Late on a recent summer evening, a relay team of three men and three women, all in their 50s, braved profound darkness, four-foot seas and stinging jellyfish to cross 21 miles of open ocean between Catalina Island and San Pedro.
When they arrived on the rocky shores of the Palos Verdes peninsula early the next morning, there was no crowd to cheer their record-shattering achievement. “We finished, and we went home,” said Laguna Beach resident and team captain Lynn Kubasek, laughing.
It’s not the accolades but the sheer exhilaration that drives most endurance athletes to subject their bodies to the physical rigors of their sport. “The intensity of the experience is just overwhelming,” said Kubasek. “On a certain level, I want to say it’s spiritual.”
Kubasek, Julian Rusinek, Barbara Held, Veronica Hibben, Ray Meltvedt and Marc Horwitz are all members of the Oak Streakers, an experienced group of marathon swimmers that trains regularly off Oak Street Beach. Kubasek, 55, Held, 59, and Meltvedt, 53, are also members of the Catalina Channel Half Century Club, having completed a solo channel crossing after the age of 50.
The six call themselves As Seen On TV, and they trained for nearly eight months for what would be their first and only official swim together. Held will turn 60 later this year and move into another age group.
Because no mixed-gender team of three men and three women age 50-59 had ever completed a Catalina Channel crossing before, As Seen On TV was assured of the record, no matter how long it took them.
But that wasn’t good enough for Rusinek and Kubasek, who began to discuss the possibility of not only establishing a new age-group mark, but also making a run at the 30-39 record of 12:06:29.
As the team made the crossing to Catalina the evening of June 30 aboard their chase boat Outrider, it looked as though the rough conditions would pre-empt their lofty hopes for a fast swim home. But there’s no accounting for the inner drive of an endurance athlete.
The last swimmer climbed out of the water only 9 hours, 38 minutes, and 42 seconds after the first one jumped in, knocking nearly two and a half hours off the 30-39 mark. “Each person that went out, you know, really gave it their all,” said Kubasek proudly. “It was really sloppy conditions, but we really did good in spite of that.”
Many open ocean swimmers are drawn to the sport because they are looking for a change of pace. “A lot of us have just gotten tired of swimming laps in a pool and having the smell of chlorine every day,” said Rusinek, a U.S. Master Swimmer and former lifeguard who began competing in pools at age 6 before taking to the sea in recent years.
Held is the most accomplished and experienced member of the team. In 2010 at age 56, she became the oldest female to cross the Catalina Channel, setting a record of 9 hours, 36 minutes, or two minutes faster than her entire relay team.
She is also a member of the “triple crown” of open water swimming, having swum the English Channel and circumnavigated Manhattan Island to go along with her Catalina crossing.
In 2011, Kubasek was a member of the first all-female team to successfully navigate the 27 treacherous miles of shark-infested waters between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Farallon Islands, starting and finishing in the dark after 16 hours and 29 minutes.
Swimming long distances in the open ocean, especially at night, takes a special type of person. “It challenges me,” said Rusinek. “Mentally you have to be pretty tough.”
According to Rusinek, many swimmers sing songs in their heads or do math problems to keep their minds off of what may be lurking in the depths below. “I don’t think any one of us watch ‘Shark Week’ at all,” he said laughing.
When they do bump into things, “You really can’t see what it is, so you just keep swimming,” said Rusinek.
When they’re not in the water, marathon swimmers try to replace some of the estimated 12,000 calories they burn during a channel crossing. If possible, they also try to get some sleep. “It’s difficult [to sleep] with four foot seas,” said Rusinek. “When it’s that large of seas and the boat’s rocking back and forth, I’d rather be in the ocean. You have to prepare yourself for sleep deprivation,” he said.
Each member of the team swam two shifts, except for Hibben, who had no prior channel-crossing experience and swam only the middle leg. As captain of her hand picked team, Kubasek found it difficult to sleep, especially when Hibben was in the water. “I wanted to be there,” said Kubasek. “I stayed up a little longer than I might of, just to be cheerleader.”
With their record still fresh in the book, the Oak Streakers have returned to the clear calm waters that make Laguna Beach such a perfect place for open ocean swimming. “I feel incredibly lucky to get to live here,” said Kubasek. “When the water’s clear, it’s like you have your own personal aquarium.”
Photos by Scott Sporleder