Serious Sisu: Kim Chambers

© Kate webber

© Kate webber

San Francisco-based Kiwi, Kim Chambers, is a long-distance, open-water swimmer, and one of only six people in the world to have completed the Oceans Seven challenge. It took a freak accident at the age of thirty and the unraveling of life-as-she-knew-it to introduce Kim to her spiritual home on the open water.

In 2015, Kim became the first woman to swim the thirty miles between San Francisco Bay’s Farallon Islands and the Golden Gate Bridge, raising money and awareness for Warrior Canine Connection, a charity that assists returned servicemen and women. In September this year, weather conditions forced Kim to pull out over half way through a 93-mile nonstop swim from Sacramento to Tiburon, an experience that the 39-year-old says has helped to redefine her definition of failure.

In November, Kim will join an international team of swimmers for a historic swim across the Dead Sea to raise awareness of the deterioration of this critical body of water. Kim works for Adobe and has a History of Arts Degree as well as a Masters of Science from the University of California, Berkeley.

What was it like growing up on a sheep and cattle farm in Te Kuiti, New Zealand?

I grew up with two brothers in the 1980s, and our parents really just let us ‘be’ out there.

Growing up on a farm was pretty special, but I was also a ballerina. Even though I grew up surrounded by agriculture and muddy gumboots, my life revolved around dance. I ended up studying under the Royal Academy of Dancing (RAD) and travelled around New Zealand with my mum doing ballet competitions. Being on stage was sometimes good and sometimes I’d come off in tears, but my mum would always say: “just get back out there”. That has stayed with me forever.

What was your relationship with sport?

Ballet is a very disciplined sport. At school I played netball and tennis, but I wasn’t very good at any of those. In the summer we had swimming lessons, so I did learn how to swim and about water safety, but that was the extent of it.

I danced right up until the age of 17 when I sat my intermediate exam, which meant that I was qualified to teach ballet. I left New Zealand at the very tender age of seventeen-and-a-half and I came to America.

I was accepted into the University of California, Berkeley, where my older brother had been recruited for rowing. As a family we travelled a lot, and my parents just wanted us to see the world. They always said: “Go and be the best you can, and we will be right behind you.”

When I arrived at Berkeley, I started rowing too. I had no upper body strength, I was a ballerina, I had the leg strength, but here I was in a weights room doing bench presses and pull-ups. I trained to a pretty rigorous regime, but I wasn’t very good at rowing, so I only did it for a couple of years. After that I was pretty much a gym-rat. I took my ballet discipline into overdrive, and would be on the treadmill or the elliptical at the same time every day, watching the calories and watching the mileage.

I became really chained to that world. I was striving for something, but I didn’t know what. From an exercise standpoint, my whole life I’ve been moving. Here I was in a gym moving, but not really knowing what I was moving for.

© kate webber

© kate webber

Then something happened to derail all that. Can you describe the moment that forced you in a new direction?

Everything changed for me in July 2007. I was working in tech and doing freelance design work while living with a boyfriend at the time in San Francisco. Really, it was a very superficial life. I was making quite a lot of money, I would wear really expensive high heels, and it was all about image. I’m the first to admit that.

This day, I was literally in a panic, late to get to a job, and I slipped down the staircase. I ploughed down the staircase and my right leg hit a ceramic pot that I’d placed at the bottom with a plant in it. One of the many things that ballet has given me is a very high pain tolerance, and I was wearing pants, so I wasn’t aware of how badly my leg had been injured. I’m also pretty stubborn, and I’m the last to ask for help, so I was still determined to get to this job. I just said to myself “I can deal with this, it’s fine, it will go away”.

The leg gave out from underneath me a few hours later.

My next memory is waking up from surgery. From a medical perspective, my injury was like this science experiment. I was diagnosed with Acute Compartment Syndrome. Pressure had built up in my leg, oxygen was not flowing to major nerves, and my limb was essentially just dying. Ninety per cent of people affected by Acute Compartment Syndrome end up as amputees, and doctors estimated I was thirty minutes away from amputation.

I had a small section of my leg chopped out, and they had to slice each side of my calf. I just had these two big, gaping holes. Once they’d saved my leg, they gave me a one percent chance of ever walking unassisted again. The next issue was risk of infection. I spent a lot of time in a burns unit inside these hyperbaric chambers. Surgeons took a skin graft of about six inches by eight inches from my thigh, to patch me up. It was just a horrifying experience.

What went through your mind as you tried to make sense of this?

I think most of the time I was worried about the scars! I used to wear short dresses and bikinis, so it was just this awful situation where I couldn’t believe this had happened to me. I’ll always remember when the surgeon came into my room and explained the situation and the odds. Inside I just kept repeating: “this is not going to be my life. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I am going to recover from this.”

It was a very pivotal moment, because I could have just accepted the prognosis. Everything is up here in the mind, so I applied my discipline, my perfectionism and my stubbornness. Looking back, I feel like it was the ‘universe’ looking out for me. I really had to have my life derailed in order to switch gears.

How did you start to rebuild your life?

I had multiple surgeries and ended up in physical therapy for a very long time. It took me two years to walk again. I didn’t work. My mum flew out from New Zealand to look after me. Honestly, I look back, and I think it was the best thing that has ever happened to me. At the time, I thought it was the worst. I don’t really know how I made it through, but I look back, and it changed my life forever.

Two years after I’d had my injury, I was just getting back in to work, wearing an ankle-foot orthotic. I tried to get outfits for work that would conceal it. I walked with a limp. I just didn’t want people to see me as ‘other’.

Kim Chambers

How did you find your way to the water?

For some reason, I was just drawn to it. I was craving freedom. I felt so stuck, because I couldn’t really walk very far. I couldn’t run. I just wanted to be free, so I put aside my self-conscious horror of having these massive scars, and I got in the pool in a swimsuit. I realised when I was in that pool, even though my swimming stroke was pretty bad, that no one saw me as anything other than just someone swimming in a pool. That was very revealing for me, and a game-changer. For once I wasn’t impaired.

I started swimming laps. Someone told me, well you swim 80 laps, that’s a mile. My discipline kicked in and I would go there every day and swim eighty laps, no more, no less. Then about a month or so later, these two guys asked me whether I had ever considered swimming in the San Francisco Bay, and I just thought that was a ridiculous idea. It was freezing cold!

But in November 2009 I got in the water, which was about twelve degrees Celsius. I was wearing just a regular swimsuit, cap and goggles. There is video footage, which is something I treasure. I had no idea that moment would be a pivotal one in my life. It was just like everything in my body and my mind came alive. I realised this is what I have been looking for. I have swum in that Bay pretty much every day since then. Even if I don’t swim miles and miles, I just have to connect with that. It’s a very centering thing. Every time I get in that water, I’m grateful.

When did you decide to start pushing yourself as a swimmer?

I joined the Dolphin Club, which is an open-water swim club here. Through that, I unknowingly immersed myself in a community that is really very special. All these people are connected to the water.

It doesn’t matter how much money you make, or who you are. The magic is that if you surround yourself with like-minded people who say: “yes of course you can do that! Or, why wouldn’t you do that?” your possibilities and your horizons just expand.

You didn’t let the fact that you’re not a natural swimmer stand in the way?

No, I just kept swimming in the Bay, and about six months later I wanted to do the mile-and-a-quarter from Alcatraz to San Francisco. We did my first open-water swim on my 33rd Birthday. Then everything sort of gathered momentum. I did an English Channel relay swim, and one around the Island of Manhattan.

In 2011 I started hearing about the Farralon Islands (the Farallones), where Great White Sharks breed. This group of swimmers thought it was a good idea to swim there, and I just thought, what a grand adventure! The organiser of that swim was Vito Bialla, and he’s a dear friend and mentor of mine now. He’ll be the first to tell people that when I started swimming with him, I could not swim my way out of a paper bag, with flippers on.

He was right, but he saw potential in me, perhaps tenacity? I ended up being the only woman on this team, and we made a world record as the first team to swim to the Farrallon Islands. Two weeks later I was organising the first all woman’s team. Then I decided I wanted to do it solo.

How did you deal with those people who thought you were taking too many risks?

I’m realising that if someone tells me that I can’t do something, or I shouldn’t be doing it, it just motivates me more. I think well, no, I’ll show you. With each swim, I realised I was capable of far more than I thought I was. The flipside of that is asking what is your edge and where do you stop? I don’t have a death wish. I love my life. I do love the adrenaline of swimming in the wild ocean, but it’s about at what point you decide something is not a good idea.

Swimming is my way of showing how thankful I am for the medical team who saved my leg. I show how grateful I am by using the full potential that they gave me. I feel like I have been given a second chance with my life and I don’t want to waste it.

How have your forged a new relationship with your body?

I describe my body now as a vessel, and it has to be as sea-worthy as possible. When I talk to young girls I tell them: “this body, got me to France. This body, got me from Northern Ireland to Scotland. Just this body.” I don’t wear a wet suit. I’ve learned a whole new way of looking at my body: if you rest it right, if you fuel it right, it can do whatever you want it to do. I put on weight intentionally for these swims, but that’s a healthy part of the process. I feel very empowered by what my body can do for me. I remind myself of what this body does for me, and it’s this machine. I think that is true for anybody’s body.

I am a swimmer now!

How did your swimming evolve from being about regaining your strength, to being for others?

It started with the team who were swimming to the Farrallones—they’re called ‘Night Train’. They do distance swims around the world for charity, and it was really from being part of this team back in 2011 that I saw a way of making it about more than yourself. It just happened very organically, we swim for charity – a lot of them are military based. I have a lot of friends in the military, and my grandfather served in World War Two. I have a very deep connection to that. Of course I’m goal oriented, but for me it hasn’t been about setting world records. It’s about pushing my own boundaries, and then discovering through speaking and writing, the joy of sharing it. This is a sport where you don’t get gold medals and you don’t get cash prizes. You spend a lot of time training for these swims, and you have to be in it for very meaningful reasons.

© kate webber

© kate webber

Describe what it was like taking on the Oceans Seven challenge.

I wanted to do some solo swims, and my grandfather was quite ill at the beginning of 2012. I’d heard about people swimming across the Cook Strait, and he was the proudest Kiwi I ever knew, so I wanted that to be my first successful solo swim. I completed the swim in 8 hours and 23 minutes, and I got to show my Poppa the video of me swimming with dolphins alongside, before he passed away. Then I heard about this swim in Hawaii, across the Molokai Channel. For that swim I definitely bit off more than I could chew. There are only about 25 people who have done it, and it’s a monster swim. There were 25-knot winds and I was stung by jellyfish. It took me almost 20 hours of swimming, but I completed it.

I heard that was part of the Oceans Seven, which is an open water swimming equivalent to the seven summits of mountaineering, and I thought well, I’ve done two, why not do five more? With a lot of support, I just started knocking them off. In every photo you’ll see of me finishing a swim, I’m in tears. They’re not tears of being upset, I’m just blown away that when you put your mind and your body to something that you can achieve it.

You discovered recently that swims don’t always go to plan, and can’t always be completed. What was that experience like?

There were a lot of lessons in that. Leading up to my Farrallon swim last year, my biggest fear was actually not a shark attack, it was fear of failure, as I saw it.

In September I decided to go for an even bigger goal—a record swim of 93 miles from Sacramento to Tiburon, on the western edge of San Francisco Bay.

I had trained extensively for this huge swim. I’d done sleep deprivation training, months and months of Friday night swimming the equivalent of an English Channel every Friday night. I trained every morning, going to work on a Friday, swimming through the night and then staying up all day Saturday.

On that swim, the conditions just deteriorated, 20-odd hours in. I made it to 24 hours and 17 minutes and I swam 54 miles instead of 93. But when I got out on to the boat, I was smiling. I realised that I was totally at peace with that outcome. I know Mother Nature is always the boss. That was the first time I had been ‘pulled’ from a swim because of the conditions, but my heart was really full. I’d already set a personal record. It was the second longest swim accomplished by a New Zealander, and the longest amount of time, so I had these little nuggets of achievement for myself. And, I was still raising that awareness for Warrior Canine Connection. I didn’t reach my goal, but I think it was something better than that. I realised that I didn’t have such a fear of failure. It was about re-thinking success and failure in my head. Every swim has given me a gift, and this one provided this whole other level of maturity that I wouldn’t have had a year ago.

What are the next challenges you want to set for yourself?

This year I flirted with the idea of rowing across the pacific. I got picked for a team, a group of four women, spending about sixty days at sea, unassisted. It’s called the Great Pacific Race. I had a sabbatical from work but in the end not all crew could commit, so it wasn’t meant to be.

Who knows, but whatever the next challenge is, it has to be something athletic.

When did you first become aware that others found inspiration in you?

I put a website together about my swimming, and I started writing, to process my experiences. I started to get emails from people, telling me quite personal stories. They would tell me that my swimming had inspired them to do certain things. It still doesn’t feel quite real.

I now have this public profile, and I just love sharing it with people. I love the speaking aspect of it, and I’m working on a book right now. I have a documentary coming out about this part of my life – it’s called Kim Swims (due mid-2017). I feel like this is my purpose – to have these adventures and to share and help others. I don’t have kids, but I love talking to children, especially when it’s groups of young girls, and I can see the light bulbs going off in their heads as I’m talking to them.

What messages do you share with them?

The main thing I tell them is that if they think they can’t do something, or they are afraid of doing something, that’s exactly when they should do it. I think the real treasure lies in discovering the sense of self that you didn’t know you had. I talk to them about facing fear. If you put your mind and your body to something, and you surround yourself with people who believe in you and support you, you can do anything. I’m the first person to admit, there’s nothing solo about these swims I do. It is about surrounding yourself with people who will encourage you.

What advice do you have for parents of girls in particular?

I really think that it’s about setting a child up for success. We’re not talking about monetary success, or status, whatever that is. It’s about success for themselves, and I think that it’s really about letting your kids go and do their thing. I think you learn the most when you make mistakes, or you don’t meet the goal that you want. It’s also about not boxing-in an individual or pigeonhole-ing them into a role that you think they would be perfect for.

For me, my parents just let me self-discover. I mean, my dad was pretty freaked out about the Farrallones swim and the shark risks, but he let me do it. My parents knew that if they’d said no, I’d have found a way to do it anyway, so they may as well support me. They are always there for me. I think that’s what most kids need to know, is that they have parents or adult mentors that have got their backs. 

Claire Delahunty