It’s still dark when Maryam Sharifzadeh glides into San Francisco Bay to start swimming. The endless stretch of murky ocean water registers a speed of 54 degrees and is cold enough to send a bone-chilling chill through the body of even the most experienced swimmer.
But today, as the city around her remains silent, Sharifzadeh is focused on the task ahead: becoming the second person, and the first woman, to swim 22 miles around the San Francisco shoreline. With his dedicated crew ready to keep an eye on other ship traffic, changing tides, and unexpected dangers, Sharifzadeh kicks his legs to stay warm and watches the sun begin to appear over the city skyline. Time to swim.
In essence, swimming in open water as a sport is something simple. According to Swimming united states, “Open water swimming offers the purest form of running, where athletes compete against their fellow competitors and not against the clock.” When it comes to open water swimming versus pool swimming, “running strategies, along with conditions, are constantly changing, making adaptability a key skill.”
So while the technical aspects of swimming vary greatly from pool to open water, are there recognizable differences from a swimmer’s perspective in training and planning for each type of swim? In short, absolutely.
“It’s misleading because people will think, ‘I’m a good pool swimmer,’ but this is very different,” says Suzanne Heim-Bowen, a third-generation open-water swimmer from San Francisco with more than 45 years of experience. “There is no wall to hold onto. You have to know your outings, always swim with a partner and know your tolerance to different water temperatures. “
Although Heim-Bowen is now a dedicated open water swimmer, like many, her swimming journey began in the pool at a very young age. But it wasn’t until he got to college, attending California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, that his swimming career really took off. In fact, Heim-Bowen was a founding member of the Cal Poly women’s swim team in 1977.
“At that time, there were 16 men’s sports and only four women’s sports,” says Heim-Bowen. “That’s when Title IX was being incorporated. We were interested, so we appealed to the student body president and they said, ‘Yes, go ahead.’
Although Heim-Bowen was an experienced pool swimmer, her fear of the ocean kept her from swimming in open water. But with time and friendly pressure from his teammates, it didn’t take him long to get over that fear. Soon, open water swimming became, as it still is for Heim-Bowen, an addiction.
“So swimming in open water, without wetsuits, was something you could do out of the box,” says Heim-Bowen. “But I bought this poster of the Golden Gate Bridge and left it at the foot of the bed in my bedroom, so every morning I had to wake up and look at this photo because all I really wanted to do was nothing for the Gate.”
From there, Heim-Bowen continued to set bigger swimming goals and, after four decades of open water swimming, he now holds more than 23 Masters world records. Among her most prolific accomplishments, Heim-Bowen was named the 1989 United States Long Distance Swimming Swimmer of the Year and was included in the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame for open water swimming in 2007. Most recently, in 2019, Heim-Bowen completed the Open Water Triple Crown, swimming in the English Channel, Catalina Channel and Manhattan Island.
For Sharifzadeh, who no doubt calls herself a “latecomer” when it comes to swimming, the journey started somewhat differently. After joining his high school swim team as a way to improve his water polo skills, Sharifzadeh gradually began swimming in open water and began traveling abroad to swim. Then in 2018, after the tragic death of his close friend, Nasim, in a charter plane crash, Sharifzadeh found solace in open water swimming as a way to overcome his grief.
“She was woven into the fabric of my being,” says Sharifzadeh of Nasim. “I am who I am because of her. So to lose someone in such a dramatic way, there is a lot of survivor guilt. I channeled that feeling into swimming. ”
As a way to honor Nasim, Sharifzadeh swam 12 miles across Lake Tahoe to raise money for No hungry child, a charity that was very close to Nasim’s heart.
“That was my first real marathon swimming experience,” says Sharifzadeh. “Being able to swim in Tahoe, it’s so blue and deep and beautiful. There are these prisms of sunlight that come out because it is so clear. It really felt like she was dancing in the water with me. It was a very spiritual experience. “
For open water swimmers like Heim-Bowen and Sharifzadeh, historical goals, records and achievements are important milestones, but even more significant are the indescribable sensations that come only with cold, open water swimming. Feelings like the adrenaline rush of hitting cold water, the tranquility of being completely surrounded by Mother Nature, and ultimately the mental and physical healing abilities of water.
“If I’m going through something on my mind, there is no way to escape,” says Sharifzadeh. “I just have to keep swimming. Swimming is a way of really being with yourself that I can’t get anywhere else. You are in the arms of nature. ”
As a long-time member of The swimming and sailing club with dolphins, Heim-Bowen now swims at the San Francisco Water Park on a weekly basis, and although his swimming goals have changed over the years, the incredible feeling of being in the open water remains the same.
“It really calms you down,” says Heim-Bowen. “You can drop all the challenges that were on land, on land and just be in the water. You come back so refreshed physically and mentally. And when it’s cold, it makes you feel so alive. ”
It’s that feeling of being alive that keeps swimmers like Heim-Bowen and Sharifzadeh back in the water again and again.
As for the 22 miles around the bay, it took Sharifzadeh nine hours and 11 minutes to finish, making her the first woman to complete that swim.
“There are many reasons not to do it,” says Sharifzadeh. “But once you get in, it’s very difficult to get out of it.”
Erin Underwood is a contributor to Good sport, a media company dedicated to increasing the visibility of women and girls in sport.
More of Good sport:
• Exclusion to Exclusivity: The Story of the Women Who Run the New York Marathon
• Kate Scott is taking it all as the voice of the Sixers
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.