Vision-impaired swimmers can see beyond the surface

First comes the chill of the Bay waters. Then, brace for often-exhausting swells with a strong current, along with the fear of sharks looming below — not to mention, the darkness.

Such conditions are what await a group of swimmers who take on the 1.5-mile trek across San Francisco Bay as part of the Alcatraz Swim for Sight.

Swimming the expanse of the Bay from Alcatraz Island that is known to have warded off would-be escapees from the notorious federal prison can prove to be a daunting task for many an athlete. But many of the participants in the Swim for Sight are putting themselves to that test with the added barrier of vision impairment.

“I think the mystique of Alcatraz is one of the driving forces — it sits there on the horizon … the waves are big, the ocean is cold, there's always the fear of sharks, and to overcome all those fears and do it with diminished sight is such an achievement,” said San Francisco resident Ron Hirson, a sighted event participant who helped spearhead the Swim for Sight.

The third annual Alcatraz Swim for Sight, scheduled Sunday from the iconic island to Aquatic Park, seeks to raise $50,000 to support That Man May See, the fundraising arm of UC San Francisco's Department of Ophthalmology, and the Francis I. Proctor Foundation for Research in Ophthalmology. The funds will help the organization in efforts to eliminate eye diseases and blindness, expand research and increase public awareness of eye health.

The benefit event was born out of an initial challenge for Hirson's wife, Lorie, who is affected by retinitis pigmentosa — an often-genetic eye disease that eventually leads to blindness — and wanted to complete a swim from Alcatraz for her 40th birthday while she retained some of her vision. A former competitive swimmer who has lost all of her peripheral vision, Hirson, 43, recalled how the open-water journey from the popular tourist destination was on her bucket list.

She has conquered the challenge on two prior occasions, despite swimming a path “like a snake” and taking longer than many other competitors to finish due to the loss of side vision.

“You don't realize how many senses you use to go in a straight line,” she noted.

One element not lost on Hirson is the picturesque setting for her charitable contest.

“There's nothing like being out in the middle of the Bay and looking back at the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge, watching the sun come up — it's superbeautiful and you're almost in awe,” she said.

But for San Francisco resident John deBenedetti, 52, who has been blind most of his life, not being able to take in the visual beauty of the Bay has been a factor in how the Alcatraz swim is nearly as challenging mentally as it is physically. That, and the longtime lore of the unforgiving Bay waters surrounding the old prison, he admits.

“That's the part of the challenge that I find so motivating — to try to get my body and my mind prepared because there is a big mental aspect of it with the waters, potential sharks and the temperature,” said deBenedetti, who will compete for the second time.

DeBenedetti swims while tethered to a kayaker, who gives directional signals to help guide the way, which deBenedetti says allows him to stay fully focused on his swimming strokes.

Another blind swimmer who is guided with the aid of a kayak is San Franciscan Marc Grossman, 42, a retinitis pigmentosa patient who describes open-water swimming as “liberating.” While performing strokes in a pool requires attention to lane markers and the walls, being in the open water allows the swimmer to disregard such obstacles and concentrate on the finish line, he explained.

“I actually like the open water because … I can just kind of swim and focus in on my breathing,” he said.

Competing alongside other people who struggle with similar eye diseases cannot only boost the participants' confidence but offer a new network of support, notes Dr. Jacque Duncan, professor of clinical ophthalmology at UCSF. Retinitis pigmentosa, for example, affects about one in 3,500 people and currently has no cure, she said.

“It also helps people realize they're not alone and that there are other people who are similarly affected,” said Duncan, calling the Alcatraz Swim for Sight a “community-building” experience.

The event began with 11 swimmers and has been capped at 50 this year, with a waiting list for additional competitors, including some international athletes. Hirson says she is gratified by the support to help raise awareness and money for efforts to reduce eye disease and blindness.

Whether the visually impaired swimmers are off Alcatraz Island or some other open-water destination, overcoming perceived limitations of vision loss is an “empowering” feeling, Hirson said. For Grossman, it's a way to break through stereotypes on the ability of blind people.

“Athletics is something where a lot of people don't expect people with disabilities to excel at … it's nice to give an example of somebody excelling at an athletic event,” he said.

Alcatraz Swim for Sight

When: Sunday, 7 a.m.

Competitors: 50 swimmers, many with vision impairment

Start: Alcatraz Island

Finish: Aquatic Park

Charity: That Man May See, fundraising arm of UCSF Ophthalmology Department


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