How A 73 Year Old Grandma Convinced Me To Swim In The Pacific Ocean

I love my local community pool. I’ve met a diverse and fascinating group of people during my morning swims. Lately I’ve been conversing more with a woman named Catherine.

SF Parks And Rec pool, baby! I support the local government. (excuse the yellow tinge, #nofilter to keep it real)

Catherine is a 73 year old lady who was born in Switzerland. She came to the US in her mid-twenties, and she previously worked as a community nurse practitioner. She has a son and two grandchildren. She’s lived in the same San Francisco Mission district apartment for 40 years (Hello, can we say RENT CONTROL).

Catherine and I during a hike in the Canadian Rockies. That story is for another time. Let’s focus on swimming now.

On a Thursday morning, we have a casual pool locker room conversation. We stumble across the topic of open water swimming (aka swimming in an open body of water, such as an ocean or lake)

“I want to try open water swimming one day.” I say.
“Oh yes, you should try it. It’s amazing. I swim at Aquatic Park.” replies Catherine. (Aquatic Park is the northern part of San Francisco where people can swim in the Bay waters)
“Oh really?! How long have you been going?”
“For fifteen years.”
“Wow, okay. Hopefully I can make it up there one of these weekends.”

I tell myself to look into Aquatic Park. I never do though, indicating my actual motivation for swimming in the ocean.

The following Tuesday morning, I see Catherine again at the pool. In between swimming laps, we have a conversation in our goggles and swim caps.

“Did you go to Aquatic Park this past weekend?” Catherine asks.
“No. I didn’t. It’s sorta a hassle to get there. I have no idea what I’m doing. And I don’t have a car.”
“Oh, I have a car. I can drive you.”

Crap, I think. I have no way out. But wait, maybe I can play the Cantonese “máfan” card- I don’t want to trouble her by having her give me a ride.

“Oh, that’s great.” I try to say enthusiastically. “But I don’t want to inconvenience you. I know San Francisco driving can be a burden.”
“Where do you live?” Catherine asks.

Catherine and I discover we live five blocks from each other. Crud; I have no excuse. I have to go now.

“I’ll text you about when to go.” Catherine says “I follow the tides using my iPhone app, and they are low this weekend.”
“Uh, okay.” I say “Do I need a wetsuit?”
“No.” Catherine says “I don’t use a wetsuit. I have Nordic blood and don’t need one. You don’t need one either.”

Hm… I am skeptical and think I will freeze to death.

Later that day I start googling to find out more information. The ocean water will be about 60°F. The normal indoor pool temperature is 80°F. Sounds like I should use a wetsuit. I google more.

To wetsuit or not to wetsuit? Zat is zee question.

Most articles advise getting a wetsuit.

So what do I decide? No wetsuit. Too lazy to rent or buy one. I call it “minimalism.” Some call it “stupidity.” You decide.

Later that week Catherine and I exchange text messages, and I agree to subject myself to the freezing depths of the Pacific Ocean.

On Saturday morning at 7am sharp, Catherine picks me up. I get into the passenger seat of her car.

“Are you scared?” Catherine asks.
“YES!” I reply.

She calms my nerves and says if I don’t like it, I don’t have to force myself. She will still swim regardless. I take comfort in the fact that I won’t be holding back a 73 year old lady.

We drive to Aquatic Park and find parking. Then I follow Catherine as she walks along the coast and eventually into her swim club, South End Rowing Club. I get dressed and mentally prepare myself to meet my doom.

The morning sunrise. Pretty to look at. Terrifying to swim in.

This Saturday was also the day of the Alcatraz Race, so there were 900+ swimmers doing the 1.4 mile swim from the Alcatraz island to the coast. Meanwhile, I’m trying to muster the courage to put my toe in the water.

Catherine glides into the water. I step in. It’s FREEZING. I slowly ease my way in and the biting cold overtakes me.

I am not a white male. But I can relate to his emotion here. We have that in common.

Eventually my shoulders go underneath water. Fellow swimmers notice it’s my first time, and they all encourage me.

“Who are these crazy people who swim here?” I think.

Eventually I decide to bite the bullet and put my head under. I swim a few strokes.

“BAUUUGHHH, why is the water so murky?! It’s pitch dark. I can’t see anything. A shark will eat me. Bleh, all this salt water. I can’t breath. I already intake too much MSG with all the Chinese dried squid snacks I eat. I don’t need more sodium intake. Aiyah, I will die of sodium overdose!!”

All these thoughts circulate my head in .0489 seconds.

I come up for air and look around. I remember the advice a fellow swimmer told me in the locker room- swim at least 100 strokes and you’ll forget about the cold.

I decide to do that. I swam 100 strokes in the pitch black, salty water.

I come up again for air. Salt lingers in my mouth. But I realize my body is no longer as cold. And that I’m out in the water and can look back at the San Francisco skyline.

San Francisco skyline, as seen from zee ocean

It is stunning seeing a different view of San Francisco.

“Hey, this is pretty cool, after all.” I think.

I decide to continue. I swim through the cove opening to see the Golden Gate Bridge.

View of Golden Gate bridge from zee ocean

Wow. It is beautiful. What an experience. I was in the water for about 30 minutes.

And then it got hella cold so I decided to get out.

After the swim, I shower and change at the club. I was incredibly proud of myself for trying something new. Meanwhile, all the Alcatraz race swimmers were finishing up. I was inspired by the sense of community.

Later that weekend I text Catherine.

“Have you ever considered doing the Alcatraz swim? I’m curious about it.”
She replies within 10 minutes “Yes, I have done it two times. You will do it too!”

I have been schooled by Catherine.