Ajae Nails Her Catalina Channel Swim
By OWO Member Karen Stark
On August 15–16th, 2021, Ajae Clearway swam and completed the Catalina Channel crossing in 12 hours, thirty-eight minutes, and thirty seconds. In preparation, she swam in just about every condition: large swells and currents, cold water, fog, red tide, and the dark. Her training took her from weekends on Catalina Island to San Diego — and every beach in between up to Santa Barbara.
The pandemic — and turning 50 — gave her time for reflection as she pushed forward in her training and moved into the next chapter of her life. Ajae has also completed swims in the Potomac, around Manhattan, Coronado Island, and two stages of SCAR. Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with my fellow mermaid to discuss her stellar Catalina crossing.
At what age did you start swimming?
I’m not a lifelong swimmer. I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up on swim teams. I just always loved the water, especially jumping into cold water. I started training to swim seriously when I was 30 and living in New York City for the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.
Do you remember when you fell in love with swimming?
For me, there wasn’t a specific time I remember falling in love with swimming per se, but rather it was about enjoying being in the water. My big swims have always been a ceremonial thing for me — a feeling of connectedness to the area. I had lived in New York for eight years, and it was a huge transition for me after 9/11. I wanted to say goodbye to New York in a spiritual, meditative way.
What prompted you to attempt your first marathon swim?
When I was living in New York, I rollerbladed every day to and from work on the Hudson River, and it connected me to the water. I think it’s important to be connected to nature, especially living in the city. At the time, I was part of the Downtown Boathouse community. We’d kayak in the Hudson and offer free kayak experiences to the public. It was a fun community.
I became an Official Observer for the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim for two years and was inspired by a 17-year-old Indian woman who had been open water swimming all over the world. And by an Australian man who was blind and disabled in his hands and legs. His coach whistled to help direct him, and he successfully swam around Manhattan. I was so moved and impressed; it inspired me to do it. So, I started swimming and training. The first time I applied to swim Manhattan, I was denied because I didn’t have a swim resume, which motivated me even more.
I joined a Master’s swim team called the Red Tide and started training more seriously. Stints of six hours in the pool and training for the cold by swimming at Coney Island when there was snow on the sand. I had my Master’s team and a few coaches, but it was piecemeal. I was pretty much on my own with my training plan. I didn’t have a consistent community of people like at OWO to swim with and support me through the process.
Did you swim between the time you lived in New York and California?
It’s been a lifetime between the two swims. I went to grad school, got married, had a baby who is now ten. I completed my Manhattan swim in June of 2003, then left New York and moved to Austin. I swam in Austin, but it wasn’t endurance swimming. I played a lot in the water on Town Lake, Barton Springs, and Lake Travis.
When I moved to Austin in the fall of 2003, I joined the H2HOs. It was and still is a renegade, feminist, synchronized performance swim group created after 9/11. I had never done synchronized swimming before, but they let me join. It was like theater in the water, but where you could relax, have fun, and not be perfect. My now-husband, Jess Haas, and I moved to Los Angeles from Austin in 2009 for work.
Congratulations on your recent Catalina Channel swim. What made you attempt this swim?
It took me a while to feel at home in Los Angeles. I finally decided to reconnect with the water and try ocean swimming. I found One With the Ocean (SMOG at the time) and had heard about people swimming the Catalina Channel. I approached Bryan after joining OWO and told him I wanted to swim Catalina. He told me it was a good goal, but swimming an open channel is MUCH different from swimming in a lake, river, or around an island where you can always see the shore and have a reference point. And it’s true. Manhattan was wonderful and an amazing way to see the city, but it’s different from swimming Catalina because you can always see the land, and you have the current with you.
The best advice Bryan gave me was to spend time in the water. And he was right. I have learned over the past year that the ocean has so many personalities. We’ve all been through it together. When the pandemic hit, we could no longer meet in a large group. Still, we had smaller groups, and I feel so grateful for those groups sticking it out, swimming almost every day, and supporting each of our different goals and challenges.
Seeing the ocean in its seaweedy, soupy days, super rough days, red tide, oil, and full of dolphins — we’ve seen every iteration. The ocean is a living being, one for whom I have so much respect and appreciation. It saved me during this pandemic time. The ocean gives us life and having spent so much time in it this last year has changed me.
The stars were aligned for your Catalina swim! Any challenges you care to share with us? What was your favorite part of the swim?
The boat chartered from San Pedro was called the Bottom Scratcher, and Kevin was the captain. My team included my husband Jess and coach Dan Simonelli as kayakers. My three close friends Angela, Summer, and Mitch, were the support crew. We left around 8 pm, and it took about two and a half hours to get to Catalina from San Pedro.
I slept on the boat on the way over and took my time getting ready when we got to Doc’s Cove. Summer graciously greased me up to keep me from chafing. When I first got into the water, it was dark and beautiful, and the water felt nice. It was about 70 degrees. When I started swimming, it felt like I was swimming through a bucket of pickles. There were so many of them, and they had the texture of a pickle. I looked up and asked Dan, “What am I swimming with?” As it turned out, they were pyrosomes (sea pickles)!
As I swam through the evening, it became so magical. It was pitch black everywhere, but when I swam, it was like looking down into a never-ending galaxy of constellations as I floated over the water. Some of the pyrosomes lit up and had neon striations, and there were tiny bioluminescent creatures that sparkled in the water. I wish more people could experience a night swim and see the ocean differently.
It’s hard to imagine that if more people could see the infinite beauty of the ocean that it would continue to be polluted with so much toxic waste. So, the night was the best part; I felt good and strong. Then the sun came up, and it was like a slow and subtle emergence of light into morning.
The conditions were nice and calm at night, but the wind and the current picked up in the morning. It was more challenging in the second half. I felt good most of the way, but then my left shoulder started hurting at about mile 15 — it was all I could do to lift my arm. I started doing backstroke to stretch. Dan helped me as I started to fatigue and said, “Keep it tight and rotate, don’t extend, and shorten your stroke.” Of course, you’re not going to get as much distance when you don’t extend, but that’s okay when the alternative is excruciating pain. Fortunately, I was able to finish strong by switching my stroke. I just focused on each moment.
Triple Crown swimmer and Catalina Observer Linda Simons advised me to not think of the whole distance and just get to the next feed. That was helpful. And she also said, “Don’t look ahead.” And I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by it, but now I understand because the last four or five miles you can see the shore, and you think you’re there — so close — but you’re not. Those last few miles were tough and took forever. At that point, I was swimming against the current, but I had a pod of dolphins swimming with me, so that picked up my spirits.
There were times when I was cold, and my arm was killing me, but there was never a time when I thought, I can’t do this, or that I wouldn’t finish. That was never an option. And Angela and Summer jumped in at the end, and both Jess and Dan kayaked me in. Even Pam and Pengfei surprised me on the beach with hugs and doughnuts, which was a great celebration. I felt on top of the world. And then more friends and family, including you, KB at the marina, such a gift!
What advice would you give someone who loves open water swimming and is looking to move into the arena of marathon swimming? Are there any lessons you learned?
I would say go for it! Just break it down into small pieces. Don’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of it. Practice your feedings. Know what gives you energy and try different foods. Swim in different conditions, swim in the cold, swim at night, and at different times of the day. And build your time in the water, but break it down into small chunks and take it from there. Most of all, enjoy the ocean and the swim community we are so lucky to have here in Southern California!
In the beginning, I thought I would just quietly train and attempt this on my own. That way, no one would know if I made it or not. Fear of failure. The real joy and lesson for me was in allowing people to support me and be a part of it. The truth is I would never have succeeded if it weren’t for the support, advice, camaraderie, accountability, and time in the water with the OWO community. And in particular, Angela Lee who went above and beyond by becoming a kayaker and Official Observer and supporting me on many training swims at all hours of the day and night.
Since you’ve completed two-thirds of the Triple Crown of swimming, any desire to complete it?
I don’t know. Not at this time — but you never know! For me, endurance swims are about my relationship to the area, not about completing a race. I don’t have a connection to England, so I don’t think completing the English Channel is in my future.
When I swam around Manhattan, New York had been my life for eight formative years. Making my home here in Southern California inspired me to swim the Catalina Channel, so I don’t know what’s next for me in terms of a marathon swim. I’m an adventure swimmer, not an elite swimmer. It’s about being in the water — how it relaxes and rejuvenates your mind and body, appreciating and experiencing the wild ocean, and connecting with community and place.