Escaping From Alcatraz: Major Rogers Swims for Cancer, for Healing, and Because He Can
“Because it’s there.” This is the creed of every mountain climber as he or she reasons to scale the dangerous peaks across the world. I suppose this is one of the best reasons I can give as to why I have chosen to swim from Alcatraz Island three times in the past four years.
There is, however, another reason I did it: Healing. My incredible, late wife, Dr. Natalie Claussen-Rogers, passed away of cancer in August 2011. She had a golden heart, and an American spirit, grown out of her Mid-Western roots. Natalie was Tulare County’s lead psychologist. She cared deeply for those in her care, and for those she wished she could reach with her care. Tulare County had an angel on its payroll.
The first time I did the Alcatraz swim was in 2012, almost a year to the day Natalie had passed a year earlier. It gave me something to focus on and a place for me to leave the stress of the situation – in the swimming pool during daily training. The second year, I did it for the same reasons. The third year, I noticed I had actually signed up for the 2015 swim instead of the 2014 swim, which had sold out. However, it gave me some more time to think about something I had considered since the first swim: could I make it from the Island to the shore sporting similar clothing the inmates of the time would have been wearing had they entered the water on an escape attempt? I even went as far as to not do any swim training. The idea came to me while perched on a bar stool at a local pub. I figured the inmates didn’t have a chance to train, so to make the swim more authentic, I wouldn’t train either. Even though I have always been a strong swimmer, the prospect still worried me, as I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
During the next few months, I collected a group of eight support swimmers to follow me on my swim. I recruited a team made up of young men I have coached at Redwood High School: Six Redwood water polo seniors, an alumnus, and the schools JV polo coach. They earned their spots by helping fundraise for the Natsfund foundation.
We rode out to the island on a ferry, filled with a few hundred other participants. Most were wearing wetsuits, but there was one participant dressed in denim: me. My theory for this was that if you escaped from the Island, you can’t completely shed your clothes; if an escapee did make it to shore, they wouldn’t want to attract attention by running around in their underpants. So, I worked on lessening my clothing resistance. I also wore an inmate-issued wool flat cap, for the novelty of it.
When people ask me my thoughts on the fate of the three infamous missing inmates who escaped from Alcatraz (the ones made famous in the Clint Eastwood movie, “Escape from Alcatraz”), I say this: conventional wisdom says they drowned, however, it’s typical that bay drowning victims eventually surface or wash up on beach shores outside the Golden Gate. Those three convicts disappeared without a single trace of any bodies, even with massive search efforts. If any of them did make it, they would be wise to keep their mouths shut about it, as there surely would be a faction of Americans who would insist they return to prison to finish their sentences. Freedom is, in fact, more valuable than fame.
The day of the race, the San Francisco Bay water was reported at 65°F, which, though cold, was 5° warmer than my last two swims, both done without a wetsuit.
The ferry stopped near the shore of the Island, and moments later, the side hatch was cleared and we spilled into the Bay. To say the water wasn’t cold is far from true. To say I didn’t notice it, however, is the odd truth. At the point I hit the water, my adrenaline was pumping so hard that the water temperature didn’t register at first. At a minimum I felt it, but didn’t react to it; at least not at first. We gathered in the water as a group, and at the sounding of the ferry horns blast, we were off.
At that point, everything was really a sensory overload. Just imagine all of this happening at once: you taste the saltwater that finds its way into your mouth; you see the color of the water as you swim, but then your eyes can’t see the darkness in the ocean below you; you experience the quick fatigue that comes with an adrenaline rush, forcing you to slow your pace until body functions stabilize; you hear the babble of bubbles that buzz by your ears as you exhale along with the sound of your lungs as you draw the next breath.
Another familiar feeling came over me, as it did for everyone – when is this going to end? As you swim and swim, Alcatraz Island seems to stay the same size, and the shore doesn’t seem to be getting closer. A low level of fatigue started to take its grip. For some, it took a chokehold, as every few minutes a jet ski would pull a struggling participant to shore.
On this swim, a new sensation came over me that I hadn’t experienced during my previous swims. I began to feel nauseous, and one of my team members suggested it came from swallowing too much salt water. The Bay water had a light chop to it this time around, so every so often when I turned my head to breathe, I ate a wave. The feeling eventually subsided after we treaded water for a few minutes, and quickly after, we were swimming again.
Before every swim, people always ask me what I think about the sharks. Prior to my first swim, I researched the matter and found that, though there are in fact sharks in the bay, they are typically ground feeders, not man-eaters. The shark rumors were largely brought about in order to thwart inmates from escaping. So whenever people asked me about sharks, I just shrugged, mostly so I’d look brave and cool. My mistake came later when I researched the shark situation again, right before the swim. A new report came out that said they had tracked some great whites into the bay. More than likely, the encroachment was born from the growing seal population in the Bay. As scary as it was to continue on with the swim, it was too late.
The odd thing was, during the swim, my body became the rational for the mind. During the brief moments when the thought of a shark would enter my mind, my body responded, “look, you should worry more about exhaustion, hypothermia, or the car ride home— because those are the realities of the danger you actually face.” Then I just kept swimming toward the shore. It was at these times I would fill my head with memories of Natalie. Picturing her smile, remembering her laugh, loving her heart, feeling that she was right there with me, lending me strength.
We reached the shore 56 minutes later. The mix of fatigue and instant gravity made standing a little tricky, but the sight of loved ones on shore and the sounds of their cheers for the group lifted my spirits and lent strength to my legs. We came out ahead of several other participants in the race; we were a strong bunch. With every beat of my heart, my soul pulsed with life.
For me, this swim represented a lot of things, aside from an activity to help my heart heal. It represented a group of friends who came along for the ride and braved the danger alongside me. I also swam in honor of Natsfund board member, Tammi Vogt-Mendoza, who just weeks before the swim was diagnosed with breast cancer. She bravely carried on foundation functions while undergoing treatment. I guess when it’s all summed up, we swam for one reason above all else— because we could. We were alive, young, and healthy. I can’t find a better way to honor those who we have loved and lost along the way, by not simply being alive, but by living to the fullest while we can; to not be someone that merely stands on a shore, but to be one who jumps into the currents.
When all was said and done, my crew and our generous donors helped us raise $2,500 to go toward The Natalie Claussen-Rogers Scholarship Fund (NatsFund), which was set up for charitable causes that were near and dear to my late wife Natalie’s heart, including scholarships for students. These funds will allow Natalie’s heart’s work to carry on for many years.
Text by Major Rogers | Photos by Hollie King