The bay stretched before them.
In a few moments, they’d steal away from the once island prison, splashing into the 58-degree water, their arms reaching out for shore. One stroke. Then another. Again.
A cycle as endless as the tides.
“Monotony is part of the existential exercise,” the eldest said. “If you’re incapable of appreciating how absurd it is, then you’re not going to stay there very long.”
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The four shivered under the October sky. Fog occluded their view and draped each in a misty shroud. But on they swam, feeling their way toward the harbor and victory.
By the end, both were in hand.
“We were pretty well spread out,” said the family’s patriarch. “So it was like swimming by yourself, somewhat intimidating.”
Fear, though, is an old friend for Ed Duncan. They’ve met many times.
Duncan, the founder of local swimming organization Kimmer Aquatics, is 71. He started open water swimming in 1965, then with the famed Dolphin Club in San Francisco. A former collegiate swimmer at the University of California Berkeley, he returned to the old haunt by the bay about a month ago, this time with three of his children: Stacie, Ryan and Marleigh. In the team’s inaugural competition, a 1.5-mile trek from Alcatraz to Saint Francis Yacht Harbor, the group took first.
It was near the same place where Duncan had done a round trip of the Golden Gate Bridge so many Octobers ago. In that moment, the bridge, the bay and miles of open water were all that stretched between 1965 and 2016.
“I remember that was an October day that was flat and placid and lovely,” he said. “What you pray for is no wind.
“The wind creates havoc, it creates swirl and it creates chop, and all of a sudden you’re swimming in a washing machine.”
Both days, Duncan remembers, were calm. Yet the latter may have never happened.
A splash of cold water is nothing compared to chemo.
The fight of his life
Duncan is a cancer survivor. He was one of the lucky ones. According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer has a one-year relative survival rate of 20 percent. That drops to 7 percent at five years.
“I should have been buying lottery tickets,” Duncan said.
In February 2008, he underwent surgery. The tumor was stage 1, less than a centimeter in size, but it had settled on a bile duct, setting off a code yellow: Duncan turned jaundiced. With pancreatic cancer, symptoms normally don’t present until it metastasizes. A five-week hospitalization and chemotherapy followed.
But ever since, he’s been symptom-free. “You discover a lot of things about yourself when you’re in a hospital bed,” he said.
Duncan says something similar about being in the water, which he returned to at the behest of his daughters in 2013. Life’s ebbs and flows seem to recede in the bob of the waves.
What goes through your mind, then, when it’s just you, your screaming muscles and an unsympathetic Poseidon?
“Oddly enough, music,” Duncan said, laughing. “Since we were out at Berkeley, I had the Cal fight song going through my head.”
Then there’s the basic, let’s-stay-alive functions to remember. It sounds simple, but easy to forget in the spindrift’s brine.
“You have to remember to do something you take for granted,” he added. “Sometimes you have to force yourself to take a breath.”
A new journey
When Duncan dove back into open water after nearly 35 years away, he seized up, his body bound by a mixture of shock and ice.
“The hardest thing was actually getting back in the water,” he said. “If you’ve ever had a panic attack, they truly are immobilizing. When I first went back into the water, I couldn’t go more than about 100 yards without getting out.
“I was scared and couldn’t breathe.”
But since then, he’s competed with his family near the Statue of Liberty, in the Hudson River and in the familiar bay eulogized by Otis Redding. (He says he often thinks of songs of the 1960s when he swims.)
Last year, he moved with his wife, Kathie, also an avid swimmer, to Boalsburg. Besides being a father of five, Duncan is also a grandfather of nine. Ever since his daughters got him back into the water, he said, he’s been busy both on land and at sea.
His own journey dovetails with that of a next-door neighbor. His family decided to name Kimmer Aquatics after Kim Lichman, a retired teacher who is currently fighting a recurrence of colon cancer.
“She’s one of the bravest people I’ve ever come across,” he said.
Duncan would know. Amid the waves, he finds peace.