CAROLYN CLAY Attorney ‘escapes’ from the infamous Rock Challenging open-water Alcatraz race gives a whole new meaning to ‘swimming with the sharks’
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story appeared in the July 11 issue of the Indiana Lawyer, a statewide newspaper for lawyers published by IBJ Media. Women in Business editor Della Pacheco added to the original story. Carolyn Clay has been swimming for as long as she can remember. The 29-year-old attorney at Indianapolis law firm Haskin Lauter LaRue & Gibbons was a competitive swimmer in high school and college. Now she’s a member of a local master’s swim team in Indianapolis, Indy SwimFit, which conducts its own swim competitions.
But none of those swims in safe, sharkfree, heated pools, was like her experience competing June 10 in the Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim from the infamous former federal penitentiary to San Francisco’s shore.
In her first try at the difficult open-water competition, Clay earned a first-place finish in her age category (women’s 25-29), 40th overall and fifth among all women competing in the 1-1/2 mile race. Her time was 31 minutes and 19 seconds. Eight hundred swimmers from throughout the country competed.
“Carolyn is the kind of person who can do whatever it is she sets out to do,” said Kris Houchens, head coach of Indy SwimFit. “She sets a goal, prepares well towards that goal and always seems to be able to rise to the occasion and surpass her goal.”
Event tests swimmers’ mettle
Competitors in Alcatraz Sharkfest have to be dedicated swimmers who have trained well, said Dave Horning, executive producer for Stinson Beach, Calif.-based Enviro-Sports Productions Inc. and race director.
“They don’t just show up,” he said. “You have to be trained for the yardage and be psychologically ready to be able to jump off the ferry at Alcatraz, tread water for a while before you have to swim across a treacherous, swirling, cold current.”
The race Web site describes the Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim as “the swim the Anglin Brothers and Frank Lee Morris attempted in their successful escape from Alcatraz on the night of June 12, 1962.” No one knows for sure whether it was, indeed, successful because no sightings of the three convicts were ever made. “That’s definitely part of the aura of this whole event,” Horning said.
The currents in the San Francisco Bay are known to be some of the most dangerous in the world, but race organizers time the event with the tides to keep the swimmers safe. The course is designed with specific markers that swimmers must make. Swim too far in the wrong direction and you’ll end up fighting the current, but boats are stationed nearby to pick up weary competitors. The finish line is a 50-yard-long spot along the beach at Aquatic Park.
Despite the event’s name, no sharks have been sighted in the water near Alcatraz since the 1960s.
“If there were sharks, we wouldn’t be doing it,” Horning said.
But when Clay hit the water, it wasn’t the tides or a fear of sharks that were her main concern. “The cold was the worst,” she said. “I wore a full wet suit, but some people didn’t, and that’s just insane.”
When Clay entered the 60-degree water, she thought “What am I doing? Is this a good idea?” she said-then the numbness set in and she kept swimming.
“Everyone started in a pack, and as you go along less people are together,” she said. “I looked to my left and my right and thought, ‘Where is everyone?'”
This wasn’t Clay’s first open-water swim. “I prefer open water,” Clay said. “I’ve done a race in Chicago, but (Alcatraz) was the first pretty big one.”
Swimming with a purpose
This swim was also different from most because she wasn’t swimming just for herself but also to raise funds for the American Cancer Society in memory of her dad, who died from gastrointestinal cancer in 2002.
He would have been 67 the day she started raising pledges on a Web site she set up through the Cancer Society.
Clay has raised more than $7,000 toward her $10,000 goal and donations are still coming in. A number of the donors are attorneys in Indianapolis. She also received contributions from friends and family.
“You think people forget because they don’t call, but some of my dad’s friends and family members contributed, so I know they haven’t forgotten,” Clay said.
To celebrate the race, Clay and her mother flew to San Francisco the Friday before, giving them just enough time to tour wineries. “You can’t go to that area of California without going to wine country,” she said.
Clay said the Alcatraz swim won’t be her last competitive race. She plans to continue traveling out of the Midwest for races in open water.
“I’m trying to do one swim a year,” she said, suggesting Bermuda and St. Croix as possible locations.
“A vacation and a swim,” she said. “It’s perfect.”