English Channel record holder will host Alcatraz race

Former currency trader joins invitational that has drawn local, worldwide competition

The water between Alcatraz and the San Francisco shore has meant confinement for some, freedom for a legendary few and a nice boat ride for many, but it impacts the imaginations of all who cross it.

The strait plays host to no shortage of invitational races as well as informal swims, inspired by the idea of escaping “the Rock.” Recently, 8-year-old Braxton Bilbrey, the youngest person ever to make the swim, completed his second journey. Two Bay swimmers have gone head to head for years, competing for the record number of swims made. A dog even raced last year.

But one of the most qualified for the job had never made the swim before Thursday: Alison Streeter, the host of this weekend’s Alcatraz Invitational, put on by the South End Rowing Club.

Streeter made the swim for the first time Thursday, for fun, at about 6 a.m. While that may not be the way most of us would like to wake up, Streeter is of a special ilk. The 42-year-old former currency trader from London and Dover has swum the English Channel more times than any other woman in history. She’s made the journey 43 times since 1982, with 34 one-way journeys, three round trips and a three-way journey to her credit.

But even to a seasoned pro, the Alcatraz swim can be daunting. “I’m sitting in this little dinghy, bobbing off Alcatraz in the dark, thinking, ‘S—, I just got here 18 hours ago,’” Streeter said with a laugh Thursday. She’ll be awarding medals at Saturday’s race, and participating in several swims while she’s here.

Some of the local contestantsin Saturday’s race may well rival even Streeter’s hours in the water. Pedro Ordens, 60, of Corte Madera and Gary Emich, 55, of Pacifica, have both done the swim close to 400 times. The two, whose rivalry within the rowing club has been heated for the last four years, broke the 100-mark together on June 11, 2001. “Since then it’s been a cutthroat battle to see how many we can do,” Emich said.

Ordens has more swims to his credit than Emich, after Emich spent the last month in Croatia. Ordens plans to make his 410th trip Saturday, while Emich is still at 390.

Stevie Ray, 46, of San Francisco, has 393 swims, but plans to make 400 simultaneously with Emich.

Another club member, Kristine Buckley, holds the women’s record, with 257 swims to her name.

And Streeter is not this year’s only European participant. A team of 100 Irish swimmers “hopped the pond” to participate in the 700-plus person race. They are thought to be the largest national contingent to compete in an Alcatraz race.

“We don’t have swims that big in England. Most of ours are 50 to 60 swimmers,” Streeter said. “To be honest, it’ll be just amazing to watch.”

amartin@examiner.comBay Area NewsLocal

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