Steve Neely, right, and his sons Chris, 29, left, and Matt, 32, pictured just before they boarded the ferry to Alcatraz Island for their swim back to the San Francisco Aquatic Park. (Courtesy of the Neely family)

Stafford: Quest to be healthy lands local man in waters of Alcatraz

The story of how Steve Neely found himself in a wet suit battling the currents between Alcatraz Island and San Francisco’s Aquatic Park on Oct. 17 goes back a year and a half to a day when he and Charlie Patterson shared a table at a Springfield Rotary Club function.

Neither was as rotund as a rotunda. But both agreed it was time to do something about the portions of their bodies that extended below their chins. When their wives seemed more energetically supportive of their thoughts than usual, the friends sought out the help of personal trainer Aaron Bair.

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After six months of four-a-week workouts, Neely was doing the push-ups he never had been able to do had gone down two pant sizes and one day found himself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool?”

Originally from east of Rochester, N.Y., Neely was a back-stroker on the Wittenberg University swim team in the mid 1970s when winter practices at the four-lane McGilvray Natatorium were punctuated by icicles falling into the pool from the glass roof above.

But that was not the cool thing he mentioned to the Neelys’ elder grown son, Matt, in a phone call to Rochester, Mich. Neely long ago had heard about the Alcatraz swim and thought with a moderate amount of training he might be able to negotiate the 1.2 miles of open water from the former prison island operated by the National Park Service to the Aquatic Park on San Francisco Bay.

It would be a family event, of course, including Matt and the younger Neely son, Chris, of Springfield. Both boys grew up swimming for the Springfield Family YMCA’s SPY swim team, where they learned what their father considers one of the key lessons of the sport: how to root for a teammate. Both boys also swam competitively in high school (Steve was Chris’ coach at Catholic Central High School) and Matt went on to a collegiate swim career at Western Kentucky University.

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Although the Neely family was quickly onboard with what 65-year-old Steve called the “Medicare Tour,” not everyone was as excited about his quest. Among the dissenters was a doctor and very close friend who advised him: “You need to start acting your age.”

His friend’s words came back to Neely on the day of a planned 1.8 mile swim at Alum Creek Reservoir north of Columbus. Although son Chris finished first in the adult division, his father was a DNF - a swimmer who did not finish.

“I think what happened is I had a panic attack,” Neely said. “It was my first race in a wet suit.”

His doubts about doing the Alcatraz Swim didn’t last long. By the time trainer Bair and friend Patterson asked him what he was going to do, Neely was already resolved to convert his do not finish into a do not fail.

“I had told too many people,” he said.

In subsequent training swims in Lake Erie, Buck Creek State Park’s Lake Lagonda and two inland lakes near his son’s home in Michigan, Neely got used to the wet suit, which though restricting helps with warmth and buoyancy. He also developed new skills needed for the open water.

“You do everything the opposite of what you’re taught to do” in a pool, Neely said. Where in a pool, it’s most efficient to take breaths looking to the side. But the absence of a thick black line in the bottom of the lake require lake swimmers to look ahead.

This requires a stroke that lifts the swimmer above the water to catch a breath and a look. Neely said this added a hitch to the stroke he was used to from pool swimming. “Changing my rhythm was not an easy thing.”

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Nor, he found, was staying on course, a lesson he learned in Lake Erie in which he estimates he swam about 1.5 miles to finish a 1.2 mile course. That day, he got some good advice on “sighting” from Sharon Frandsen, wife of Wittenberg University president Mike Frandsen, whom Neely now sees regularly as a member of the university’s board of directors.

As the mid-October event approached, Neely tapered down his workouts and slightly slowed his pace, conserving energy as he did for events during his collegiate swimming careers. He also decided to stay on land when his boys took to the waters off the San Francisco Aquatic Park the day they arrived.

That put him in touch with a local swimmer who told him the sea lions near the passage from the park to the bay had been feisty of late. The bite marks on the man’s shoulders were a graphic reminder of how the creature got its last name.

Neely did take a final training swim the day before the event and found himself buoyed by remarks that showed up on Facebook after his family posted a video of him in the water. He particularly appreciated a posting from Mickey McNeil of the SPY program, an experienced rooter.

During a briefing the night before the event, organizers gave some tips on sighting to the swimmers, which varied depending on how fast they were. In addition to pointing out the general water current that would push them off course, they would encounter a series of 10 individual currents that would require them to adjust their headings.

There also was the standard information about the unlikelihood of a shark attack, because of the sharks’ preference for cooler, deeper and saltier water to the west of the islands and of other potential seagoing hazards: “We had to be out of the shipping lanes within 45 minutes, because the Coast Guard was holding up freighters.”

Organizers offered a piece of advice that he appreciated: That they pause halfway through their exertions to enjoy the sights of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Oakland Bay Bridge and the San Francisco skyline.

Shortly after 9 the next morning, the three members of Team Neely were among the 300 swimmers to jump three at a time from the deck of a ferry into the waters off Alcatraz. Matt was among the early jumpers and stronger swimmers, finishing 19th in 28 minutes. Chris, who plunged in with his father, took 36 minutes and finished 47th. Their father finished in 44 minutes and in the top half of swimmers, which pleased him, in part because the swim was a challenge.

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Toward the end of the route, “those currents were hitting me,” Neely said. Although the resident sea lions didn’t pose a problem, “I did have to fight a little bit to get to the opening” into the Aquatic Park.

Once there, “I just wanted to get to the beach,” a final push of about 500 yards into the open arms of his family.

“To have your son hug you and tell you ‘I love you’ is special,” Neely said. He also remarked on a hug from daughter Katie who called him a melon-head in his heavier days “and doesn’t anymore.”

The Neelys are now considering annual trips to open water swims, which Steve is encouraging trying to address the area below their chins to find something similar they would enjoy.

“If you train and get in halfway decent shape, you can do it. You’ve got to pick something and aim toward it - and don’t try to go too fast.”

Which sounds a lot like an open water swim.

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