My Perfect Adventure: Barbara Held

One of the world's top open-water swimmers tells us why she didn’t pursue a career as a Disneyland mermaid or a flight attendant, where she traveled once to cuddle with cheetahs, and how getting older encouraged her to go farther than ever before

In the water.     Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Held

Held at Disneyland.

Barbara Held stopped working as a firefighter and paramedic seven years ago, but at the age of 59, she’s not exactly taking it easy in retirement. Five or six days a week, Held jumps in the ocean off California and swims two to 12 miles without a wetsuit, year round. This May she’ll do a four-day, 40-mile course in Arizona, and then she’ll continue her competition schedule with a marathon swim in Lake Zurich, a 17.5-mile swim in New York, and a 10-mile swim in Tennessee. Of her ambitious plans, she says: “Perhaps it’s the result of an ‘I’m turning 60 this year’ crisis.”

Held, one of the country’s top open-water swimmers, took to the water when she was nine years old, but didn’t try her first marathon swim until she was 56. It was a late start, at least compared to most other marathon swimmers, but it was also one for the record books: She became the oldest woman to cross the 20.2-mile Catalina Channel to southern California, joining the Half Century Club with a time of 9 hours and 36 minutes. Since then, Held has earned a spot in the elite Triple Crown club of open-water swimmers by also completing two other famous marathon swims: 21 miles across the English Channel and a 28.5-mile circumnavigation of Manhattan in New York.

Held has always been pretty tough. At 30, she was the first woman to join her firefighter/paramedic department, and the only woman to serve there for more than 12 years. “It wasn’t always an easy task, and I faced obstacles from those who didn’t want women in the fire service,” she said, adding that she had no complaints looking back and felt lucky to have such a rewarding career. She retired after suffering a knee injury when she was 52. “I always promised myself I’d retire when I felt I was no longer physically able to perform all the duties required of a firefighter,” she said. “I also didn’t want to finish my career assigned to a desk.”

She certainly hasn’t sat around since leaving the force, using marathon swimming as an excuse to travel as much as possible. Recent adventures include a trip to South Africa in 2010 to compete and see her pen pal of 48 years; a two-month vacation the next year to swim the Manhattan Island Marathon, the Strait of Gibraltar, and an English Channel relay; and an excursion to Ireland last summer for cold-water distance-swim camp, prior to her solo swim across the English Channel.

These days, Held says she’s “living the life” in San Diego, where she makes good use of an annual pass to Disneyland (“I go as often as I can fit into my schedule”), reads, spends times with friends, and satisfies her love of animals by pet-sitting for neighbors who go out of town. In this interview, she tells us why she didn’t pursue a career as a Disneyland mermaid or a flight attendant, where she traveled once to cuddle with cheetahs, and how getting older encouraged her to go farther than ever before.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
Of course the day would begin with a swim in the ocean, with my training buddies with dolphins swimming beside us. I’d spend the rest of the day at Disneyland, and later on I’d have a therapeutic massage before drifting off to a good night’s sleep.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go?
Antarctica, because I’d love to see the Antarctic penguins. I have a world map with pins marking all of the places I have visited, and someday I’d like to have pins in Antarctica as well as the North Pole.

Where is the best place you've ever visited?
This is a very difficult question, but I’ll let my love for animals be the deciding factor: South Africa. The animals of South Africa make it an unbelievable destination. I’ve had the amazing opportunity to walk with elephants and cuddle with cheetahs, white tigers, and lions—magical experiences that I will never forget.

If you could have lunch with any athlete or adventurer, who would it be?
Sir Richard Branson. If I had his wealth, I would also be building my own spaceship. Obviously I don’t know him, but he seems to be a man who enjoys life and hasn’t let wealth go to his head.

What's something you can't travel without?
My pillow. I never want to feel sleep deprived and miss out on any adventures because I slept poorly on a hotel pillow.

When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
If I’m there for a marathon swim, then I contact my escort pilot to let him know I’m in town and ready to swim. Regardless of the reason I’m traveling, I unpack and head out to begin exploring. How much exploring I do on that first day depends entirely on how long I’ve been traveling and how late in the day I arrived. I try very hard to keep myself busy until it’s bedtime in that time zone so I get onto that time schedule as soon as possible.

What motivates you to swim such long distances?
I’ve been swimming for 50 years. It’s a part of who I am, and without it I would feel like part of me was missing. As for why I swim long distances, I think it’s partly a result of aging, of not having the speed that came with youth, as well as the pure joy of being one with Mother Nature in the ocean and the freedom of “no black lines.”

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
When I was young, my dream job was to be a mermaid for the Submarine Voyage in Disneyland. That dream ended when Disneyland eliminated that cast member position from their workforce. In high school I wanted to be a flight attendant but soon found out that my swimmer’s shoulders were too broad to meet the restrictive physical requirements of the airlines. You have to remember, this was back in the days before equal employment opportunities. Today, flight attendants come in all shapes, sizes, and ages.

I have no regrets in regard to either of these jobs. I mean, seriously, it would have been a nightmare sitting in a chlorinated body of water dressed in a mermaid costume waving at the submarines as they passed by me. I love to travel, but I prefer being the person who is served in flight, rather than doing the serving. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d grow up to be a firefighter/paramedic, since that career wasn’t open to women when I was a child. I will forever be thankful for such a rewarding career. There aren’t many careers that give you a chance to save lives and property. There’s no greater feeling then having a person walk into the fire station to thank you when the last time you saw them they were pulseless and apneic and your actions helped save their life.

When and how did you start marathon swimming?
In July 2006 I retired after 22 years as a firefighter/paramedic. With retirement, I decided to leave the Los Angeles area and move to San Diego. I began swimming with the UCSD Masters swim program. In the pool I met my friend Tom, a marathon swimmer who asked me if I would like to be his partner in a side-by-side relay across the Catalina Channel. By the time the relay made it across the channel, I was hooked, and I began training in the ocean with the idea of my doing a solo Catalina Channel crossing.

What advice would you give to an aspiring open-water swimmer?
Try to find other marathon swimmers so you have training partners. Marathon swimmers must endure a tedious training regime, and having friends swimming with you breaks up the monotony and, of course, provides a safety net, especially if you’re training in open water rather than a pool.

Speak with experienced marathon swimmers or read some books that are available to gather all the information you can, and sort through it. By trial and error you’ll eventually figure out what’s right for you. No two swimmers are exactly the same, but we can all learn from each other.

Who has been your most influential mentor?
In general I’d say my childhood swim coaches were my greatest mentors. I was under their influence for two to six hours a day in the pool. I remember one coach who would always say, “Can’t is dead and buried,” if we said we couldn’t do what he had told us to do in a workout. To this day, I don’t let “can’t” enter my vocabulary when it comes to setting goals for myself.

Do you have a life philosophy?
Go for it! I’m a person who believes the glass is half-full, not half-empty. I have a can-do outlook and I always ask for what I want, since the worst thing that can happen is someone saying no. I set realistic goals and work hard to achieve them.

Have you ever made a mistake that made you think twice about competing again?
Not really. I was only disqualified once at a swim meet, and I had literally joined a swim team the day before and didn’t know all the rules for each of the four strokes. I was lucky enough even at nine years old to know that disqualification was insignificant in the scheme of things. I was fortunate to have coaches and parents who made sure I knew it was not a failure or a mistake when I didn’t have a personal best with every swim.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
If I could choose a different career than a firefighter/paramedic, and ignoring the obvious fact that math and physics are not my strong point, I would have to select my fantasy career: astronaut. I can’t think of anything more exciting than being in space. In third grade I made a comment about wanting to be the first woman in space and was promptly informed, “Girls can’t do that.” I am two years younger than Sally Ride, so my classmates were wrong on that count.

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
Tour Walt Disney’s apartment, located over the fire station on Main Street in Disneyland.

Visit the pyramids.

Live in another country long enough to learn to speak the language there fluently.

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