Valley man completes Alcatraz swim
May 4, 2013
Inspiration doesn't often give warning before it strikes.
For Gardnerville resident Doug Robbins, it came in 2009 while thumbing through the pages of a Sunday London Times.
Robbins had just lost his wife, and was looking for something to latch on to in continuing their life-long love of travel.
"It's life, you know, the way it goes," Robbins said. "During that time, I just wanted to be able to keep up with what we used to do when she was alive, which was to travel a lot."
So off the pages of the Times jumped an intriguing photo — riding motorcycles across Africa.
"I thought, 'How cool is that?'" Robbins said. "But then your imagination starts to run, and what if I crashed. Well, that wouldn't work."
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"There were these swimmers, swimming in Greece," Robbins said. "I thought that was cool. I'd never been to Greece."
So he booked a week-long trip and sent his money to a company called Swim Trek with his heart set on the new endeavor.
"Then I realized, I have to learn how to swim," he said with a laugh. "Seriously, I'd never swam for any real distance."
Thus began a multi-year journey, starting with a swim pass and an instructional DVD and culminating two weeks ago on the shores of the San Francisco Bay, as Robbins navigated the 1.5-mile swim from Alcatraz to the city banks.
"That's what I'd been working toward," Robbins said. "I wanted a goal, a big goal, to celebrate my 67th birthday.
"I booked a guide who had done the swim 967 times and he followed me in a boat, kind of acting as a life guard and helping me out with the tides.
"They took me out to the island, I just started swimming. It was cold, cold water. You can't see your hands, it's so murky. You're thinking of sharks, you're feeling the tides taking you out toward the Golden Gate. The city, it just doesn't seem to get any closer. Then, all of the sudden, you touch that first rock and it settles in. I'd made it.
"It was a moment of pure elation, something to cross off my bucket list."
With the tides to his back, Robbins completed the swim in 38 minutes.
Thirty-eight minutes that took a matter of four years to achieve.
Rewind back to 2009.
Shortly after booking his trip to Greece, Robbins wandered into the Carson Valley Swim Center and tried to swim a lap.
Flatly, it just didn't go well.
"I could barely even do it," he said. "One lap."
He returned the following day. And the next.
He purchased a DVD on triathlons and swimming and studied it every night, thinking about how he could improve his strokes.
"I just worked on it and worked on it," he said. "Six days a week for almost four months."
By then, he was swimming six miles without stopping.
"I realized I'd be able to do it."
He showed up in Greece and jumped in the water with his tour group.
"I'd never prepared for salt water," he said with a laugh. "All of the sudden, you're getting three-, four-foot waves. I'd never been in that type of rough water like I saw in Greece.
"It was definitely a learning experience."
It was also a success.
The trips continued, including a distance swim in Croatia.
Forty-nine-minute miles dropped to 36-minute miles. After Croatia, Robbins planned a trip to Turkey, but a shoulder injury set him back a full year.
"The doctor said we could do surgery or I could stay off it for a year," Robbins said. "I chose to stay off it. I was sad. That was when I started to realize that I'd come to love swimming.
"It'd become a passion for me."
Once back in the water, he set about training for the Alcatraz swim. He set up a trip to the British Virgin Islands for a 19-mile swim as a precursor.
"Physical activity has always been a part of my life," Robbins said. "It was track, football and wrestling in high school. Along the way I broke my legs skiing, then I picked up scrap metal in my legs while serving in the Green Berets in Vietnam.
"My life has been a series of rearranging the physical activities I can do, and swimming is the latest."
Robbins, who moved to Carson Valley in 2005 after selling a cattle ranch north of Reno, said he's unsure what his next challenge will be.
"It's too early to say," he said. "I don't know, but there will be something. I'll know it when I see it."
Inspiration, after all, often strikes without warning.