Kim Chambers Goes All In
Rehabbing from a shocking injury led her to swimming—and then the wild, open sea
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Kim Chambers told her story to producer Tanvi Kumar for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re literally a ticking time bomb for hypothermia in many of these swims. I didn’t even get halfway across. I was too cold, I was too slow. But I got out of the water and I said to myself, I’m gonna come back here, and I’m gonna come back and finish it, and I’m gonna be as prepared as possible.
I wanted to show what I was made of.
I’m originally from New Zealand and I spent, gosh, over 20 years in San Francisco. I went to the US as a young 17-year-old to attend UC Berkeley. I worked in tech and then became a public speaker.
About 10 years ago, I fell down a set of stairs on my way to work, and it just snowballed into this monstrous injury. I was 30 minutes from losing my right leg from the knee down.
I’d been a ballerina growing up in New Zealand. I’d rode at UC Berkeley. I was used to using my body and having agency over my body, and that was so close to being taken away from me.
I was diagnosed with acute compartment syndrome. I spent two years learning to walk again. Through that rehabilitation period, I was only given a 1 percent chance of walking unassisted again.
Those two years were really, really, really difficult years for me. I’ve had difficult years since, but I look back on that time, and you’re literally on the sidelines watching the world go by, with no guarantee that all the hard work that you’re gonna do is gonna get you where you want to.
I came across swimming as part of my rehabilitation. Two guys that I had met at a swimming pool where I had been swimming to rehabilitate my leg had invited me to swim in the San Francisco Bay, and I thought, Wow, I’ve never heard of anyone swimming in the San Francisco Bay. But I thought, That sounds like a cool idea. I said, “What do I need to bring?” And they said, “Just a swimsuit cap and goggles.” I had no idea what I was setting myself up for.
It was a really cold November day, and they encouraged me to get in the water just wearing a regular swimsuit. I just remember looking around and I couldn’t believe that I was in this water to begin with. You can see Alcatraz from the water. You can see all these old historic ships, and you can see other people in the water.
I was freezing cold. But I guess I was just lit up like a Christmas tree.The guy said I was smiling ear to ear, and it was exhilarating. So it was just that exact moment where my whole body, my mind, every fiber of my being, literally came alive. And I was hooked from that moment.
Swimming is quite different from any other sport. You are using every muscle in your body. You’re using your mind. And having gone through this terrible injury, I was weightless in the water.
There is this buoyancy, especially in the salt water, that is just magical, where you can just glide across the top of the water and you have this experience that connects your mind and your body so intimately.
Swimming, for me, took on a life of its own.You’re swimming from one place to the next, and you’re like, If I can swim from there to there, maybe I can swim from there to there. And it really became quite intoxicating. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I was like, I want that. I want that. I want that.
I just wanted more. Of everything.
I was so excited to be a part of this community. I was starting to hear about people coming back from England and having swum the English channel, and I thought, Wow, that is so cool. I want to do that.
Throughout my swimming career, people were pretty honest with me. My good friend, a mentor, Vito Bik, said I couldn’t swim my way out of a paper bag with flippers on. And he was absolutely right. But those words really lit a fire in my belly, and I was like, You know what? I’m gonna prove you wrong.
So the most challenging swim that I have done to date was the North Channel from Northern Ireland to Scotland. That swim has very, very, cold water. Fifty-three degree water. At the time, only 25 people had completed that swim before me.
All of these swims are done without a wetsuit. You follow what’s called “English Channel Rules.” You just wear a regular swimsuit, a regular cap and goggles. We also lather ourselves in lanolin to protect chafing from the water.
You have a dedicated crew on the boat. They feed you. So every 30 minutes, for example, they throw me a drink bottle on a rope, like you’re a pet seal. You’re treading water drinking a carbohydrate protein mix. And then you keep swimming until they tell you it’s time for another feeding.
In the North Channel that year there were a lot of jellyfish, and these are Lion’s Mane jellyfish, that sit on the top of the water and can be as large as a mini car tire. Their tentacles stretch three or four feet under the surface, and they sting.
I got stung in the first hour. I continued to get stung for the next 13 hours and six minutes that it took me to complete that swim. One of my crew members described them as big trash cans floating in the water. And at one point they were blowing a whistle telling me to stop because there was one right in front of me. They would say, Kim, go left. Go right, go left.
I was delirious towards the end of that swim. I don’t remember finishing the swim. I don’t remember touching Scotland. I couldn’t tell you what Scotland looked like.
You can prepare as much as possible but mother nature is always the boss. And I think that’s what makes these swims really exciting, is you’re not given a guarantee. You don’t know how it’s gonna end.
I have completed the Ocean Seven. Those are seven swims around the world: the English Channel, North Channel, Malachi Channel, Cook Strait, and so on.
Going through a really tough swim, I think you are certainly facing your mortality. And there’s a recovery period where it’s this mixture of elation, but also pain and suffering because everything aches. You definitely take stock of your life, and you wonder, Was it worth it?
It’s not a glamorous sport. For me, there’s a lot of vomiting involved. But I am an ordinary person who got to do these extraordinary things thanks to the extraordinary help of ordinary people. And I believe that anything is possible for each of us.
It doesn’t mean that you have to swim the English channel. But I think that thinking about something that you don’t think you can do, thinking about something that someone says you can’t do, I think it’s an incredible opportunity to say, You know what, no, that’s not going to be my life.
I would’ve never imagined that I would’ve done these swims. I got to see what I was made of, and they have set a foundation for me for the rest of my life. And I have gone through difficult times since then, but I can always draw back on that hard work, I can always draw back on those achievements, and say, If I can do that, I can get through this.
In 2014, Kim Chambers became the sixth person to complete the Ocean Seven, a marathon swimming challenge consisting of seven open water channel swims around the world. A year later, she became the first woman to swim from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge, a distance of about 30 miles. You can learn more about her on her website, kimswims.com.