By Melissa Berkay, Swimming World College Intern
The Arch Academy Zombies relay swim team of San Diego, California has defied the odds of what limitations, stereotypes, and misconceptions hinder the success of student-athletes with particular challenges. Having achieved three channel swims, a Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association record-first relay crossing, and a Guinness Book world record, the Zombies are training hard to continue earning success in and out of the classroom.
The team is dramatically raising the bar of what success is possible for disabled individuals, and using those obstacles as strengths. The relay team members are a group of motivated and determined student-athletes who are generally viewed as individuals with limited potential due to struggles with autism, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, ADHD, substance abuse, and other issues.
Lead by Arch Academy founder, Cheryl (Zak) Allcock, the Zombies have been plowing through the social barriers associated with these challenges by becoming champions in the sport of open water swimming and prodigious students in the classroom. Through swimming, these students have been able to excel in the classroom and in the water.
“I decided to start a school where there was a niche between kids that have really high IQs who also have problems; so far it has worked out. I got them involved with swimming and we have come far,” Allcock said.
The Zombies relay team was initiated in 2014 with the participation of 14 students, each with one or more of the challenges listed above. The team members join open water coach and marathon swimmer Dan Simonelli along with Allcock for open water training. Allcock’s son, Cooper Zak, serves as their assistant coach. Training initially began in the pool, but the Zombies quickly shifted gears to exclusively training in the ocean for a minimum of three times a week. A few weeks before relay swims, the team trains over five times a week.
In June of 2014, individual team members accomplished their first open water solo swim, the 1.5-mile Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim. After their positive experience in the open water, the Zombies chose to reach for a bigger goal– the Catalina Channel crossing. Nighttime training swims were added to their training schedule, and on September 5, 2014, the Zombies left the Catalina Island shore just before midnight. They swam to Palos Verdes, California, finishing the 21-mile relay in just under 12 hours. The team was immersed in being there for each other and sticking together as teammates to motivate each other during the crossing.
“The kids were concerned with being supportive of one another and it was their loyalty to each other along with their unbreakable bond that lead to their success. The team’s collective mindset is not in the competitive bubble. That has been one of their strengths,” Allcock said.
The Catalina Channel success inspired Allcock and the students to train to cross the English Channel, and in the year leading up to the crossing, the Zombies trained in colder water to acclimate to the channel temperatures. Every team member did their part in bringing their English Channel relay to a victorious crossing in June of 2015.
“The parents that are here are usually told that their child is never going to be on a team and cannot participate in a sport; they cannot go on trips or on a bus. Now some of those parents were able to see their kids complete the English Channel,” Allcock said.
On September 24, 2015, only three months after their English Channel crossing, 12 members of the Zombie relay team swam for 27 hours and ten minutes, setting a record-first swim by being the first relay team in the world to cross the Southern California Channel Islands. This feat was a 41-mile stretch from Santa Barbara Island to Anacapa Island, two of the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast.
In addition to their Southern California Channel record swim, the Zombies had previously been penned into the Guinness Book of World Records. They participated with their local rotary club in a world-wide event involving swimming in the water at the same time to raise money for polio. On February 25, 2012, the Zombies and swimmers from 64 different locations around the world swam 100 meters simultaneously for the cause.
“Swimming is great for the kids, but difficult since they rarely get cheered on and not many individuals think that they are great or have the potential to achieve great things,” Allcock said. “Many people don’t think it’s a big deal. Some kids on the team are autistic. You are dealing with fear, swimming at night and they have to learn things that they are not used to. It can be a difficult sport to get recognition for, so we decided to set up a GoFundMe to help us travel and complete the marathon relay swims.”
If an individual is autistic, there is a likely chance that those individuals would not be encouraged to swim in the open ocean. The youngest Zombie team member is 11 years old and non-verbal, but has trained to swim two miles continuously in the ocean.
“Autistic individuals I have had are naturals in the ocean; they love the waves and the current changes. The sole problem is, they just keep going, so you have to tell them to stop. They are not the only ones who benefit from swimming; some of the bipolar kids get pissed off and do not sleep. Swimming regulates their sleeping schedule, food intake, and their bodies and minds as a whole. It is beneficial for their academic day and for achieving a balanced life,” Allcock said.
When a student achieves academic success, athletic success, and/or accomplishes a personal goal, they are acknowledged and celebrated at Arch Academy. All students are on a college preparatory track. The Zombies have encountered naysayers and negative feedback on a regular bases, but use that feedback as a motivational catalyst to train harder as opposed to reacting to it as an interference.
“Many people thought we could not achieve what we have achieved. If someone tells us we cannot do it, it is usually very helpful. Then we are going to do it,” Allcock said.
The Zombies received a letter from President Obama for recognition of their superlative accomplishments and have also received recognition from the San Diego Mayer, Kevin Faulconer. In addition, Allcock received a community service award from President Obama for the scope of her success at Arch Academy.
“There are only 50 of us in the country who received the community service award. We are currently attempting to receive a spotlight on ‘CNN Heroes’ to talk about the program and how we have created the program,” Allcock said.
Up next in August, The Zombies relay team will face the 28.5 miles on their crossing from Molokai to Oahu. They had a choice of either swimming in the Winter in 20-foot waves or crossing in the Summer when sharks are prevalent. Allcock and the team decided to cross in the Summer, with a window on August 3rd. In the long-term picture, the team has set their sights on completing the Oceans Seven, a series of 7 marathon swims around the world, and an ample achievement in the world of marathon swimming.
“The Ka’iwi (Molokai) Channel swim has the potential of being our toughest swim and pushing the Zombies to their limits. The winds and surface conditions will likely be the roughest they’ve experienced, and on top of that we’ll likely be dealing with jellyfish and possibly shark encounters. So, stay tuned,” said Simonelli.
Allcock will be joining the relay as well. Her husband, John Allcock, who serves as a board member for Arch Academy, will also be participating in the upcoming swim. Allcock’s son and assistant coach Cooper Zak will be hopping into the Hawaiian water as well.
Allcock performs her responsibilities as Head of School, including round-the-clock availability to families as the school’s licensed social worker. She leads the Zombies’ relay team while managing her own battle with multiple sclerosis, inspirationally teaching by example that limitations of any kind can be exceeded. So far the team has endured vigorous training, seasickness, ten-foot swells during training swims, jellyfish stings, anxiety attacks, night swimming, and have acclimated to water temperatures in the low 50’s without fins or wetsuits.
“One of the most important lessons we have learned as a team is that if it hurts, it is temporary,” Allcock said.
Diana Linney, a Zombie team-member and a 2016 graduate, is set to participate in the Molokai to Oahu marathon relay swim this coming August and will remain a loyal team member throughout her collegiate studies. She is looking to return to team training during the future summer seasons to help the Zombies master the Ocean Seven.
Adopted from Romania as a toddler, Linney overcame her own hardships, including homelessness, by thriving in the open water and having her sights set on attending college in August. She will be attending Mills College in the fall of 2016. Linney represents the core qualities and values of what each and every Arch Academy team member embodies– teamwork, respect, integrity, character, and leadership.
“I like being a part of the team because I am a strong swimmer and I can help the younger swimmers. I am not good at a lot of things, like I don’t have good social talents or hidden talents, but swimming is my specialty. It feels good to help people and be able to do something I am good at,” said Linney.
By their example, the Zombies hope to change how society views all individuals and children with comparable challenges and disabilities. Their strong bonds as teammates and their swimming accomplishments have been dominant components to this. They also sincerely and genuinely appreciation the opportunities and the support they have received through the sport of marathon swimming.
“Training these students for open water swims has worked so well, but it is unorthodox. It’s just not the conventional activity that people would usually do. However this atypical design of empowering these individuals has resulted in success,” Allcock said.