When someone suggested to Kathie Hewko in 1976 that she should try swimming across San Francisco Bay, she wasn’t buying it.
"I said, ‘Are you crazy? There are sharks out there and the water is freezing!’ " she recalled.
Apparently, she got over it. On April 17 she completed her 80th swim across the bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge, reaching the tip of Marin County in about 30 minutes.
She hasn’t encountered any sharks in the bay, she said. And as for the water temperature — well, it is what it is. Fifty-one degrees Fahrenheit — which was the temperature when she swam on April 17 — is no big deal, she insists. She’s seen colder.
"The first time I swam to Alcatraz Island, it was 45 (degrees), and that’s about as cold as I’ve done," said Hewko, a Petaluma, Calif., real estate agent.
In sickness and in health, Hewko has been participating in organized, open-water swims for 35 years. In addition to the many 1.2-mile San Francisco Bay crossings — that she refers to merely as "the Golden Gate" — she has traversed the depths in many parts of the U.S., as well as in Canada and Europe.
She finds the one-way swim to Alcatraz Island — she’s done that one about 85 times — to be less strenuous than the bay crossings, despite the infamous prison island’s reputation for treacherous tides and the legends about inmates who drowned while trying to swim their way to freedom.
"Well, most of those people weren’t swimmers, and they didn’t have tide books," she said.
In all, she said, the open-water swims she favors are remarkably safe because numerous monitors in small boats travel along with the swimmers and fish out anybody who gets into trouble — though she’s learned that trouble can be a relative thing.
"I remember my first Golden Gate swim," she said. "I was not doing well, and I was thinking, ‘This is not a good idea to be doing this,’ and I put my hand up for help from the boats.
"This (older swimmer) came over, and I said, ‘I’m not feeling well,’ " Hewko recalled. "He said, ‘Shut up and count your strokes!’
"I took his advice and finished," she said.
Hewko developed her affection for the water as a sprinter on her high school swimming team. Longer distances at that time weren’t her thing, she said.
"When I did my first mile, I was in high school and it seemed like forever," she said. "I got to the turnaround and said, ‘Oh, man, now I’ve got to go back. I don’t ever want to do this again.’ "
She swam only occasionally after high school. After living in various locales in the U.S. and Europe (including teaching skiing for several years in Aspen, Colo.), she ended up in San Francisco in 1976, and began going to a local pool for exercise, where a lifeguard suggested that first swim in the Bay.
"I jumped in and said, ‘This isn’t bad at all!’ " she recalled. She was hooked.
Hewko completed her 50th Golden Gate swim on her 60th birthday in 2006, and aims to reach the 100 milestone by her 70th birthday.
Sharks haven’t been a problem, she said, though the tides can be daunting, and swimmers do encounter the occasional obstacle.
"Alcatraz is a little longer than ‘the Gate,’ at a mile and a half, but it’s easier because (in the Golden Gate swims), you have to worry about the tankers coming — they’re kind of big and they don’t stop," she said.
In some parts of the San Francisco area, she said, harbor porpoises occasionally come to check out the swimmers, and more than once, Hewko has found herself eye-to-eye with a playful seal.
Some swims have turned out to be more arduous for her than others, mainly because she chose to take them on while she was suffering from Lyme disease, an inflammatory ailment that can be severely disabling.
"In 1985, I got bitten by a Lyme tick," she recalled. "My symptoms started six weeks later, and for 10 years I was bedridden, but I would do at least one Golden Gate a year. "I would drag myself out of bed to swim."
Her health gradually improved after she began an antibiotic regimen, she said. Although she was symptom-free for years, she now struggles sometimes with the disease, though she said her condition isn’t severe.
She averages 35 to 45 minutes for a Golden Gate swim, she said. Her longest effort was in 1980, during a circle swim around Alcatraz — that was an unusually long two and a half hours, which she blamed on uncooperative tides.
During the repetitiousness of stroke after stroke after stroke in the water, Hewko occupies her mind with a variety of things, she said.
"I think about my friends, I think about my cats, I think, ‘This water is really cold, why am I doing this?’ " she said. (She wears a wetsuit jacket these days, but said many participants in organized swims just wear bathing suits.)
In the April 17 race, she was helping to escort an 8-year-old girl who was swimming with a team from Arizona. "The thing with these kids that we helped out — it takes your mind off yourself. You’re focused on making sure they’re OK. I prefer that."
And, yes, said the agent for Keller Williams Realty in Petaluma, she occasionally ponders her real estate deals while doing the freestyle toward Marin.
"Sometimes, if I’m having a bad transaction, or if there’s something going on in the transaction, I think about a certain way to handle it," said Hewko, who has worked in real estate since 1985. "I guess I do that quite a bit, but I try to keep away from that, to escape it."
She said some swimmers just focus, mechanically, on the swim. But she makes a point of looking at the scenery.
"In the bay you get to see so many things," Hewko said. "I remember I once did a swim at 6:30 in the morning. We were looking up at the bridge and there was all that traffic on the bridge — but I’m under the bridge, looking at a great sunrise.
"I’ve seen the full moon set over the ocean — it’s an awesome place to be."
And humbling, she said.
"The first bay swim I did, I swam underneath the bridge and into its shadow, and all of a sudden it went dark, and here I am in 300-feet-deep water," she said. "My stomach did a flip-flop — I’ve never experienced anything like that before.
"It makes you feel like a speck of sand in the universe," she said. "I still feel that almost every time I do it. Life is such a gift."
San Francisco Bay swimmers. Photo courtesy of Mike Mooney, Inman News.
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.