By Jesse Muñoz/COC Sports Information Director
For the three College of the Canyons swimmers who competed in the 2020 Alcatraz Swim with the Centurions race on Oct. 4, the feelings of personal accomplishment, athletic confidence, and self-empowerment — along with a newfound love for open water swimming — continue to endure in the weeks since the trio successfully made it off 'the Rock'.
"My only goal was to finish without being bitten by a shark," joked sophomore Sierra Young, who participated in the famed open water event for the first time in 2020. "I gained a true and complete understanding that anything is impossible if you do not try. And I realized that I'm stronger than I think."
The decision to enter the race was a spontaneous one, which came about amidst the boredom and inactivity of quarantine, and inspired by legendary 35-year Hart High School swim coach Steve Neale.
"When I was on the swim team at Hart, Coach Neale told us about doing this 'Escape from Alcatraz' race every year, and from the moment he told us I knew I wanted to do it one day," said Young. "Years later, in quarantine, my friends and I were discussing triathlons and open water races in general. It was in this discussion that I remembered Mr. Neale's 'Escape from Alcatraz' swim.
"My teammates and I immediately registered for the race," Young explained. "It was extremely spontaneous! But we figured we had the time to train for it."
COC swimmers Chloe Riddle and Tim Lim joined Young to form the three-person team required to register, despite each only having limited experiences with open water swimming.
"Open water swimming is a lot different than pool swimming because of the current, waves, and other environmental factors like not seeing where you are going," said Riddle, who also swam at Hart before competing at Canyons as a freshman during the shortened 2020 season.
"But swimming at COC has made me a better swimmer than I ever was before," Riddle stated, "and because of that I knew that I could do an open water race if I just trained a bit more."
Tim Lim, the third member of the Canyons trio, also had environmental factors on his mind when registering for the race.
"I was a bit nervous, not by the race distance itself but more of the environment," said Lim, who attended Saugus High School before competing as a freshman at COC in 2020. "I didn't know how cold the water was going to be. Another aspect of open water swimming that worried me was the marine life. Thankfully, I had no encounters."
Hosted by Water World Swim, the 1.25-mile 'Alcatraz Swim' race begins in the waters just beyond the Alcatraz Island shoreline and ends on the shore, in nearby Aquatic Park.
The race is modeled after the historic 'Escape from Alcatraz' prison break on June 11, 1962 involving inmates Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin, in which the group managed to chip through their cement cell walls before eventually entering the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay surrounding Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. The three allegedly made it to shore, having never been seen again.
The events leading up to the incident were later depicted in the 1979 film "Escape from Alcatraz" starring Clint Eastwood, which had been adapted from a book by the same title.
Today, experienced swimmers of all ages annually take the plunge into those same frigid waters, sharing that same exhilarating journey in an open water race event that originally began in 2001.
While the distance and harsh conditions of the race might scare off some potential entrants, Young, Riddle and Lim felt their training as part of the COC swim & dive program would be more than enough preparation, despite their lack of open water experience.
"For every swim practice, we swim well over a mile. My mentality going into the Alcatraz race was to treat it like practice and keep my pace and energy levels consistent," said Young. "Training with my coaches and team last season not only got me into the best shape of my entire life, but helped me develop a strong and motivated mentality."
Riddle and Lim both seemed to concur.
"Swimming at COC has made me a better swimmer than I ever was before," said Riddle. "I knew that with all the training I've done with Coach Sean (Kakumu) and Coach Erik (Johnson), I could finish this race and it would be a fun experience."
"Last season at COC helped tremendously," said Lim, "Our coaches have always helped us push our comfort zone, and a race like this was the ultimate test."
Nevertheless, in the weeks leading up to the October race each swimmer spent some time independently training in the waters of Southern California beaches, and mentally preparing for this new endeavor.
Oddly enough, they decided not to tell their coaches about the upcoming race.
"We actually didn't tell them we were doing the race because we thought that Sean might make us swim the mile at meets, and we did not want that," joked Riddle.
But whatever the collective pre-race training strategy might have been, and despite the initial concerns of cold water (60 degrees at race time), currents, and sharks that the three COC swimmers shared, on race day they were a complete non-factor.
According to the official race results Young was the first female to cross the finish line, and completed the race in spectacular fashion, fourth overall, with a time of 30:15.1
Riddle was not far behind at 32:27.9 to place 10th overall and fourth in the female division.'
Lim took first place in the 'skins division' made up of swimmers without a wetsuit, and was fifth overall.
"The water was pretty cold at first, but after swimming for some time I was able to get used to it," said Lim who wore nothing but a speedo. "Overall the experience was amazing, something I would definitely do again."
Lim also received an added benefit from participating in the race.
"Emotionally it felt great," added Lim. "The pandemic had restricted our ways of challenging ourselves and this opportunity restored that drive."
Same for Young and Riddle who also reached shore filled with a range of feelings and emotions.
"Physically I felt great, and full of energy, like I could have run miles after getting out of the water," said Riddle. "The whole experience was so fun for me and it opened my eyes to what more I can do."
"I could maybe even swim the mile at meets now," she joked.
Young seemed to concur.
"I felt so accomplished and happy after the race, not because of my placement, but because I had finished," said Young. "In that moment when I finished and only saw a few other swimmers on the shore, I realized I was stronger and faster and more powerful than I had ever thought."
After the race the Canyons contingent, who were among the small group of 'first timers' entered into the race, traveled to a nearby diner for a well-deserved celebratory brunch. During the meal they discussed the idea of making the 'Escape from Alcatraz' an annual tradition.
"I have a newfound love for open water swimming," said Riddle.
"Our only goal going into the swim was to finish," said Young. "Now we'd love to go back with times to beat and proper training beforehand."
The experience also caused Young to reflect on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and ways events like the Alcatraz even can combat the pandemic's effect on collegiate student-athletes.
"I've heard college students say we got one of the worst time periods of life for a global pandemic to happen. But I would argue the opposite," said Young. "We are so lucky to be in the healthiest and strongest stage of our lives during this awful pandemic. We are so lucky to be alive and to still have opportunities to accomplish our courses and to still have opportunities to participate in extraordinary things.
"I hope students take advantage of these non-ideal circumstances and do something they have always wanted to do," Young continued. "There are still some opportunities available during the pandemic, that can give athletes something amazing to work towards."
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— Photo courtesy of Chloe Riddle/COC swim & dive