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The first woman to complete the world’s most difficult ocean swim: Kiwi Kim Chambers

by ZwemZa on May 12th, 2018

Kim Chambers sets out to push her body to extreme limits, and hopes to inspire people, especially young girls, to be the best versions of themselves.

Kim Chambers holds her head out of the freezing cold water and stares at the Golden Gate Bridge.

The expat New Zealand swimmer sobs, tears mixing with sea water. This is the moment she has spent years preparing for. The former ballerina who grew up on a sheep farm in the King Country has done what no other woman has yet achieved: swum the world’s most difficult ocean swim, from the shark-ridden Farallon​ Islands 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge.

The scene is shown in a film, Kim Swims, about the athlete’s 2015 world record swim. Screening in Wellington (tomorrow) and Auckland during the Doc Edge Festival, the marathon ocean swimmer hopes her story will inspire.

“If you think you can’t do something and you’re scared of it, that’s when you should do it,” she says.

Speaking by video from her apartment high on San Francisco’s hills, it’s now more than two years since Chambers swam for 17 hours through 17 degree water wearing nothing but a black swimsuit emblazoned with the silver fern. She’s excited the film is coming home.

“Being a Kiwi has made me strong and resilient. It’s really special to unofficially represent my country doing this,” she says.

Now 40, Chambers has the steely focus of a woman with incredible mental determination. Personable but humble, she doesn’t have medals hanging in her apartment. Ocean swimming doesn’t come with trophies or gongs. “I have medals in my heart… I don’t compete with anyone. Just with my own limitations,” she smiles.

In the world of extreme marathon swimming, the 30 miles of shark-infested waters between the Farallon Islands and San Francisco is the most difficult stretch to cross. While the English Channel gets all the attention, more than 3000 swimmers have crossed its bitterly cold waters.

Until August 2015, only four people, all men, had finished the Farallon Islands swim.

‘BEST VERSION OF MYSELF’

Chambers’ Farallon Islands swim was an emotional journey for everyone, including her mother, Jocelyn, who hung over the boat and watched her daughter ploughing through the choppy waves in the dark of night. The swimmer shakes her ponytail as she sits on a chair in her apartment, admitting that even she can’t believe she did that.

Dark water swirling beneath her, she knew sharks could be near.

About 10 per cent of the world’s shark attacks happen on that dangerous and difficult stretch of water. Just two weeks before the swim, her Australian training partner attempted the same swim but was hauled out of the water when a shark began circling him.

“Everyone thought I was mad… No woman had ever done this before,” she says.

About 10 per cent of the world's shark attacks happen near the Falloran Islands. Just two weeks before the swim, Kim ...

Kate Webber

About 10 per cent of the world’s shark attacks happen near the Falloran Islands. Just two weeks before the swim, Kim Chambers’ Australian training partner attempted the same swim but was hauled out of the water when a shark began circling him.

“It’s human nature to avoid things that we are scared of. I hope that people realise I was really scared to jump in that water. I’m not a daredevil.”

She didn’t see a single shark, but she did vomit for most of the swim. Afterwards, she was taken to hospital and put on a drip, suffering from dehydration.

Nominated for a Halberg award in 2015, she says: “I want to grow as a human being and be the best version of myself. I want to show young girls what we are capable of.”

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

The plucky blonde has twice faced death, the first time in 2007, before she had even hopped into a swimming pool or swum in the open water.

Racing to work, she fell down the stairs. Waking up in a hospital bed, Chambers was diagnosed with a rare condition called Acute Compartment Syndrome. The surgeons saved her right leg with just 30 minutes to spare, warning her she had just a 1 per cent chance of walking again. The accident, she says, was the best thing that ever happened to her. “Life can be this amazing journey and sometimes the best gifts come to us from trauma.”

Since she grew up with two brothers on a sheep farm south of Te Kuiti, Chambers had been a ballerina, a rower, and a gym bunny, a doer who loved moving her body. She refused to accept the diagnosis, heading to her local swimming pool for rehabilitation.

A fellow swimmer challenged her to try ocean swimming. Ploughing through sea swell in San Francisco Bay, Chambers found her happy place.

She tells Your Weekend it wasn’t easy, learning her sport at the same time as she was learning to walk again. Determined to make her first ocean marathon swim in New Zealand, in 2014, she powered across the Cook Strait, pods of dolphins journeying beside her.

“I felt like I was tapping into this expanse of myself that I didn’t know existed,” she says in the film.

Since then, swimming has taken her around the world, as she has swum from one country to the next: from Jordan to Israel across the Dead Sea, and from Europe to Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar. Within a year, she had completed three of the Oceans Seven Challenge swims, so set out to do the whole 130 mile, seven swim challenge.

Ocean swimming is a tough sport. Swimmers aren’t allowed to wear a wetsuit, or to don flippers or fins. Like other marathon ocean swimmers, Chambers has to pile on weight before a challenge for insulation. “It’s not a glamorous sport,” she says.

After many of her swims, she has needed medical treatment, and at times has been admitted to hospital. Swimming across the North Channel in 2014, she was stung by jelly fish and hypothermic by the time she touched land. Afterwards, her body went into toxic shock. Back in San Francisco, she spent three days in a cardiac ward.

Doctors told her she could have died.

The former ballerina who grew up on a sheep farm in the King Country has done what no other woman has yet achieved: swum ...

The former ballerina who grew up on a sheep farm in the King Country has done what no other woman has yet achieved: swum the world’s most difficult ocean swim, from the shark-ridden Farallon Islands 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge.

“I had fluid around both lungs and my heart. My body had taken quite a beating. People have asked me why I didn’t get back on the boat. But this sport attracts really stubborn people.

“You can see the land and you can see the end in sight. After the swim, I did think my swimming days were over though. I was so cold and I was having major trouble breathing.”

Independent film-maker, Kate Webber, who made Kim Swims, set out to tell Chambers’ inspiring story. The film tagline says this: “Nothing is impossible if you’re brave enough to say yes.”

Webber, a photographer and ocean swimmer, says: “This is a film about the incredible resilience and triumph of the human spirit. You do not need to like swimming or even be a swimmer to relate to this story. And while it is about a woman athlete, made by a female film-maker, my hope is that everyone can relate to the story, regardless of gender.”

Chambers tells her story too, at Ted X in Catalina, and at speaking events, while she is also writing a book about her Farallon Islands swim.

Living in the United States since she was 17, when she headed over to Berkeley University to study an MA in science, she uses any downtime to plan her next adventure. In her day job as a community engagement manager at the tech firm Adobe, she is also in charge of its philanthropic arm – which is fitting as, through ocean swimming, she has raised more than US$1.7 million (NZ$2.4m) for charities, either on her own or as part of a team.

What’s next, when she has conquered the toughest goal in ocean swimming?

She will only say this. “I’m working on another athletic endeavour that no-one has done before.” It doesn’t involve a swimsuit. If she achieves it, she will be the first Kiwi and the first woman to nail it.

“I’m a proud Kiwi from a farm in New Zealand. I show you that anything is possible.”

More at kimswims.com  

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