to that conclusion. We tried to find a cheap but not too seedy hotel and we didn’t completely succeed. It was the Pure Hotel Santa Cruz. Huh? I still had my leg off so Carole was stuck carrying most everything in including the leg itself. We smelled urine in the elevator up to the room — not an auspicious beginning. The sheets seemed clean but the room smelled of smoke. But it was just for one night. At this point I was beginning to get into focused zombie mode where I am not very sociable, don’t sleep very well, and a lot of my brain circuits switch over to simulated swimming in preparation. Some of those circuits were now also focused on the filming we were going to do. Steve McCarthy was on the trip to film our sizzle reel for the TV show we proposed to do. The idea of this trip was that with film of me doing the Alcatraz swim we would have footage of swimming, biking (which Steve had from 2007 when he filmed me on the PMC bike ride for the Today Show), and from this winter skiing at Jackson Hole. I touched base with Steve who agreed to meet me at the wharf at 7 am sharp.
My normal swim partner Steve Bird opted out of this years practice swim because he would be training for an Ironman. Triathletes are more obsessed than most athletes because each event requires an enormous amount of training time which is multiplied by three so they really have no time for anything close to a normal life. But at the last minute, an old swim friend Cindy shot me an email and wondered if I would like a partner. I really hate doing this particular swim alone because it is straight out along the wharf, there are sea lions at the end of the wharf and in such cold water its really nice to know there is someone to watch your back.
Saturday AM — Final Tune Up
Second day on the west coast and we still wake up really early. So it was easy to be down at the wharf at 7. It was a perfect day. Not a wisp of fog, bright blue sky, and the sun was already up pretty high in the sky. Because Santa Cruz looks due south across Monterey Bay, you actually see the sun rise to your left over water even though you are on the west coast; you see it set over water too! Steve M was already down at the water filming various things for background. The parking lot at Cowell beach was beginning to get busy. In the summer on Saturdays there is the junior lifeguard program and it was getting set up. Since there was a surf, there were already surfers going at it over along steamers lane. The water was quite calm and I saw a seal just a 100 yards off shore calmly swimmingparallel to the beach. Unfortunately there were signs posted saying the water was contaminated which sucked. We chatted and admired the location for a few minutes and then I got into my wetsuit. Just as I was ready Cindy arrived on her bike. She decided she would go without a wetsuit. She was warming up for two swim events the next day while I was warming up for the Alcatraz. She worried about water quality and wanted us to swim over by steamers. But there were rollers and surfers over there and it would be too far from the wharf for Steve to get any shots at all. So we compromised and swam parallel to but away from the wharf and the Neary Lagoon outflow but not too far away for good filming. Down at the water I found a spot above the wave line to leave my crutches and sat and put on goggles and fin while Cindy did her final prep. Then I got up and hopped backwards with my fin on down the beach into the water and kept hopping as small waves broke against my leg. This part is always a bit of a challenge to keep my balance. I want to try to hop far enough that I can spin, dive and go but meanwhile the waves are trying to knock me over. That and seaweed tends to get bunched up at waves edge and form a barrier to my hopping. These waves were pretty small so I was able to blast through and keep my balance long enough to spin and dive into deep enough water that I could swim.
Cindy was right next to me. She is a very fast swimmer. She can roll over onto her back and do backstroke the same speed as her (and my) crawl. My heart was beating too fast. Not sure if it was the anticipation, cold water, or what but I had way too big a shot of adrenalin and it was not feeling good. When this happens you get short of breath and tire very quickly. I kept telling myself to calm down, slow down but nothing was working. I kept stroking and I acclimatized to the cold water as I normally do but the heart rate was still probably over 180. That was not what I wanted for my final practice swim before the biggie. I wanted a nice smooth relaxed swim where I felt strong and ready. That is the final mental boost I want and need on this day. Cindy and I were still going almost stroke for stroke along the wharf but I think she was holding back a little on my account. I could see the end of the wharf and hoped that once I got there and we rested a bit I would finally calm down and at least the swim back in would be good.
When we got to the end of the wharf we had beaten Carole and Steve. They had to run the last part to catch up to us. We could see and hear the myriad sea lions milling around on the support structure of the wharf just 60 feet from us. But in all the years of doing this they have never bothered us so I did not expect they would this time either. There was one fisherman up on the wharf and as usual, he looked at us and wondered just exactly what was wrong with us that we were treading in 55 degree water a half mile from shore out here where he was fishing. The sky and water were beautiful. I felt invigorated. The cold had gone and the water felt good and refreshing. Cindy and I rested and chatted and yelled a few things up to Carole and Steve and then, before the cold did set in, we decided it was time to head back in. We decided to veer even further from the wharf because we could both tell the water quality was not that great. A bit gritty. My hope about the swim back in was true. Now it felt relaxed, comfortable and fast. This was what I needed mentally to be ready for the next day. The more relaxed and comfortable I got, the faster I swam. Before I knew it, we were on the beach and ready to get my crutches and get on with the day.
I showered at the same outdoor showers I have been using at Cowell for 20 years. Back when we lived there, I was doing this every Friday morning before work 52 weeks a year. This nice June morning it was quite warm but there have been days when the air temp was 45 and we were doing this. Next up we were heading to the same place we have gone for breakfast after a Cowell swim also for 20+ years: Peets and Noahs. Joanna joined us at this point and old Santa Cruz friends Tamah and Eric did too. We all got our bagels and coffee and hung out for an hour catching up and visiting. This is the best part about this practice swim as well as the Alcatraz swim that draw us all back out to the Bay Area every year: we have an excuse for regular visits with old friends.
After breakfast I like to always spend some time in Bookshop Santa Cruz. Sure it’s a great local bookstore. But this place is special to us as it was destroyed in the ’89 quake (and a worker died) and it barely hung on for years as “Booktent Santa Cruz” when the entire community rallied behind them and made sure they got enough business to stay alive. Now all these years later, they are in a gorgeous building, and they weathered the obnoxious and bombastic competition of Crown Books who long ago went out of business when again the community rallied and refused to give the big box book store any business. I went in hoping I could convince them to carry my book. I am sort of a local author aren’t I? Certainly much of the book and for that matter much of my formation occurred right there in their backyard. The store manager was friendly and encouraging but he said he did not make the final decision. He would give it to the right person and they would decide. That had to be good enough for me. As I was talking to him a small book right at the checkout stand caught my eye because here in the liberal bastion of a book shop in the mother of all liberal locales was a book with Sarah Palin’s image on the cover. Worse, the book title was The Collected Wit and Wisdom of Sarah Palin. It was a companion book, it said, to her Going Rogue. I looked at the store manager with a flash of fire in my eyes telling him in one quick glance that they had better not be turning to the dark tea-party ways. He laughed and said everyone’s face did that. But I should look inside before drawing my final conclusions. And lo and behold, the book was as empty as Sarah’s, well, wit and wisdom: it was a book of all blank pages! I had to own this little gem and it was the one and only purchase I made that day.
Speaking of Sarah, there was one more thing on the agenda before we were done with Santa Cruz for this trip: I had an appointment with the local conservative talk radio network KSCO. Tamah had set this up on a whim when she just happened to meet the host of the show in Costco. He said he really wanted me on his show even though it would be off topic from what he usually talked about. But this was the same station that proudly re-broadcast Rush Limbaugh. Somehow I had to compartmentalize my brain and stay focused on just my message and the book or this would not go well. MZ, the host, says he used to be a flaming liberal but along the way became conservative. Sounds fishy to me without having had a lobotomy but whatever. We ended up having a great discussion and then to my surprise he started getting callers and I talked to several people who called in to the show to ask me questions. Those calls were great. My “show” ended up lasting 50 minutes. Now it really was time to head up to San Francisco and move into the next phase of our annual Alcatraz weekend.
Sat PM — San Francisco
It’s a pleasant drive from Santa Cruz up to the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco. First you have the windy highway 17 back over the hill into silicon valley. Then you have 280 that winds along the San Andreas fault with views of the browning Palo Alto hills on one side and the green Santa Cruz mountains on the other with the thin fault lakes in between. It calls itself the most beautiful freeway in the country and it just might have a point. We arrived at the Argonaut Hotel just in time for my Fit Sugar (a blog at http://www.fitsugar.com ) interview. Carole and Joanna unpacked and got ready for our party while I spoke to Susi May. Susi wants to focus on what it takes to do this swim and not on cancer or disability or one-leg or any of that stuff which was refreshing. She wanted to convey all the learnings I have built up training, preparing and doing the swim for 17 years and then as an aside at the end she would mention that I just happen to do the swim with one leg and one lung. Nice approach.
The Agronaut is the official hotel of the swim due to its location right next to the staging area on the grounds of the Maritime Museum. It’s not cheap. But it sure is pleasant. We had to do a quick turnaround to get to the engagement party for Zac and Emily up in Tiburon. They were hoping we could get there early and just hang out but we were just going to get there in time for dinner now. Emily’s mom Deb is dating John whose house this was. It was in a gated community where everyone is very rich. John is probably the wealthiest person I have ever directly interacted with. His house is spectacular; he’s pretty cool too. The weather continued to be spectacular with not a cloud in the sky, very warm temps and a slight breeze. I again decided to go legless which I never do to dinner parties but I was in too much pain to wear the damn thing. That and my regimen of no booze while everyone else was loose and happy put me in a bad mood which, coupled with the intense zombie focus I get into the night before the swim, made me the target of lots of criticism that I was not being appropriately festive, congratulatory and sociable. All true. Gotta work on that. It was a great party; I just wasn’t all there. We headed back kind of early so I could get as much sleep as possible. After the incredible day we had just had, it seemed certain we would wake up to a wonderful clear day for a great swim.
Sunday — Alcatraz Sharkfest Day
As always the night before the big swim, I slept fitfully and woke before the alarm raring to go. I gathered all my stuff and was ready to go register. Carole usually is an observer–just part of the crowd. But this year, because Steve M wanted a camera out on the water, I recruited her and Zac to be in a double kayak to get that kind of shot. Zac had to leave Tiburon at 5:30 a bit under the weather from over-celebrating. Carole was nervous and piqued at me for forcing her into this kayaking job. She was worried about her arm strength, she was worried about the rough water, she was worried about how Zac would do since he was not experienced in a kayak. I just figured things would all work out and since we had no other option had decided these guys just had to do this for me. They were also aggravated at my assumption. I was losing points left and right.
Even at 6 AM there was already a whirlwind of activity next door at registration for the swim inside the Maritime Museum. Many people had already registered and were starting to congregate on the grass where we would change and leave our street clothes. I walked on over to the registration area inside the museum itself. I was carrying my backpack and the full wetsuit one in each hand that was also on a crutch handle. It’s sort of a standard thing I do when trying to carry things while walking on crutches. One guy asked me if I was actually going to do the swim. They stop asking me that once I have the wetsuit on.
Ominously the fog was pretty thick and Alcatraz Island was no where to be seen. There has been fog at registration time before so I was not totally worried. For 18 years even when there had been fog, it had always cleared out by the time the swim start horn had blown. But I kept looking out there thinking this is really thick today. I registered quickly, got my number drawn on each hand, got my timing chip for my ankle, and my new yellow swim cap with the sharkfest logo on it. Now I too was ready to find a spot in the grass and contemplate the upcoming swim as I slowly got ready.
My people started to show up. First Carole came with her coffee from Starbucks. Then Joanna. Then Steve M with his giant camera and many bags of equipment. And then Zac. Finally Steve B also showed up with his wetsuit and his girlfriend Cindy. Steve was all business and we both started to don our wetsuits. Two young ladies I met through my blog who live in SF and both have late stage cancer came by. I never got to spend much time with them which I really am sad about. I hope they understand the frenzy I was in for this whole event. Before we knew it, my kayak team was all ready to go with the special waterproof camera and it was time for speeches and then the hike to the ferry boats.
Dave Horning the organizer told the 900 swimmers that the water temp was 60. He was lying. It was really 55 but everyone knew that. He told us the fog would lift too but he was lying again on that. Not really. Just too wishful thinking. But we were still all hoping he was right and it would lift before we had to jump out of the ferry boats.
The hike to the ferry was much more than the normal distance. Usually we walk from what is effectively pier 49 down to pier 41 (about 0.6 miles) in wetsuits and flip-flops but now we had to go all the way to pier 33 which is a full mile. No one in the lead group including me knew that. It might have been in the instructions but we just assumed it was the same as it had been for years. But Dave had chosen a different ferry company and it was almost twice as far down the waterfront. After a ton of confusion, and with Steve B running ahead to make sure 33 was the correct pier, we did arrive at the right boats. As usual Dave was there (he has a special transporter beam that gets him there effortlessly) with the two ferries that will carry 450 swimmers each.
My entourage included my reliable swim partner Steve B, my daughter and crutch handler Joanna, and Steve M the cameraman and producer of our TV series called Who Says I Can’t just like the book. Steve M was trying to catch all the nuances of this event to be included in the sizzle reel. And much of that footage will end up being part of the intro to the show as well. We took our normal seats at a small table near one of the doors along the windows. We made sure we were on the boat Dave will be on because when he departs the ferry on a runabout boat, he would be taking Steve M and Joanna with him this year. He’s into this whole TV thing and wants to make sure Steve can get some good shots of the huge mass of swimmers with the bridge in the background. He also guarantees Steve and Joanna will be at the finish long before I pull in.
This is the time when we get our gear in order and when lots of people come over to ask anyone they can find who has done the swim before, how does this work. Clearly the issue everyone has is how will we navigate. That is a huge question every year but people are not blind and can see that visibility is really bad out there this year. Suddenly we see a guy in a wheel chair approaching. We realize that a guy who has no use of his legs is going to attempt this swim. He wants to talk about how to do it too. He has a team with him. One has a camera so clearly is documenting his swim just as I am mine. We talk for a while about how he swims, what his training is like, how he got hurt but then the boat has stopped and both ferries are in position for the swim.
Normally at this point we are next to the island, the kayaks are a hundred or so yards away forming the start line and as soon as the boats are stable they will open the doors and let us jump in. But something is wrong. The doors were opened and then immediately shut. Joanna sees something in my face and asks if I am nervous. I am normally intent, intense, focused but not really nervous. But this time I am. I can’t see anything back in the city where we are going. In total blindness none of us no matter how experienced will make it to the right location. It would be easy to get off course by 90 degrees. I know, I have done that at least twice in training when I got into thick fog. Once at Cowell beach and once even in Walden Pond. Just a little bit off course each stroke and with no corrections in no time you are going 90 or possibly even 180 degrees the wrong way. With 900 swimmers how many do you think would get completely lost? And what about kayakers? Speaking of kayakers, as I am looking out the window wondering how the heck we do this, I see Carole and Zac. They too are clearly wondering how this is going to work. Later they told me it was eerie. Getting out to the island was only possible for the kayakers all in a line following the one boat with GPS. Once there, they too has no idea which direction was back to the city. Then as I am trying to wave to them through tinted windows to no avail, I see a police boat come between the two ferries with the head policeman strongly shaking his head. It was then that I knew this swim was not happening. I could tell he was talking to Dave who was right above us on the deck able to talk directly to the police. They were shutting this event down. In 18 years that had never happened but it was happening today. It took a few more minutes but Dave got on the PA an announced that the fog was getting thicker not lifting and that the swim was cancelled and the boats were going back. But there would be an alternate swim. He called it an “In-and-Out” swim which we had never heard of before.
Everyone on the boat was stunned and then disappointed. But no one was looking outside and saying we should just go do it. I did say why didn’t they just take us back until we could see land and drop us there. But with the fog moving around so much I guess that was not safe either. In the end they took us all the way back to pier 33 and let us off where we started. Back another mile to Aquatic Park we hiked. There people were not sure what was going on. Many had no idea the swim had been cancelled. And no one realized that we were about to start from the beach with a new alternate course. I was in no mood to wait around. I wanted to get in and swim something.
Steve and I dropped my crutches on the beach and jumped in. We started swimming hard for the opening to Aquatic Park in exactly the reverse direction of how we usually finished the normal swim. The water was cold but I was not feeling that. As usual Steve and I were going stroke-for-stroke with him on the right and me to his left as he breathes left and I right. When we got through the opening the water was very rough. Since the time was now quite a bit later than the scheduled start, the tide had started to flow (or ebb) back out towards Golden Gate. The wind had come up a bit too so the combination made the water pretty rough. We could see a line of kayaks forming a barrier parallel to the concrete breakwater to our right. We did not yet fully realize what the swim course for everyone would be. We thought perhaps the big mass of swimmers was behind us coming on the same course as us.
We joined the group and started swimming back the way we came. It was a tightly packed group and we had clearly joined where some of the slower swimmers were because we had to pass a lot of people to find our stable place in the wave of swimmers. The breakwater sure went by fast this time. As we entered through the narrow opening, it now felt exactly like a normal Alcatraz swim. We had now gone almost as far as we would have leaving the island, the water was good and cold, the crowds were up on top of the breakwater yelling like they always do. And as we entered Aquatic Park the rough water suddenly turned calm. Per our usual strategy, at this point we turned on all the afterburners saving nothing for later and started digging hard for home. Steve and I also at this point are freed from our invisible tether and its now every man for himself to get to the finish line as fast as possible. It’s about a quarter mile from first entering the flat water to the finish line on the beach. I felt strong and my stroke felt good. I was going fast. I only hoped now that Joanna noticed I had taken off and that she had found my crutches. And I hoped that Steve M would be filming because the finish was one of the most important things we wanted to capture for the sizzle reel.
As I began to be able to make out the crowd and where the finish area actually was, as always, I began to try to spot where Joanna in her bright yellow shirt would be with my crutches. The rule is I have to try to come in just left of the finish chute especially since last year I had gotten confused and went to the right making Joanna scramble at the last minute. About 50 yards from shore I put my head up high to find her and she noticed that and raised both crutches to the sky in a dramatic salute which I easily saw. In a final sprint I ended up right in front of her. She came out to mid thighs and I quickly popped out of my fin, handed it to her and tried to grab my crutches. As always, it is very hard to go from all out exertion in a horizontal position to standing in slightly moving water on two thin metal sticks. At this point, I know from experience the crowd is quietly wondering what the heck is going on with this guy and some crutches. Within a matter of 10 seconds I had the crutches under me and started to walk.
As I walked up the chute lots of friends and family were there clapping me on the back and saying good job. Just as many total strangers were saying the same thing. This is why I do this. By doing the swim every year I re-assert for myself that I am still here, that I can do hard things, that I can do things that “able-bodied” people can’t or won’t do, and that hard work does get me something rewarding. As I learned many years ago, it is vital to keep the self-confidence at a healthy level in the face of almost constant challenges that come from everyday life when you have a disability. But I also learned that by doing these sorts of challenging athletics, those who see it are themselves motivated. Maybe not to do this particular swim. But over and over I have heard people say they were now going to go try that really hard thing they want to do but have not gotten up the motivation to do.
This year’s swim over, wetsuit put away for a while, and lots of wonderful comments received, and I was ready for a much-deserved big breakfast and most importantly, some mimosas. The rest of the day was all about relaxing and enjoying family. The flight home would be the next morning.
Best of all, this event is one of my charity athletic fundraisers. 100% of donations I receive for doing this swim go to Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program (where Carole works). So far this year I have raised over $4,000. I hope to do better and with your help I can. If you would like to contribute go to: