Abby Bergman wasn’t even half an hour into her journey across the Catalina Channel when the magnitude of the challenge overwhelmed her.
She had access to liquid carbs and applesauce for energy, which she typically needs about twice an hour on her long-distance swims, but her roughly 20-mile excursion didn’t seem to get off to a great start.
“It felt like it kept going and I would never get to that first feed,” she said. “I was like, ‘If the first half hour feels so long, how is the rest of this going to feel?’ It takes a lot mentally to get through.”
Bergman, a 20-year-old Team Santa Monica alumna, overcame the mental and physical challenges to accomplish her longtime goal of swimming from Catalina Island to the mainland shore. She arrived late Monday morning at Terranea Beach in Rancho Palos Verdes, throwing her hands in the air from a rocky perch on the sand after swimming consecutively for 11 hours, 11 minutes and 24 seconds.
“It was something else,” she said. “I was very happy. It was just amazing to stand on that beach and be able to say I swam [across the channel]. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
Bergman first got the itch for long-distance swimming eight years ago after reading about it in Lynne Cox’s book, “Swimming to Antarctica.” Although she wasn’t a particularly fast swimmer at the time, she let the idea germinate in her mind as she participated in an area junior lifeguard program.
By the time she started at Smith College in Massachusetts, where she’ll be a junior in neuroscience and exercise sports science this fall, she was determined to make the trek a reality.
“It was something I just had to do,” she said.
A Culver City native who attended Vistamar School in El Segundo, Bergman nurtured her passion for swimming as a member of Team Santa Monica.
She joined in middle school and continued her training with the locally based club through the end of high school, acquiring the skills she needed to excel at the collegiate level.
“They gave me a firm background,” she said. “I had pretty much seen it all with them. I had done different training, so I knew I could handle the training that was thrown at me.
“But I really developed my love of the sport also. When I started swimming, it was because friends were doing it, and after my friends stopped, for a while I hated it. I was not a sporty kid. It took me a while to find out that this was the sport I liked, and TSM allowed me to take ownership. They expected a lot of dedication, and that taught me to be dedicated to it.”
When her college swimming season ended in February, Bergman began long-distance training with teammate Eliza Cummings. And she ramped up her practices in recent weeks, swimming several miles at a time in the pool and in local sections of the Pacific Ocean with a training plan crafted by college coach Kim Bierwiert.
In the evening July 24, Bergman took a boat from San Pedro and arrived at Catalina Island around 11 p.m. She set out on her oceanic swim shortly thereafter, guided only by lights on an escort boat on one side and an accompanying kayak on the other. The darkness was all-encompassing.
“You have to get to the sunrise,” she said. “I knew I had to keep pushing.”
With support from a friend, who swam three hour-long segments alongside her, Bergman powered through the water as light trickled into the sky. It helped, too, that the currents favored her path from Doctors Cove on Catalina Island to the Southern California shore. Loved ones were waiting to greet her when she finished the trip at 10:48 a.m. July 25.
“My goal was to be under 11 hours, so I wasn’t that far off,” she said. “I fought a current for the last two and a half miles, but who really cares? I’m happy that I swam it. You can’t predict how fast you’re going to swim something like that.”
Bergman, who already has plans to swim across the English Channel next summer, celebrated her recent expedition with a long warm shower and 13 hours of sleep. She awoke Tuesday with tightness in her shoulders and neck, which she expected.
“I can’t wait until I’m loose enough to get back in the water,” she said.