Kim Chambers was the first woman to swim from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco—through shark-infested waters.
Kim Chambers was the first woman to swim from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco—through shark-infested waters.

How Kim Chambers Became the World’s Most Badass Swimmer

The world’s best open water swimmer says fear makes you grow, a little fat is okay, and make sure you have a big scary goal

Ian McMahan

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Eight years ago, open water swimmer Kim Chambers was fresh off an injury that shattered both her leg and her sense of self. Multiple surgeries and two years of physical therapy gave her leg back, but it was swimming that gave her a new life. And over the past few years she’s traversed some of the toughest waters in the world.

Unlike swimming in the pool with races against the clock and other competitors in the water, open water swimming is all about the conditions. If you don’t succumb to physical or mental fatigue, sharks, jellyfish, currents or the bone-chilling cold, then your day was likely a success. 

And in this sport, Chambers has already put together an impressive resume that includes becoming only the sixth person and third woman to finish the Oceans Seven Challenge. On par with the Seven Summits of mountaineering, the swims are chosen for treacherous water conditions and potential wildlife risks. 

But swimming from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco was Chambers's last big goal. The desolate group of rocks, which hosts the largest seabird breeding colony in the U.S., is also home to a vibrant elephant seal and sea lion population which by association means an annual visitation by a group of great white sharks. 

(Kate Webber)

“Even though San Francisco is only 30 miles away, the Farallons can be a wild and forbidding place,” says Russell Bradley, senior scientist for the Farallon Program. Despite this, the 38-year-old swims there regularly and feels a special kinship with the remote islands.  “Every time I’m out there in the water, it’s full of life.”

Special connection or not, though, why would someone want to get in the water and swim through the middle of the so called Red Triangle of shark attacks, an area off of Northern California in which 40 percent of shark attacks in the U.S. have occurred? Bradley is hesitant to calculate just how risky it is to take a swim at the islands.  But he is sure about one thing, “I would never, ever swim out there.” 

Before her swim, which she completed in 17 hours on August 8, scientists urged her not to get into the water, believing that the great whites had returned to the island earlier than in previous years. But despite the obstacles, Chambers made it safely back to San Francisco, becoming the first woman to swim the distance. 

We caught up with her to discuss the experience:  

Swimming With Sharks: In May of 2011 I was the only woman on the first ever relay team to swim to the islands, and I fell in love with the place. Call me crazy but it was a spiritual connection like nothing I have ever experienced. Since then I have been obsessed with being the first woman—not to compete with anyone—but to have an achievement for myself that is very personal. Each of my swims has been a unique and transformative journey. But this one was the swim, so risky, so scary, and that's really why I had to do it. I wanted to see what I was made of.

Fear Can Make You Grow: Human nature is to say no to things that scare us, but I’ve found that’s where the growth is. But using fear to learn about oneself is not about having a death wish. I love my life and I feel so full of life when I’m in those scary moments. Everybody is afraid, but it’s in those moments that you jump in (literally and figuratively), that you learn what you are capable of.  

Your Body Is a Vessel: Your body can be an amazing tool. It brought me across the English Channel and through 30 miles of shark infested waters. I went from a 119-pound ballerina to a 180-pound open water swimmer. My body’s muscle, and yes even fat, is essential for endurance, warmth and buoyancy. The ballerina never would have made it.

Adversity: After my injury, I thought that my life was over. I was shattered not only physically, but also emotionally. But the injury led me to swimming and that has changed my life. I won’t say I’m happy I got injured, but it did change my life in many ways, most for the better.  

Have a Goal: I like having big, scary goals. The anticipation of attempting something that you have prepared weeks, months or years for adds richness to life. Life can thrive in the presence of big goals and it can nourish the heart and soul.

Deep Thoughts: It does take a while to settle into a long swim. But after that, for me, making it through my long swims is all about surrendering to the moment and trusting everything that has got me here. I do try to replay positive experiences with family and friends to energize me and keep me going. 

The Next Challenge: I love the feeling of anticipation that comes from having a huge, scary event on the horizon. In fact, that’s when I have a sense of living life to the fullest. Right now I’m looking for another challenge and it may involve rowing across a large body of water.

On Expectations: I recently realized that, instead of trying to fit my life into a mold of expectation—find a husband, have kids—I needed to do what truly makes me happy. I’m not ready to settle down, and right now my path lies in a different direction.

Chambers’s story will soon be a documentary and a trailer can be seen here

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