Campus & community, People, Profiles, Campus news

COVID Stories: When swimming in the bay, ‘everything else falls away’

By Gretchen Kell

Laura Counts, in her wetsuit, joins friends in the bay off Alameda at sunrise.
Gorgeous sunrises, each one unique, are some of the sights that reward open water swimmers, like Laura Counts (right), in San Francisco Bay. (Photo by Anna Smith Clark)
Berkeley Haas staffer Laura Counts, in a neoprene wetsuit and cap, looks out on San Francisco Bay standing in shallow water near the shore at sunrise, preparing for a morning swim.

In her neoprene wetsuit and cap, Laura Counts looks out onto San Francisco Bay, readying for a sunrise swim, a discipline that has brought her a sense of gratitude during the COVID-19 crisis. (Photo by Anna Smith Clark)

The COVID-19 pandemic has separated us, but sharing stories about how members of the campus community have been surviving — and even thriving — since last spring can help draw us together. Berkeley News is gathering inspiring personal tales of heartache and triumph related to the coronavirus and will run them periodically in the coming weeks. If you’d like to pitch us your story, send a brief email to news@berkeley.edu .

This first story is from Laura Counts, an a ssociate communications director at Berkeley Haas.


I’ve lived in the Bay Area for almost 30 years, first in San Francisco, but mostly in Oakland. I originally moved to the East Bay to attend graduate school at UC Berkeley. I’ve always spent a lot of time outside. But while I’ve appreciated the beauty of the water, I can’t say I felt especially called to the San Francisco Bay — and certainly not called into the bay. I windsurfed for a spell in the 90s, but at the time, I thought of the water as super-polluted. I wouldn’t have swum in it by choice.

Laura Counts smiles in the shallow water off Alameda wearing her wetsuit.

Laura Counts swims two to three times a week, usually at sunrise, in the bay off Alameda. (Photo by Anna Smith Clark)

That changed one day last summer after a cyclist friend suggested a swim in the bay. It didn’t sound very appealing, but I’m always up for something new, a break from routine. Four of us swam out from the little beach by Albany Bulb one morning. There was some chop, so it was bouncy and fun. We were surrounded by pelicans. I love pelicans for their prehistoric look, so it felt like entering a whole new world as I floated on my back and watched them soar and dive. I couldn’t wait to go again — but it would be quite a while before I could get back in that water.

I’ve personally had a hard six months, made much worse by the pandemic. The pandemic itself has caused so much loss for so many people, and I am lucky: I have a comfortable home, a great job I can do remotely, and no one I know has yet fallen seriously ill from COVID-19. I’m a runner, cyclist and hiker, so I was able to continue with my favorite activities. But no one is immune to the free-floating anxiety and dread hanging over us since March, compounded by distress over irresponsible national leadership, and deep sadness and anger about entrenched racism and environmental devastation. I also have two teenagers whose lives were upended in the ways all teens’ lives have been, so that was hard.

Open water swimmer Laura Counts says the cold water “is a shock, but it jolts you out of the pandemic haze and brings you right into the moment. Everything else falls away.”

Things really went downhill for me when my dad got very sick. He had been undergoing chemo for a mild form of blood cancer for a year, but he was doing pretty well under the circumstances. I went to the East Coast in July to see him and to try to get my son off to his first year of college. But then my dad’s cancer morphed into AML — acute myeloid leukemia. I soon learned that, for older people who don’t qualify for bone marrow transplants and have run out of clinical trials, life with AML is measured in days and weeks. It was devastating, because even though he had just turned 80, he was strong and fit, a former electrical engineer, nature lover and athlete with many interests and passions, and he had always seemed invulnerable. A couple weeks earlier, he was teaching his grandchildren to stack wood. So, I stayed in Boston to help care for him and be with my mom and sister while working remotely. He fought as hard as anyone could fight and got great medical care, but leukemia can be swift and ruthless, and he died just over a month later.

Open water swimmers, including Laura Counts from Berkeley Haas, gather on the beach at sunset in Alameda, where they've been swimming in the bay.

Laura Counts, left, has made new friends with other open water swimmers during the pandemic. Here, they’re gathered at sunset in Alameda, at Crown Beach. (Photo by Anna Smith Clark)

When I finally returned home after two months away, I felt really sad, but also shell-shocked. A few weeks later, my mother-in-law went through a quick decline. She had been locked down in an assisted living facility in Albany — she was in memory care, so we had only seen her a couple of times since March, through a fence and once through plexiglass. Zoom was impossible for her to navigate. Before my husband was able to get his COVID clearance and get in there to see her, she died in her sleep, just six weeks after my dad. She was a retired physician, a pioneering woman of her generation. We didn’t get to say goodbye.

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By the time I got back into the bay in late September, the water temperature was dropping. The cold is a shock, but it jolts you out of the pandemic haze and brings you right into that moment. Everything else falls away. The rhythmic breathing is meditative, and the cold water is like a drug: With the return of circulation comes a huge endorphin rush that I started to crave. It seemed crazy when my friends started talking about swimming in the bay through the winter, but I was hooked. I began acquiring gear, starting with a fluorescent swim buoy that attaches at the waist to make you visible to boats. It also serves as a dry bag and an emergency flotation device. Since then, I’ve been swimming two or three times a week, mostly off Alameda, usually around sunrise.

Laura Counts, in her wetsuit, joins friends in the bay off Alameda at sunrise.

Gorgeous sunrises, each one unique, are some of the sights that reward open water swimmers, like Laura Counts (right), in San Francisco Bay. (Photo by Anna Smith Clark)

It turns out that a lot of people have been driven into the bay by pool closures and pandemic restlessness, and there are many open water veterans who have been doing it for years. Some people acclimate and swim neoprene-free through the winter, but not me. I bought swim socks, a neoprene cap, and soon after, a short wetsuit. I wanted to avoid the hassle of a full suit, but in mid-December, when the water dropped to 52 degrees and started feeling so cold it burned, I ran out and rented a full wetsuit.

All this gear changes it, but it’s still a full sensory experience. It’s different every time — the sky, the light, the ebbs and flows of tides, and the surface of the water, which can be smooth or rolling or choppy. At sunrise and sunset, the sky is a wonder. Twice a day, the sun’s reflection lights San Francisco’s high-rises on fire.

Laura Counts smiles as she heads out into San Francisco Bay for a sunrise swim in her neoprene cap and wetsuit.

“I’m grateful that the pandemic has driven me into the bay,” says Laura Counts, who has lived in the Bay Area for nearly 30 years, but previously hadn’t felt particularly connected to San Francisco Bay. (Photo by Anna Smith Carter)

And, of course, there are the animals. I admit I was terrified, at first. I haven’t yet encountered sea lions, but there are plenty of curious seals around. I recently got freaked out hearing that a Keller Cove swimmer was bumped and then nipped — actually, mouthed — by an aggressive seal that wanted her out of the water. That was unusual, and I hope to never experience it. My bigger fear is of creatures I can’t see, but can imagine, under the water. That subsides the more I swim.

Knowing there are friends shivering by the shore gets me out of bed in the morning. Even with the stricter COVID restrictions, it’s safer to swim around others than alone. Our loose group of swimmers has grown organically, so there’s always someone up for a swim, and everyone is very safety conscious. We mask up and stay distanced on the shore. In the water, everyone naturally spreads out. We use apps to monitor the tides and currents, always starting a swim against the tide and getting a boost on the way back.

Laura Counts swims in San Francisco Bay at sunset. She is a speck in the water, one of her arms is raised doing a swim stroke.

A speck in the water, Laura Counts swims in the bay at sunset. “The rhythmic breathing is meditative, and the cold water is like a drug: With the return of circulation comes a huge endorphin rush …,” she says. (Photo by Anna Smith Clark)

What I feel most strongly about this experience is gratitude. Every time, I’m blown away that I’m actually swimming in the bay, without paralyzing fear and paralyzing cold. I’m grateful to all those who fought and continue to work to restore and protect this magical place. I think all the time about my father, who was very attuned to the natural world and gave me an appreciation for its wonders. I’m grateful for this eclectic group of people I’ve met who motivate me and who I learn from. What we all share is geeking out on the logistics of this new obsession. And getting our breath knocked out by the beauty of the world. I’m grateful that the pandemic has driven me into the bay.