Alcatraz Sharkfest 2003 – Rose Triumphs

By P.H. Mullen

SAN FRANCISCO, September 24. YES, Erica Rose! She Wins Again! Yes, She Smiles! Yes, She’s Beloved!

None of this is news. Erica Rose usually wins. She usually smiles. And she’s probably beloved everywhere she goes.

Rose burst out of the water first at last weekend’s 11th Annual Alcatraz Sharkfest in San Francisco Bay, taking the large crowd by surprise. What was a woman doing ahead of 800 mostly male swimmers? And where was her wetsuit?

The audience provided a long, sustained applause for the young woman who had just raced through San Francisco’s frigid waters wearing only a Speedo while men three times her size huddled inside wetsuits and neoprene bathing caps.

Rose stood on the shore of Aquatic Park awkwardly, a little embarrassed by the attention, a little modest. This wasn’t a hard victory for her; after all, she was a ringer.

Rose is the female face of U.S. open-water swimming. The Northwestern University senior is a former world champion in the 5k event. She’s captured numerous national titles in the 5k and 10k. She’s won professional FINA races and returned the prize money to maintain her amateur status. She’s even triumphed in China, having snared gold before 100,000 spectators in last year’s inaugural Yangtze River Race.

Rose was first in 25:39, followed by New York’s Chad Jensen (wetsuit) in 26:12, and southern California’s James Bergen (wetsuit) in 26:24.

The magical Alcatraz Sharkfest rarely attracts racers of Rose’s pedigree. The water is too cold for them. It’s not a money race. It’s not especially competitive. It’s not affiliated with the region’s high-powered, open-water circuit. In the past, some winners have not received trophies. This year, the organizers ran out of T-shirts.

It is a shame so many top-level swimmers miss this annual event, because for all that it isn’t, the Alcatraz Sharkfest reigns supreme in one essential, indisputable area: It is the premier bragging race in American short open-water swimming.

This is the one swimming race your friends will want to hear about. This is the one swimming race that strangers will inquire about when they see you wearing a Sharkfest T-shirt. Your relatives visiting San Francisco will gaze at the ugly prison on Alcatraz Island nearly two miles from shore and wonder how any swimmer could survive the predatory sharks and the malevolent currents. You get to smile ah-shucks. This will last for years, because your relatives will ask the very same question every time they visit.

The Sharkfest knows how to play it up. Everything about the event is gritty, beginning with organizer Dave Horning, himself an intrepid open-water swimmer who leans toward extreme, never-tried-before challenges like swimming the Moscow River, New York City’s Hudson River, and the San Francisco Bay all within a single 24-hour period.

Although Horning encourages people to wear wetsuits in his race, he’d rather see their skin. In his pre-race announcements, he told participants that the final results would include the category “W.S.”, which stood for “wetsuit swimmer” but was pronounced “wuss.” The vast majority of participants wore wetsuits. Only a fraction seemed to think this was funny.

Other races in the San Francisco Bay (notably the world’s fastest and richest open-water race, RCP’s Tiburon Mile) assure swimmers that that no shark attack has ever been recorded inside the Golden Gate Bridge. In contrast, the Sharkfest highlights the risks and dangers. Its logo depicts the open mouth of a Great White, and Horning delights in warning swimmers not to stray too far from the group. In his eye is the glint of a pirate.

Danger, daring, and bragging rights. That’s the allure of Sharkfest. Before the race, you think about the pale, ravenous shark that may be lurking in the green depths. Then waiting for the starter’s horn in the lee of Alcatraz Island, it’s impossible not to consider the lore and legend of the “inescapable” Rock, where America’s most hardened criminals once served time. And afterward, when you’re on shore and happy, amidst the back-slapping and the cups of tepid hot chocolate, you proudly deal with the marrow-cold chill that leaves you shaking for an hour.

If you’re a swimmer, Alcatraz Sharkfest is your personal episode of “Fear Factor.”

At this year’s finish line, a worried, fiftysomething spectator named Sue Matthews stood beaming. Her three adult sons had just successfully completed the race. So had a half dozen additional relatives and friends. They crowded in a circle, each telling his race story. Matthews looked at the island, at her flock, at the island again.

“Thank God you’re all alive!” she suddenly cried. She flung her arms open and tried to hug everyone at once.

How many races get that kind of reaction? When your mom thanks the heavens that you survived a race, you know it was a cool swim.

P.H. Mullen swam this year’s Alcatraz Sharkfest. About the time he and his pack of several male swimmers thought they were winning with 800 meters to go, Erica Rose was drying off on shore and accepting congratulations.