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Swimming from Alcatraz to heal body and soul

Angela Johnston
The seven Pathstar swimmers from 2013

The sun is just beginning to rise over the glassy water at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park. Karen Wapato is beaming as she emerges from the Bay and peels off her goggles.

“It was better than yesterday,” she says. “I keep on just telling myself, stay calm don’t panic, keep breathing, try to keep my stroke real smooth, as smooth as I can,” she says as she catches her breath.

Wapato has never swum in the ocean before, and it’s her second day swimming in the San Francisco Bay. 

“I can’t believe I am doing it! I can’t believe I am one of these people that swim in the Bay, I’ve joined this elite group.”

Wapato is a public health nurse on the Colville Indian reservation in Washington state. Over the past few years, she’s been battling diabetes and alcoholism in the lives of her patients and in her own. 

Then she heard about Pathstar. It’s an intensive week of health and  wellness education, topped off with a unique challenge -- a one-mile swim across the bay from Alcatraz. The idea is for the lessons of this one week to extend a sense of hope back to the reservation. So, Wapato signed up. It’s only been two days, but she says she’s pretty sure it’s already working.

“I’m not going to be able to hold this inside,” she says. “This is such a wonderful experience and if I succeed I just can’t imagine being able to say I swam Alcatraz.”

Fighting Grim Statistics on the Reservation

Almost a fifth of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives have diabetes. Back in the 90s, Pathstar founder Nancy Iverson saw this grim reality when she worked on a reservation in South Dakota.

“It is 85 to 90 percent unemployment there. The life expectancy is 20 years less than the US. It's real life challenges all the time,” Iverson says.

Iverson is a pediatrician and saw patients on the reservation. She noticed people were coming to her only after they were already really sick.

“I also noticed a mindset of thinking about more what's not available than what is possible,” she added.

Then one day, back in San Francisco, she was on one of her long swims in the Bay, when the idea for Pathstar came to her.

“It was so dark but I was out past Alcatraz just coming out to the Golden Gate Bridge when the sun was coming up and it was so beautiful. I looked back and I saw my support boat with all the swimmers just all silhouetted against it. I felt such awe, I thought, ‘wow! It’s amazing all these people are out here just to see me achieve a goal.’ It's just an amazing thing to be so supported.”

So, with help from her swimming club, Iverson created Pathstar, a week-long intensive program where Native Americans could feel that same sense of support around their health. 

It’s something Theresa Bessette really needed when she signed up for Pathstar. 

“I have diabetes, type 2, I have liver cancer, thyroid, sleep apnea, that’s about it, what I have,” Bessette admits.

Bessette started training for the Alcatraz swim back home, but getting into the Bay made the challenge before her even more real. Still, she says she’s already seeing the positive effects of the training. 

“I’ve lost 40 pounds and I eat healthier, I swim, I exercise, I look forward to exercising every day, and I quit smoking three weeks ago and my lungs are suffering from it right now, but I think I'm going to make it.”

The week of Pathstar training is packed with practice swims, but also yoga sessions, cooking classes, and tours of community gardens like Quesada Gardens in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood.

Pathstar founder Nancy Iverson says the Alcatraz swim is really about training for the bigger challenges these women will face back home -- things like regularly eating healthy and learning how to grow their own vegetables.

“It’s really literally in your face with the swimming but it also evolves during the week that we can start building that into other things,” says Iverson. “Like so you skip breakfast every morning because you don’t have time. So how are you gonna face that challenge rather than just say you can’t do it.”

The Day of the Big Swim

At 6:00am on the day of the big swim, the entire South End Rowing Club is wide awake. Over 50 volunteers and longtime swimmers are gathered in the lounge overlooking the bay. They’re waiting to hear which of the seven Pathstar swimmers they’ll be spotting.

Each participant is paired with two experienced swimmers, or as Nancy Iverson calls them, “swim angels.” Their job is to guide their participant through the tides and around currents. 

Just around 8:00 am, the Pathstar swimmers board a boat to Alcatraz. Swim angels and spectators follow in kayaks and rowboats. After eight practice swims over the past week, this will be the first time these women will all swim as a group from Alcatraz. At about 9:00 am, Theresa Bessette is the first to jump into the water. Her splash is followed by cheers.

Then the rest take the plunge with their swim angels by their side. Spotters follow them closely by boat to make sure all the swimmers are safe. 

Today looks a lot like the morning that inspired Nancy Iverson to create Pathstar over a decade ago – steam is rising with the sun over the water. It’s a perfect day for swimming.

Slow but steady, the group makes its way across the Bay. About an hour in, the swimmers reach the breakwater near Aquatic Park, and then the support kicks in even more. At the entrance to Aquatic Park, a dozen more supporters are waiting, and even though some swimmers have done this before and were faster than the beginners, somehow they all end up together. And they swim the last stretch as a group, giving each other high fives and hugs as they reach the shore. 

For the first time all week, Theresa Bessette is glowing. Karen Wapato also stands tall, with tears of happiness.

“Truly, you know, I’m so glad that each and every one of us made it. That our whole team made together and we came in the same time,” Wapato says.

Wapato says the support she has gotten this past week is what amazes her the most. “It’s so heartwarming that people would do that for us you know make this a reality. I am just overwhelmed.”

Iverson says that on a big scale this year’s program was a huge success. “We just made a whole lot of dreams come true, and we made a whole lot of dreams into reality,” Iverson says.

She says now it’s up to the swimmers to pass that sense of accomplishment on to their community. Theresa Bessette knows she can.

“I know that I can pass it on, and I want to pass it on to my family, my friends, and my two sisters. I’m going to make sure that I have a healthy liver and I want to rebuild that liver and I want live until I’m 100 years old and I want to come down and swim again and again and again,” Bessette says.

For most people, this one-mile swim from this prison island is about escape and freedom. In a way, it is for these these swimmers, too. 

However, the cold water and the crosscurrents between Alcatraz and the shore no longer stand for what isn’t possible. For these swimmers, they stand for what is.

The 2014 Pathstarswim starts on October 5th and continues through the 13th.

This piece first aired on November 12th, 2013.

Angela Johnston is the Senior Producer of Uncuffed and an editor in the KALW newsroom. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and graduated from KALW’s Audio Academy program. She’s worked for KALW in numerous roles - from the deputy news director, to the health and environment reporter, and she's covered everything from lead poisoning to climate change. Her work has aired on KALW, KQED, Reveal, and The Pulse. She also freelances as a producer and editor for Cosmic Standard and AFAR Media. Outside of work, she loves to swim in the bay, surf small waves on her longboard, read, backpack, cook, and garden.