As a fourth-grader, Karen Rogers had a dream - to swim more than 30 miles across frigid, shark-infested waters, from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco Bay.
More than three decades later, she's about to get her chance.
Rogers, 43, plans to start from the rocky shores of the Farallones at 2 a.m. Friday, weather permitting. It should take her 14 to 16 hours, and if she does it - and no one has since 1967 - she'll become the third person known to have accomplished the swim.
"Blame my teacher who took us on a field trip to the Farallones," said Rogers, who grew up in El Sobrante and now lives at Lake Tahoe. "We were boating back to San Francisco, and the ride was bumpy, and everyone was seasick and miserable, even the teacher. But as I sat there looking at the city getting closer, I just thought, 'I would so much rather swim back than sail back.' "
A lifelong swimmer, Rogers has been training for nearly a year, crossing Lake Tahoe (21.5 miles) and breaking a women's speed record from the Golden Gate Bridge to the San Mateo Bridge by half an hour (7 hours, 21 minutes).
She's swum practice runs from a buoy 12 miles outside the Golden Gate to test the powerful ebbs and flows that will pull her closer to the city, and push her away, while pitching her up and down on a tidal roller coaster.
"If she makes it, she'll break the door down and this will become one of the biggest open-water swims for marathon swimmers," said one of her coaches, Bob Roper, a well-known San Francisco Bay swimmer who at age 71 still plunges in daily.
Rogers' team picked this week because the tides will be relatively mild and the water relatively warm - maybe 54 degrees, if Rogers is lucky, compared with the usual 49 or so.
"But that's what sets Karen apart," Roper said. "It doesn't matter if it doesn't get too warm. She's so strong and determined - maybe the strongest swimmer I've ever met and always swimming with a big smile across her face."
To put the distance in perspective, the Farallones-to-San Francisco swim is about 6 miles longer than the English Channel swim, and the water is as much as 10 degrees colder. And did we mention the sharks?
Others have tried
At least half a dozen swimmers have come up short, according to open-water swimming groups that track such records. A couple of weeks ago, a six-person relay attempt ended after the fifth swimmer became disoriented and had trouble breathing in the 49-degree water.
The first successful crossing took place in 1967, after a friendly competition broke out between two famed open-water swimmers - Army Lt. Col. Stewart Evans and a Swede named Ted Erikson.
Erikson's first try in August 1966 was slowed by three sharks, which were chased away with gunshots from a pilot boat when they got within 50 feet of him.
He had to give up after 17 hours - just 2 miles short of the mainland - when he developed hypothermia. When he was pulled into the boat, his left cheek and forearms were covered with jellyfish stings.
Erikson tried again a few weeks later, but extreme sea sickness from a 30-foot swell forced him to quit.
First to make it
In August 1967, Evans touched Duxbury Point in Bolinas - strong currents swept him north of his intended landing spot at Stinson Beach - and became the first person to lay claim to the Farallones-to-mainland feat. It took him 13 hours, 44 minutes to cover 28 miles in an "S" pattern, and as the exhausted Evans was taken away on a stretcher, he told reporters that his next swim would be "in my bathtub."
The next month, Erikson tried again and this time touched the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge - at 30 miles, 2 miles more than the distance covered by Evans, who swam the final stages with the Swede.
"I've won," Erikson gasped as he came ashore.
Rogers is hoping to finish at the South End Rowing Club at Aquatic Park, which would best Erikson by about 5 miles.
Changed his life
Erikson, now 82, wrote in an e-mail that the failed attempts changed his life "psychologically, physically and philosophically," and helped him lead a more fulfilled existence.
He offered one piece of advice for Rogers: "Go into that usual trance that one goes into on a long swim. And keep swimming."
Rogers knows the meditative sweet spot.
"The beauty of marathon swimming is you think about nothing," she said. "I'm a wife, a mother of two teenage boys. In my daily life, somebody always needs my attention. When I get in the water, no one is needing anything from me."
Rogers packed on about 15 pounds of "good fat" to insulate her from hypothermia and provide energy. She's intending to swim in goggles, cap and swimsuit, but not a wetsuit.
She will have to maintain a steady pace - about 68 to 72 strokes per minute to keep her body warm enough, yet not exhaust her.
A flotilla will surround her and chart her course; she'll stop only to chug nutrient-loaded drinks, being careful not to touch the boats.
"I've always felt more comfortable in the water than on land," Rogers said. "Ever since I was a kid. I feel like I belong there, passing through, trying to move from one place to the other. With that thought in mind, I'm really at ease."
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