Water Under the Bridge With Kathie Hewko: 94 Golden Gate Swims and Counting

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
Photo Courtesy: Kathie Hewko

By Kat Hall, Swimming World Contributor

When I heard that Kathie Hewko swam under the Golden Gate Bridge 94 times, I assumed she was one of those glory-seeking, humble-bragging strivers. An over-Instagrammed, Type-A adrenaline junkie. I had never swum under the Golden Gate, but I knew it was a treacherous stretch of open water.

More than 300 feet deep and greater than 1,900 meters from shore to shore, it is actually a strait, a narrow segment where the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay smash together. This intersection brings tremendous risk for a swimmer; the water from the Pacific is cold and salty, freight traffic is frequent and unpredictable, and winds are high and convectional, bringing terrifying swells that can produce waves as high as fifteen feet above the surface.

The deepest part of the bay, the bottom of the water under the bridge, will never be visible to a swimmer, and what’s unseen will always provoke terror. What’s more, the Pacific is teeming with sea lice, microscopic parasites that cause skin rashes, headache, chills, fever, and nausea. Large marine life habitats there, too. In 2017, a kitesurfer hit a breaching humpback whale. Plus, almost a dozen species of sharks have been found to breed in its turbulent waters. As recent as 2015, tourists captured for the first time on video a bloodbath between a great white shark and a seal.

I was terrified of all of these things, but what scared me the most was the rough water. I was still working through my fear of waves after surviving what was known as “maytagging” on a nearby beach. I often hyperventilated in rough conditions, shivered in the cold water, vomited from swallowing facefuls of waves, and had multiple rescues by boats right in the middle of a swim.

How had Kathie completed so many crossings in such harsh conditions, fighting strong currents, choppy water, and unrelenting winds? Was she like one of those punishing ultra-runners, who saw their shoes melting in 120-degree heat as a sign of personal weakness? Since we both belonged to one of San Francisco’s swimming clubs, I had to ask her.

When I met Kathie, her mischievous smile, pink-rimmed glasses, and socks dotted with beluga whales indicated that she might not be the kind of striver I was expecting. Tall and lean, at 73, she had the playful demeanor of someone amused by the world’s shortcomings.

She was perched on a couch, positioned towards a view of the iconic landmark, when she told me about her first gate. The morning had been so early it could have been nighttime and San Francisco had been so silent it could have been buried under snow. No cable cars grated against steel tracks, no traffic staggered downtown, and Kathie gorged on chocolate donuts, giggling and excited as she drove to Fort Point.

kathie hewko 3

Photo Courtesy: Kathie Hewko

It would be her first time in water outside the walls of Aquatic Park. At the time, women weren’t allowed to swim outside of the cove without a man accompanying them, and the swimming clubs were only open to men. Eventually, a group of women sued all of them (the Dolphin Club, South End Rowing Club, and the Ariel Club) and won. Kathie joined the South End soon thereafter. It was 1977, and she was only 30 years old. Synthetic wetsuits, polycarbonate goggles, silicone earplugs, and many comforts most take for granted today didn’t exist.

Kathie climbed into a boat with a few other swimmers, and a stinging wind crossed her skin. She took a look at the water under the Golden Gate up close. She was drawn to the promise of turmoil, thrilled by the anticipation of the unknown, and captivated by the enormity of the structure above her.

She looked over the edge of the boat, and the waves, what Kathie called “texture”, thrashed everywhere. She started her routine, stuffing lamb’s wool into her ears as plugs. When the sunrise seeped across Alcatraz and simmered the water on the east side of the bridge, all the swimmers were anxious. Rumors circulated that they were about to jump into a shark-infested sea. But Kathie, the daughter of a scientist who studied under Einstein at the University of Berlin, just laughed. “There’s only been one human attack in history, and that was in 1950,” she told them. “I’m rolling the dice. Here comes the ice cream headache!”

When she jumped in, the others followed. The sting of the freezing water was like a thousand knives, a shock to her entire system, a reminder that the intense discomfort meant she was alive. Her body became numb. Of all the ways to get into cold water, jumping is always the best. All of the body’s skin acclimates at once to the cold, and there is no place for regrets, no sandy shore to back onto. Like the pain of having a child, one forgets. The biting iciness subsides, and joy overwhelms.

As Kathie pulled forward with her left hand, reached forward with her right, she felt her shoulders burn with fatigue. The texture was picking up and the current was strong. She was using all of her energy, and at the same time, couldn’t tell if she was going anywhere. Her mind began to race, and as the water sloshed back and forth, the swells rose so many feet above the surface she could no longer see in front of her. Her stomach tightened, panic clenched her lungs, and worry set in. She felt as if she had been trapped inside a washing machine. What if I don’t make it? What if I am swept against the rocks?

Cancel, cancel,” she said to herself. It was an incantation she deployed to command her bad thoughts. A dark shadow was closing around her, growing larger. She felt she was the size of a piece of sand on earth. Kathie had no idea what was happening, but she could no longer see the Bay Bridge over her shoulder. Because of the two-foot swells, Kathie started to feel sick from the donuts. The waves were so big they obstructed all lines of sight. The boat she had jumped from had disappeared from view, and there were no other swimmers around her. Kathie knew she was in trouble. And she was alone. She had drifted into the path of a large tanker. What if it killed her? How could anyone operating a freighter see a swimmer so small in water so big? She considered sprinting as fast as she could but knew she would never make it, even though she had been swimming her entire life. So she shot up her hand, the signal for distress, and screamed as she treaded water.

In a few minutes, a rowboat came over.

“The old geezer piloting just laughed at me,” Kathie Hewko said. “I remember his yelling, ‘That’s not a freighter! That’s just the bridge’s shadow! Put your head down, count your strokes, and keep swimming!”

The coach jolted her back to concentrating on the moment in front of her. Kathie looked up at the gargantuan orange beams above her head. They were glowing as the daylight struck them, and a pelican flew over her shoulder. Out there, under the bridge, Kathie suddenly noticed an element of magic. She could see the dramatic cliffs of the Marin Headlands from a perspective she never had before. They grounded her. A harbor seal popped its head above a wave in the distance and seemed to look directly at her. Kathie was sure he was winking.

Swimming under the bridge, she felt she had plunged into another world, one divine and supreme, unseen by anyone on land. She returned her focus to her body, started breathing bilaterally, and fell into the familiar freestyle she had perfected since she was a child in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She found a rhythmic balance, experienced a state of peacefulness, and as the waves pulsed towards her, Kathie breathed between them with a coordinated calm.

Once she passed the South Tower, she felt gratitude in the water, though it was the most exposed, expansive place she had ever been. She caught a couple more glances of the Golden Gate, and swimming to the beach to the sounds of cheers, Kathie had officially completed her first crossing. She barely toweled off before she promised herself she would swim one a year. She was hooked.

After Kathie’s first gate, she realized that the elements outside of the bridge allowed her to face what was raw inside of her. Stress and self-criticism that had otherwise been concealed floated to the surface. As an administrative manager working long days in a civil engineering office, Kathie had enormous demands and constant responsibilities. Her mind always seemed to be racing, but swimming became her release. The rougher the water, the better she became at calming herself. The wilder the water, the easier it was for Kathie to cancel anything that crept into her consciousness. She would swim in the dark, swim during a storm, swim in the rain—but nowhere was the water as rough as it was under the bridge. Rollers, they called the water there. Kathie approached them with the same whimsy she applied to most things in her life. If she could achieve tranquility in the ocean, in that tumultuous strait under the Golden Gate, could she achieve it out? This became her life’s work.

The best example occurred years later, when Kathie suffered from a tickborne illness. After many doctors didn’t believe her symptoms, she was finally diagnosed with a chronic disease that forced her to endure two and a half years of IV treatments. She still swam her gates, even with debilitating pain, fatigue, and paralysis that would come and go.

Kathie’s ability to find humor in any circumstance has given her the strength to overcome the roughest of conditions in the ocean, but also the compassion to see that everything in life is temporary. As a competitive swimmer who placed within the top three in the 100-meter freestyle in high school, Kathie likes to call the bridge her favorite lane marker. She keeps visiting it, year after year, to remind herself that she is stronger than she thinks. She notices how the wind, current, and temperature are different each time, and that she is just as mutable.

Kathie is just shy of reaching 100 crossings, and her achievement could be added as an official Guinness World Book record. But unlike most, this is not what Kathie is striving towards. Her love of swimming, reverence for the natural world, and profound interest in the mystery of open water is special. Her achievement is a reminder of how much wonder can exist in the seemingly routine, and how we can take control of overwhelming fear and doubt. When I first heard how she approaches swimming under the bridge, and what it represents to her, I wondered, if I swam there, would I perceive the world the way she does? Would I be able to cancel what was mentally holding me back?

I wanted to find out, so I registered for the following year’s Golden Gate with Kathie so we could swim it together the next time — and I am looking forward to it.

For Kathie, swimming her gates is the fullest expression of love. When she swims, she can interact with her habitat in an intimate way, she can feel appreciation for one of the world’s most extraordinary architectural achievements, and she can go so deeply within herself that she achieves a state of flow.

Kathie’s gates keep us hopeful that we can stay enchanted, even if we do something 100 times, as long as we remain open to noticing novelty in what’s next to us. We can find purpose in persistence, we can approach difficulty with droll, and we don’t have to strive to be fast, first, or full of ourselves. We just have to be open in the water.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Spencer

    Incredible article. Nice work.

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