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‘There’s a Joy in Making These Swims Bigger Than Myself’

In advance of her long-distance swim from the United States to Mexico, Kim Chambers talks about swimming as a uniting force. 

Kim Chambers.

Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about our relationship with the natural world, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the May 2017 Great Outdoors Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 


Occupation:
World record–holding marathon swimmer; community engagement manager for Adobe
Age: 39
Residence: San Francisco

San Francisco: In 2015, you became the first woman ever to swim solo from the Farallones to the Golden Gate Bridge. How did you get so involved in long-distance swimming?
Kim Chambers: I was on my way to work and I was wearing really high heels. I slipped down the stairs of my apartment. I hit my head and then my leg on this ceramic pot. I just thought it was going to be really bruised. But the blunt force trauma to my right leg resulted in massive swelling. I went to work, and then I passed out and the next thing I remember is waking up and having the doctors tell me, “We saved your leg, but we don’t know what—if any—functionality you’ll ever have.” I spent two years learning how to walk again. I had all these awful angry red scars and was still limping. That’s why I got up the nerve to go to the pool, even with those painful scars—I was seeking a sense of freedom. And then I started swimming in the bay. That first day was like a rebirth—I couldn’t stop grinning. It’s such an electrifying feeling that I don’t feel on land. I joined the Dolphin Club, and I’ve been swimming in the bay every day since. It’s my church.

What is it like to do these marathon swims in such harsh conditions? Your last expedition was in November, leading a team of swimmers across the Dead Sea—the first people ever to do so.
We were like this swimming science experiment. I had to put Vaseline in places I wouldn’t have dreamed of putting it. The salt burned my eyes like acid. But it was amazing. I am wired to have a goal, and I just go after it. I need that purpose to be fulfilled, to feel like I’m working toward something.

Your previous swims have been big, record-breaking expeditions—that Farallones swim, say, or completing the Oceans Seven [an extreme-swimming checklist of daunting straits and channels]. But lately, your projects have been for humanitarian causes. Why is that?
When I set out to do these solo swims, it was from gratitude that I was able to move; this freedom and love of adventure that became a quest to see how long I could push myself mentally, to regain a sense of self that I’d lost. But over time, I’ve realized there’s a joy in making these swims bigger than myself, through a charity or a purpose. With the Dead Sea, we got the Israeli and Jordanian governments to work together and let us do the swim. We rallied around an international cause, to draw attention to the threats of climate change there. That gave me heart and hope.

Your next swim will be political, too: On Cinco de Mayo, you’ll swim from the U.S. to Mexico, around the border wall, raising money for the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. What is the message you want to be sending with this swim?
We thought about all the negativity in the world post-election. What’s anybody doing that’s positive? I decided that I’d put together an international team to swim from the U.S. to Mexico around the wall. For us, it’s about human rights: Can’t we agree as humans that every life is valuable? The Colibrí Center is named for the Spanish word for hummingbird. Hummingbirds migrate freely between North and South America, and they’re also an indigenous symbol. We’re not politicians: We’re swimmers and a human rights organization. But at a broad level, can’t we center on empathy for others? Here are people dying, risking everything for opportunity that we all take for granted. The vast majority of these migrants are trying to make their next generation better than this one. We’re using the metaphor of water as connecting us all. It’s an expression of kindness.

How are you getting ready for it?
I’ve spent every waking hour on international Skype calls with team members from South Africa, Mexico, Israel, the United States, and New Zealand. When you’re rallying around a cause, real magic can happen. All of our decisions, the logistics, we all organically run with what we’re best at. And with disagreements, we’re still respectful. We call it the Pan-American Colibrí swim. Twelve swimmers. Everyone on the team is propelled forward by whatever each person is drawn to.

What will the swim itself be like?
It all depends on what’s happening in the water that day. But we’ll likely start south of San Diego, at Imperial Beach. It’ll be about six miles—four hours of swimming—and we’ll swim around the wall, into Mexican waters, and land in Tijuana to be met by Mexican authorities. There’s a problem with raw sewage in Tijuana right now, so we’ll have to deal with that—but if I have to end up in hospital for a day or so, I’ve done it before! And everyone will be swimming together, as a group, all as one, five nations. That’s symbolic.

 

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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