By Kelley Hudson, Region IX External Affairs
At 7:15 a.m. on a recent clear, chilly morning, two FEMA Region IX staffers took the HealthierFeds Initiative to a whole new depth when Tomas Kaselionis and Heather Duschell from the National Preparedness Division jumped six feet from the side of a boat anchored hard by the infamous Alcatraz prison, into the 58-degree waters of the San Francisco Bay.
This was hardly an escape from Alcatraz for Kaselionis, Duschell and 38 other brave souls, all of whom voluntarily plunged into the deep as part of a 1.25 mile race to the shoreline of San Francisco’s Aquatic Park. “It was only a 6-foot leap,” said Duschell who despite wearing a wet suit, felt the salty sting of San Francisco Bay “When I jumped in, it was like my face was a pin cushion.”
Heather, an avid swimmer, had trained for 10 months for the Alcatraz challenge
Sponsored by Water World Swim, LLC and is designed to test swimmers’ boundaries of stamina and endurance within cold waters. She took on the competition to increase her physical fitness and to conquer a lingering fear of swimming in open waters. After adjusting her goggles and music (yes waterproof ipod), Heather found Tomas, her partner in “crime” and moral support. And they were off.
In the pre-race meeting, the swimmers were briefed that they’d be starting during a slack tide, which eventually would become an ebb current that could carry the unlucky out toward the ocean. “If this was the case, you likely wouldn’t make the 1 hour and 15 minute race time limit, “Heather said. “ And would have to be picked up by a support boat.” “Tomas and I powered through and made it through the opening and to the shore. I savored the whole experience despite feeling like I’d been battling the current for what seemed like eternity.
In only an amazing 50 minutes, Heather and Tomas made landfall at the shoreline of San Francisco’s Aquatic Park. "Today was a life changing event for me," she said. "I have never done anything like this in my life and to train for it, do it, and say that I have done it, is liberating and empowering."
This was not the first swim from Alcatraz for Tomas, Coast Guard Second-class Petty Officer (PO2), surfer and general waterman. “Heather really did something few people would ever attempt, let alone achieve. To embrace the fear of swimming over a mile in deep, cold, and murky water is something really to experience and I was stoked for her”.
Footnote: On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin chipped through their cement cell walls, squeezed through a ventilation shaft to get to the roof, climbed down a drain pipe, scaled a 15-foot fence, and entered the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay. They disappeared into the night, wearing only the meager life preservers they made from stolen rain coats, and were never found, seen, or heard from again.