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Into the Depths of an Untapped Sport: Finding Peace in the Open Water

In the world of open water swimming, these women are braving the cold waters to set records, overcome tragedy and find their strength.

It’s still dark when Maryam Sharifzadeh slips into the San Francisco Bay to begin her swim. The endless stretch of murky ocean water registers at a brisk 54 degrees and is cold enough to send a bone-chilling shiver through the body of even the most experienced swimmer.

But today, as the city around her lays quiet, Sharifzadeh is focused on the task ahead: becoming the second person, and the first woman, to swim 22 miles around the shoreline of San Francisco. With her dedicated team ready alongside to keep watch for other boat traffic, changing tides and unexpected hazards, Sharifzadeh kicks her legs to keep warm and watches as the sun begins to appear over the city’s horizon. It’s time to swim.

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At its core, open water swimming as a sport is somewhat straightforward. According to USA Swimming, “Open water swimming offers the purest form of racing, where athletes are racing against their fellow competitors and not the clock.” When it comes to open water swimming versus pool swimming, “Race strategies, along with the conditions, are constantly changing, which makes adaptability a key skill.”

So while the technicalities of swimming vary greatly from the pool to the open water, are there recognizable differences from the 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 solid pool swimmer,’ but this is a lot different,” says Suzanne Heim-Bowen, a third-generation San Franciscan and open water swimmer with more than 45 years of experience. “There’s no wall to hold on to. You have to know your outs, always swim with a buddy and know your tolerance for the different water temperatures.”

Although Heim-Bowen is now a dedicated open water swimmer, like many, her swimming journey started in the pool at a very young age. But it wasn’t until she reached college, attending California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, where her swimming career really took off. In fact, Heim-Bowen was a founding member of the Cal Poly women’s swim team in 1977.

“At the time, there were 16 men’s sports and only four women’s sports,” Heim-Bowen says. “This was when Title IX was coming on board. We had the interest, so we made an appeal to the student body president and they said, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’”

Although Heim-Bowen was an experienced pool swimmer, her fear of the ocean kept her from pursuing open water swimming. But with time and some friendly peer pressure from her teammates, it didn’t take long for her to overcome that fear. Soon, open water swimming became, as it still remains for Heim-Bowen today, an addiction.

“Open water swimming then, without wetsuits, was kind of an out-of-the-box thing to do,” Heim-Bowen sayssaid. “But, I bought this poster of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I put it down at the foot of my bed in my dorm, so every morning I would have to wake up and look at this picture because all I really wanted to do was swim the Gate.”

From there, Heim-Bowen continued setting bigger swimming goals and, after four decades of open water swimming, she now holds more than 23 Masters World Records. Among her most prolific accomplishments, Heim-Bowen was named the 1989 United States Swimming Long Distance Swimmer of the Year and was inducted into 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 the English Channel, the Catalina Channel and Manhattan Island.

For Sharifzadeh, who admittedly calls herself a “late bloomer” when it comes to swimming, the journey began somewhat differently. After joining her high school’s swim team as a way to improve her water polo skills, Sharifzadeh gradually eased into open water swimming and started traveling abroad for swim trips. Then in 2018, after the tragic death of her close friend, Nasim, in a charter plane crash, Sharifzadeh found solace in open water swimming as a way to work through her grief.

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“She was woven into the fabric of my being,” Sharifzadeh says of Nasim. “I am who I am because of her. So to lose someone in a dramatic way like that, there’s a lot of survivor’s guilt. I channeled that feeling toward swimming.”

As a way to honor Nasim, Sharifzadeh swam 12 miles across Lake Tahoe to raise money for No Kid Hungry, a charity that was very close to Nasim’s heart.

“That was my first experience in real marathon swimming,” Sharifzadeh says. “To be able to swim in Tahoe, it’s so blue and deep and beautiful. There are these light prisms from the sun that come up because it’s just so clear. I 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, the goals, records, and historic achievements are important milestones, but even more significant are the indescribable feelings that come only with cold, open water swimming. Feelings like the adrenaline rush of hitting the cold water, the tranquility of being surrounded completely by mother nature, and ultimately, the mental and physical healing capabilities of the water.

“If I’m going through something in my mind, there’s no way to escape it,” Sharifzadeh says. “I just have to keep swimming. Swimming is a way to really be with yourself that I can’t get anywhere else. You’re folded into nature’s arms.”

As a longtime member of The Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club, Heim-Bowen now swims in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park on a weekly basis, and although her swimming goals have changed over the years, the incredible feeling of being in the open water has remained the same.

“It sets your mind so much at ease,” Heim-Bowen says. “You can just leave all the challenges that were on land, on land, and just be in the water. You come back out so refreshed physically and mentally. And when it’s cold, it just makes you feel so alive.”

It’s that feeling of being alive that keeps swimmers like Heim-Bowen and Sharifzadeh returning to the water time and time again.

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As far as that 22 miles around the bay, it took nine hours and 11 minutes for Sharifzadeh to finish, making her the first woman to complete that swim.

“There are so many reasons to not do it,” Sharifzadeh says. “But once you get in it, it’s so hard to get out of it.”

Erin Underwood is a contributor for GoodSport, a media company dedicated to raising the visibility of women and girls in sports.

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