Swim for Human Rights Across the U.S./Mexico Border

“The sharks certainly don’t care about borders, do they?”

On Cinco De Mayo, 2017, a group of twelve swimmers from five countries swam 10 kilometers from San Diego to Tijuana. They swam to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis on the border and to raise money for the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, an organization that works families that have been separated by the border or lost loved ones trying to cross it.

Kim Swims

The swim was organized by Kim Chambers, a record-setting marathon swimmer from New Zealand, now living in San Francisco. Chambers’ swims include the Oceans Seven and the first female crossing from the Farallon islands to San Francisco. These are super-human achievements. To put it in perspective:

Hundreds of thousands run marathons every year.

4,000 have climbed Mt. Everest.

12 have walked on the moon.

Just six people have done the Oceans Seven, and Kim Chambers is one of two women.

But the way Kim sees it, the sport is a way to connect with others, not something that sets her apart. “Swimming has given me so much,” She says, “I want to give back.”

The Colibrí Swimmers, south of the border.

She got into to open water swimming late in life following a freak accident that nearly took her leg. Just a few months after learning to walk again, she began training to swim at the highest level. As her swims gained in notoriety and exposure, she kept this spirit of gratitude in the foreground.

I want to articulate a message through a sport that has changed my life. This swim was about appreciation and gratitude the whole way through.

By swimming for change, Kim joins the likes of Lynne Cox and Lewis Pugh in a unique brand of advocacy dubbed “speedo diplomacy.” 
 You can transcend political and other boundaries with swimming and start a conversation. (Lewis) Pugh saved the Ross Sea by doing that.

Speedo Diplomacy

As with climate change advocacy, swimming has a natural relevance with border issues. Many of the world’s major swims cross water that separates nations and continents, like the English Channel, between England and France, or the Straight of Gibraltar, between Europe and Africa, a border now tragically littered with human flotsam.

In the 1980s, Lynne Cox opened the maritime border between the US and USSR when she swam the bearing sea (in a bathing suit, mind you.) The logistics of her swim necessitated a talk between the two super-powers and they were able to put aside their mutual distrust to make her crossing possible.

In November 2016, Kim Chambers and a group of 27 swimmers were the first to cross the Dead Sea between Jordan and Israel. It took cooperation, across this historically tense border, to make that swim happen. Their goal was to bring attention to the receding water level of the Dead Sea, an issue that concerns both countries.

They wore special masks on the Dead Sea swim. The salt water “burned like acid,” according to Chambers.

Swimming is what my teammates and I know and love. We moved peacefully through the water across an imaginary line with human beings on both sides. Those lines between countries are at their most invisible in the water…. The sharks certainly don’t care about borders, do they?

Red Tape and Hummingbirds

With the spirit of international teamwork from the Dead Sea swim in mind, Chambers set out to do a similar crossing of the U.S./Mexico border. 
 This was the right time. There was so much negativity following the election. I was interested in doing something positive. I’m an action-oriented person; I have to do something. California is my home and the immigration crisis is happening right next-door, this was a chance to act locally.

But she made it clear the swim was not a protest and had nothing to do with Trump’s proposed border wall.

The swims I’ve done for wounded veterans, those are not about the politics of war…

I wanted to bring that same attitude to this one. It feels like compassion is something we’ve lost these days, no matter what side of the issues you’re on.

Right before the swim, Pope Francis happened to do a TED Talk that really inspired us. The timing was uncanny. He was calling for a “revolution of tenderness.” That’s what we were hoping to express in our own way.

This swim was about open hearts. We aimed to articulate a message of gratitude and appreciation through a sport we all love, in an ocean that connects the whole world. Maybe San Francisco has turned me into a hippy, but I really believe all that stuff.

But, obviously, international borders are a place where red tape is inevitable.

For our message to come through, we had to do this lawfully, and that meant getting permission from a number of agencies. We started with the U.S. Coast Guard. They know me in San Francisco from my other swims. They put me in touch with their colleagues in San Diego. Next we had to get full approval from the Border Patrol, Homeland security, and the Mexican authorities. We didn’t want this to be controversial or something to pick apart. We approached these big bureaucracies with respect and got the same back. Before the swim, Homeland Security wished us luck.

Our escort kayaks had to return to San Diego, they couldn’t touch Mexican soil. We were greeted, at the border, by the Mexican Navy. I swam over to their boat and asked to borrow a cup of sugar, as you do when meeting the neighbors.

The logo of the Pan-American Colibri Swim is a hummingbird (or colibrí) wearing goggles. It’s also the symbol of the Colibri Center for Human Rights (minus the goggles of course.) They chose the hummingbird because it migrates freely through the Americas, and because it links the world of the living and the dead in native mythology. Part of the organization’s work is identifying the remains of migrants who died crossing and DNA testing children whose parents are missing.

The Swim

They swam out a good distance before turning south, hoping to avoid the raw sewage that often flows from the Tijuana Sloughs on the border. Everyone involved had entered the swim fully prepared, even expecting, to be hospitalized after. But everything came together on the day. The water was clear, clean, and calm. “Everything was just perfect,” said Kim, “It’s rare to say that for a swim. You get used to expecting the unexpected. We picked the right day.”

They swam as a team, or in a pod, as chambers describes it.

10K might sound like a long swim; but for these marathon swimmers, 10k in 60° water is practically a warm-up. They went at the pace of their slowest swimmer, stopping to chat along the way and eat Energy Gu (from one of their sponsor.) Their focus was on the cause rather than the athletic feat.

At the border, they stopped to unfurl a banner printed with a quote from Mother Theresa:
 “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples”

At the finish line, they met dozens of children from underprivileged communities in Tijuana. For some of them, the trip to the beach was their own adventure: seeing the ocean and tasting salt water for the first time.

Photos courtesy of Kim Chambers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.