Kids conquer Alcatraz swim
Brother, sister among youngest to complete chilly endurance test
On the morning of April 10, eight-year-old Malena Nguyen and her 10-year-old brother Jordan woke up early. They didn't have a special breakfast, "unless a bagel is special," Jordan says, giggling. They took a ferry across the San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz, the former prison-island. And then they hopped into the 52-degree water.
"At first you don't realize you're cold because you're in too much shock," Jordan says in an interview at his family's Mountain View home. "Then you just keep swimming. You swim and you swim."
The brother-sister team did swim and swim — for an hour and a half without stopping. They are among the youngest to ever complete the 1.4-mile swim from Alcatraz to the shores of San Francisco.
Malena says they swam freestyle the whole way.
"It's kind of hard to keep your face in the water because it's so cold," she says.
Wetsuits are vital.
They trained hard for six weeks leading up to the April event, waking up early and traveling to San Francisco's Aquatic Park on Saturday mornings. This was their first dip into the world of open-water swimming, but both Malena and Jordan are seasoned competitive swimmers. Malena started swimming at the age of three, and Jordan began at age five. They swim together on the Los Altos Mountain View Aquatics Club team.
"I used to sometimes cry (at swim meets) when I was five and six, but then I got really used to it," Malena says.
Her favorite swimsuit is an all-black one with white LAMVAC letters on it. "That's my favorite suit because I got better times," she says.
Both swimmers compete in freestyle, butterfly, breast and back strokes, with distances ranging from 25 to 200 meters. They train at Eagle Park pool most days of the week and compete on weekends. They've traveled as far as Lake Tahoe to compete, which Jordan says was fun to do, "except it was cold."
Jordan, at 10 years old, already has a wry sense of humor — and a great poker face. Malena speaks softly but knows exactly what she wants to say. She usually lets her brother answer questions first — which he is eager to do — but she isn't afraid to speak up if she disagrees.
Malena and Jordan both say they like math. Jordan says he likes books, too, but it's unclear whether he actually likes reading them.
"There's this one I keep my money in," Jordan says. "But I'm not going to tell you which one."
Malena is surprised by this statement.
"You like that book?" she asks, to which Jordan answers, "Well, I like keeping my money in it."
Friendly competition seems to mark the dynamic of the brother-sister team.
"They push each other," says their father, Tuan Nguyen.
Both Tuan and his wife Sandra did competitive sports in high school, but neither was a swimmer. Tuan describes their Alcatraz swim as "quite amazing."
"My wife and I were so nervous we couldn't sleep for months (before the swim)," Tuan says. Even though the day of the swim was emotional, Tuan says he and his wife were "so proud."
Sandra thinks that swimming has been a positive influence in her kids' life.
"Sports help them with focus," she says. "They seem to be happier kids."
Malena and Jordan say they were two of only a few kids on their team to do the April Alcatraz swim. They first learned about the swim from their coach at their swim club.
The event is organized by the Foundation for Aquatic Safety and Training and has been held annually since 2006. Jordan says the foundation raises awareness for people who can't swim.
Tuan says that the foundation is opening a new Bay Area chapter, of which Malena and Jordan plan on becoming members.
"Our children look forward to being members of this new chapter and use their Alcatraz swim as the platform for educating other Mountain View children about aquatic safety and the benefits of swimming," Tuan says in an email.
Tuan says both kids were excited by the prospect of the Alcatraz swim.
"It didn't take much encouraging," he says.
For the swim, the kids were paired up with adults who swam next to them. There were also speedboats with radios to monitor the weather and current conditions. All the necessary safety precautions were taken, Tuan says.
"There were strong currents that day," he says.
Halfway through the swim, Malena says she started feeling sick and cold, but she knew she had to keep going.
"I think I had hypothermia," she says. "It was so hard just to finish it, but when I was at the mouth where the docks are I felt like it was a big accomplishment."
Tuan also credits Malena's third grade teacher at Landels Elementary, Marie Doolittle, with helping her complete the swim.
"Throughout Malena's training, she expressed self doubt, but with Mrs. Doolittle's unwavering encouragement, she persevered," he says in an e-mail.
Doolittle drove up to San Francisco and cheered for the kids during the swim, he says.
Malena — whose favorite animal is a dolphin — says she wants to be a marine biologist when she's older.
"She copied me!" Jordan interrupts, though he says he now wants to be an Olympian. Malena denies her brother's accusation.
"I like sea animals," she says. "I like the water, too."
Malena says she was even comfortable in the open water of the San Francisco Bay.
"When I was going around the docks, I wasn't scared of the fish but it smelled bad," she says with a giggle.
Malena and Jordan both say they're looking forward to summer when they can swim for fun with their friends. They're not sure whether they are going to do the Alcatraz swim again, but are proud and glad to have completed it once.
"I feel like I can accomplish anything in life," Malena says.