An Uncomfortable Place

Nicki Gilbert Body Image

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If I say “Alcatraz” your first thought might be “San Francisco.”

If I say “Alcatraz” perhaps you think “The Rock. Sean Connery. Birdman.”

If I say “Alcatraz” you possibly hear the words, “prison; maximum security; escape.”

If you say “Alcatraz” my heart pounds in my ears and I feel queasy. “I’m never going to make it,” I think.


The distance from Alcatraz to San Francisco is roughly 1.2 miles. A 15-minute ferry ride. It’s not very far at all, but when I stand on the small beach just below Ghirardelli Square and look out, when my toes curl in protest in the icy water and I struggle to yank the zipper of my wetsuit all the way up, it looks immeasurably far. They say it’s a 45-minute swim.

The people walking along the shoreline hold steaming cups of coffee. They pull their black puffy jackets tighter around their bodies and wish they had wrapped a scarf around their necks. A foggy veil hides the Golden Gate Bridge. Perhaps the sun will melt it away later, but for now the air is cold and misty, and the wind skates along the water. It creates tiny, choppy waves on top and an invisible, strong current underneath.

If only I didn’t have to wear the wetsuit. The thick black fabric sticks to itself as I squeeze into it, and it’s too tight around my neck and ribs. I blame my apprehension on the uncomfortable wetsuit. There’s much more to it than that.

I love to swim. I love to feel weightless and free as I float in the water, and I twist and stretch my body into strange and wonderful shapes beyond the forms of mom, wife, volunteer, writer. Now I’m a starfish with my arms above and my legs below, now I’m curled tight as a coiled earthworm underneath the surface only to suddenly spring apart like a delirious jack-in-the-box who’s been set free, grinning wildly, a million glittering drops of water raining from my hands as I come up for air. When I’m in the water I feel like I can do anything.

Suddenly though, facing Alcatraz, I don’t think I can do this.

And that’s the point.

I chose to do this swim, from Alcatraz to San Francisco, to push myself into an uncomfortable place. A place that is cold and a little bit unknown, but not inaccessible nor elusive. A place that I would have to work to get to, to train with seriousness and commitment to reach. A place that would mean I am sometimes unavailable to drive carpool, or too tired to cook dinner, or not able to replenish the pantry with favorite cereals right away. It’s possible we are down to our last roll of toilet paper.

I train four times a week. Twice in the pool and twice in the vast, open water of the Bay. I try to replicate the distance I will eventually swim on the big day. The pool is calm and contained, and my strokes are even. One, two, breathe. I keep a slow, steady pace and I don't look up or wonder where I’m going. I watch my shadow inch through the sunlight reflected at the bottom of the pool. My hands touch the wall and I propel myself back in the other direction with my feet. One, two, breathe.

In almost shocking contrast, the Bay is unpredictable. I never swim as far as Alcatraz on these practice swims, but I stay in the cold, murky water as long as possible. I head toward the iconic island and can see only as far as my own hands in the water. When I look up I discover I am moving in the wrong direction and a sea lion is watching me intently.

The Bay, the water, the elements are wild. The currents lurk far below the surface and pull me backwards even when my arms are working as hard as they can. Every breath is lined with salty water as my body is tossed over the waves and sometimes I hear my chest squeak in discomfort.

But I am exhilarated.

I realize that I am moving forward through those fierce currents. There is no predictable stroke or breath pattern to ease into, but I breathe when I need to and that wetsuit I hated so much at first keeps me buoyant and warm enough to focus. Even the disorientation is not as upsetting as it seems. I am in that place: that slightly uncomfortable, but not unreachable place and I am moving and breathing and getting it right.

As I pull my arms through the water back to the shores of San Francisco, I think not about the library shift I didn’t volunteer for today but about the sea lion I will tell my kids about. He was no more than three feet away from me! I notice that the wetsuit doesn’t feel as constricting as it did and as I turn my head to breathe I catch a glimpse of the Golden Gate gleaming in the sunlight. The view from this perspective mesmerizes me and I stop moving for a few minutes.

I am in that place. Somewhere between San Francisco and Alcatraz. And I will make it. I can do this.


About the Author

Nicki Gilbert

Nicki Gilbert is a writer and country music lover who lives in the Bay Area with her husband and four kids. She is a regular columnist for j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California and her work has appeared on NYT Well Family, Brain, Child, Mamalode, Kveller, and elsewhere. She blogs at and .

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