Kevin Cody

Former Vistamar high swimmer completes 27 mile swim from Point Dume to Palos Verdes

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Abby Bergman prepares to enter the water at the start of her 16 hour swim across the Santa Monica Bay. Photo by Kenny Hurtado

This month, 24-year-old Abigail “Abby” Bergman of Los Angeles, California became the fourth person ever to swim the 27 miles that separate Point Dume and Palos Verdes.  She described the swim, which took 16 hours, 25 minutes, and 53 seconds, as “actually a lot of fun.” 

When the swim began, though, Bergman wasn’t having any fun at all. Four-foot swells rocked and rolled the Pacific Star, her escort boat, on the three-hour journey from San Pedro to the west side of Malibu’s Point Dume. On board were captains David and Jake Harvey, crew members Max and Tristan Harvey, Bergman’s mom Natalie, and observers Jacqueline “Jax” Cole, Dan Simonelli, and Steve Chase from the Marathon Swimmers Foundation (MSF).  Cole and Simonelli, both open-water swimmers, planned to kayak alongside Bergman, rotating every four hours. 

The boat ride to Pirate’s Cove was so rough that in the kitchen, items tumbled from shelves. Everyone on board who wasn’t used to being on boats felt queasy. Bergman was so sick, so often, that she lacked the energy even to stand upright. 

“I cannot remember ever being that miserable,” she would later write on her blog.

Abby Bergman swam protected only by a swimsuit, cap, goggles, sunscreen and chafing ointment. Photo by Natalie Bergman

Around 10:30 p.m., Natalie woke Bergman to tell her it was time to get ready. She forced herself to put on her suit, cap, and goggles — the only attire permitted by MSF rules — and to apply sunscreen and the insoluble grease swimmers wear to minimize chafing. She asked Cole, who was leading her team, whether it would be safe to start the swim.

“Abby doesn’t say much,” Cole reflected later. “She doesn’t just talk for the sake of talking and so when she speaks, I listen. If she’s saying something, even if it’s in a casual tone of voice, it’s important. So she asked me, do you think it’s safe to start?”

Cole thought deeply about this question. She reflected on her own experience. Swimming across the Catalina channel in 2016, she’d encountered one challenge after another: toxic algae affected her ability to breathe, her elbow ached, and her “feed cycle” had been altered the day of the swim. As a result of the late change in her routine, she vomited during six hours of her swim, and became hypothermic. Still, she finished. Cole has assisted about 60 other swimmers between Catalina and her native Palos Verdes, so she knew that swimmers often got sick.

“Jax told me that many Catalina swimmers have been sick on the way over and still had successful swims,” Bergman later wrote in her blog. “This made me feel better even though I was dreading jumping in the cold water.”

What Cole didn’t tell Bergman was that secretly she hoped the swimmer would decide not to swim. Even in the protected harbor of Pirate’s Cove, on the west side of Point Dume, the sea churned. The boat swung back and forth. A cold wind blew.

“I was hoping she would say you know what, sorry guys, we’ll come back another time,” Cole said. “She didn’t say that. What she did say was don’t let me quit — if you need to call it off, that’s fine, but don’t let me call it off.”

Soon it became clear seasickness would not be the only difficulty to occur during this swim.

The swells continued to pitch the little boat, and even descending to the swim step required careful timing. At 19 minutes before midnight, Bergman entered the ocean and swam to shore, where she waited for a horn to sound from the boat. MSF rules require swimmers to start and finish on land, unassisted 

Cole put on goggles to protect her eyes from the wind, and put her kayak in the water. When Bergman reached shore, Cole shouted to the boat to honk the horn. Her voice was drowned by gusts of wind and pounding shore break. 

Bergman had a green light attached to her goggles but the height of the swells hid her from Cole’s sight.

“Can you see her?” Cole shouted into her radio. I can’t see her, can you guys?”

“No response,” she later reflected. “This went on for an uncomfortably long time.” 

But Bergman could see by the light of a full moon that she was on course. After rounding  Point Dume, the northernmost edge of the Santa Monica Bay, the wind grew stronger. Cole’s body began functioning as a sail, blowing her backwards. She sprinted but she could not keep up with Bergman.

The kayak was taking water. She worried she’d flip.

The MSF log from 12:10 a.m. reads: “Wind and current is making it extremely difficult for Jax to keep up with the swimmer. Abby is about 50 yards ahead of Jax and she wants to know whats happening with Jax and that she is safe.” 

“There was a point where I couldn’t go any further with her, and that had me feeling uneasy,” Cole said. “She’s totally capable and she swims in the surf most days, but as a lifeguard, a friend, and the person who’s accountable, it was really unnerving.”

“You keep going and I’ll catch up,” Cole shouted to Bergman, who was stopping every few minutes to tread water and wait. After about half an hour of this, Cole made a tough call. 

“I shouted Abby, swim to the boat,” Cole said. Into her radio, she shouted: “Attention, Pacific Star, from kayaker. I’m unable to keep pace with the swimmer. I am now a liability. I will need to be reunited with the boat. I can’t keep up. I repeat: I cannot keep up with the swimmer.”

Because of the reef off Point Dume, the boat could not get close to Bergman.

She treaded water while her escort team pulled the kayak onto the boat. Bergman would later describe the conditions as “ totally harrowing.” 

Cole was also anxious.

“My concern was what if she needs to get out of the water? It almost never happens, even with swimmers who are not as good as Abby, but the boat couldn’t get in close enough to even be within earshot,” Cole said. “I felt like I’d failed her. That’s a fundamental thing I’m hired to do. I asked the other kayakers if they wanted to go in. Dan said, ‘If you can’t do it, we can’t do it.’”

There would not be a kayaker in the water until after dawn.

With Pacific Star alongside her, Bergman found her rhythm. Slowly, she began to feel better. The 1 a.m. log entry reads, five-foot swells, “more rolling than sharp,” stroke rate 56 per minute.

Every half-hour, someone on board the Pacific Star would throw her a rope with a Carbo Pro mixed with water or a GoGo Squeez applesauce. Each time she stopped to tread water and replace the calories she’d expended, her temperature would drop and it would take five minutes of swimming before she stopped shivering.

At about four hours, Bergman was joined by a pair of dolphins who swam beneath and beside her, glowing in the moonlight.

“The dolphin encounter could not have been more magical if I had imagined it,” she later wrote on her blog. “I felt like I had a couple of support swimmers with me in the water for those few minutes.”

At daybreak the sky turned orange, which encouraged Bergman, who was growing sleepy. She swapped her clear goggles for a tinted pair. The dawn revealed gentler conditions; the kayak re-entered the glassy water. The 6:30 a.m log entry reads: “Abby in good spirits ‘Good morning!’”

Bergman picked up her pace in an effort to make up for some of the ground she’d lost during the night, battling the wind and swells. 

“I felt like I was getting a push at this point while the water was so flat, but after talking to the crew later it turned out the currents were actually quite swirly and we weren’t making nearly as much progress as I thought we were,” she later reflected. “I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time.”

At the eight-hour mark, the feed rope came with an additional treat: a Honey Stinger Energy Gel. This small change had a large impact on Bergman’s spirits and strength. At 8:50 a.m., her mom told her that students at her elementary school, The Willows Community School in Culver City, were live streaming her swim. She gave them two thumbs up. At 9:23 a.m. she waved to the students. The MSF log records what Bergman said: “These are the conditions I ordered. They just arrived a little late.” At 11:20 a.m., the log reports, she’s “still upbeat.”

Closer to noon, Bergman did some mental calculations and judged she was eight miles out, with about four hours remaining. She asked Simonelli, who was doing a shift in the kayak, how much distance remained. Eleven miles, he said, or about six hours.

Bergman regretted asking. Her spirits sagged; she had to consciously boost her own morale. She began to sing the soundtrack of “Heathers: The Musical” for the 10th time.

In the afternoon, the wind began to pick up again, carrying fumes from the escort boat toward Bergman and the kayak. They moved west, upwind of the boat. Bergman began swimming “feed to feed,” focusing just on the half-hour ahead of her, until the kayaker on duty delivered her food.

Clouds began to darken the sky. The 2:20 p.m. long entry notes, “Temp seems to be going down.” She was swimming directly into the wind chop, aiming for Rocky Point, the tip of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. 

Bergman treaded water, losing heat, as the captain and boat crew talked about how and where she needed to land to satisfy the MSF.. The log reports: “About 10 minutes of discussion regarding potential endpoint of the swim.” According to the rules, the swim counts as long as a swimmer clears the point; how far beyond is a matter of assessing conditions and making a safe decision.

The captain wanted to avoid the thick kelp for which the sea off Palos Verdes is well-known. Amy Gubser, who completed the swim across the Santa Monica Bay in 2018, compared that part of the journey to swimming in a pool with its cover on.

It became impossible to avoid. Bergman recalls crawling through kelp for 20 minutes, pushing, pulling, fighting through it. She was energized by the sight of a turtle swimming beneath her, something she’d never seen off the coast of California. The Pacific Star had to stay 200 yards beyond the kelp forest.

Abby Bergman approaches the end of her Catalina swim in 2016. Photo by Kenny Hurtado.

Simonelli went ahead to scout for reef rocks; Cole nearly flipped when she kayaked into one. As the shore approached, it became clear that the rocks, slippery and covered in urchins, were going to be a problem. 

Simonelli and Cole encouraged Bergman to finish by touching a rock rather than clearing the water. She recalled being “bummed,” but trusting her team. 

She timed her finish by watching and counting waves. At 4:07 p.m., she touched the face of the cliff at Lunada Bay, joining a tiny pantheon of swimmers who have crossed the Santa Monica Bay: Jen Schumacher and Forrest Nelson in 2013, Gubser in 2018. She then climbed aboard Simonelli’s kayak and returned to the boat. The log reported: “Abby is safely on board. No reports of injury or illness other than cold skin. She requested a warm shower, and stated she was ok otherwise.” The swim represented her personal best for length and time in the water.

“As much as I was ready to be done when I finished I could have kept swimming for several hours if I had needed to and I’m really really proud of that,” Bergman later wrote. “Most of all I’m really proud that as terrible as I was feeling on the boat I still hopped in the water and gave the swim a try.”

Because of the pandemic beach closures, Abby Bergman did some of her training harnessed to a tether in a pool. Photo by Natalie Bergman

Bergman, who grew up in Culver City, is a person who gives things a try.

She didn’t like swimming when she started at 10 years old, with Team Santa Monica. Soon, though, it became clear to her parents and coaches that she had a remarkable knack for endurance.

“I was never the fastest kid in the pool,” Bergman said. “I was never breaking records, but I could just swim and swim and swim and swim.”

Slowly she began to love being in the water. Swimming allowed her to set goals for herself and feel the satisfaction of reaching them. Her high school, Vistamar School in El Segundo, didn’t have a swim team. In her senior year Bergman pushed the athletic department to form one. This is something she’s particularly proud of. A combination of ocean swimming as a Junior Lifeguard and a book called “Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer” by Lynne Cox led her to open-water marathon swimming. Reading Cox’s book, Bergman found herself thinking: if she can do that, I can do it, too. 

Bergman attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, partly because the school’s swim coach, Kim Bierwert, had coached six students across the English Channel. Swimmers at Smith, a women’s college, refer to the school as a marathon swimming “fempire.” 

Bergman swam the Catalina channel in 2016, at 20 years old, while she was in college. In August of 2017, she became the seventh “Smithie” to swim the English Channel. A year later, she was awarded the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming for having  swum the Catalina Channel (32.5 km), and the English Channel 32.5 km, and having circumnavigated Manhattan Island (48.5 km).

Bergman is a researcher at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and planned to be in Chicago for the summer. Before the world found itself in the throes of a pandemic, she had been training for two big swims: END-WET (Extreme North Dakota Watersports Endurance Test), a 36-mile swim down the Red River, from rural North Dakota into East Grand Forks, Minnesota, in June; and a 24-mile swim in Lake Michigan, or the length of the City of Chicago, in August.

When the pandemic struck, both swims were canceled. Bergman sheltered in place with her parents at their Culver City home. From March through mid-May, she swam tethered in their small pool. 

She continued working remotely, on Chicago time, so she swam at 5 a.m. daily, and again at lunchtime. In a normal year, she said, she’d swim the equivalent of 10 to 12 km in the pool during each session; this year she swam about half that. 

“It was a complete flip of my usual training,” she said. On weekends, she drove to Laguna, where the beaches were still open, and did long-distance ocean swims.

When L.A. County beaches reopened, she began swimming five or six days a week in the ocean — three or four miles on weekdays and between seven and 12 on weekends — and one or two in a pool. 

“I was going to keep my 2020 swim season ‘local,’” she wrote in her blog. “Fast forward to June 2020 and I have now been in California for 97 days and I am having to redefine local.”

It wasn’t until June that she resolved to do the Santa Monica Bay crossing. She had decided to do a 13.4-mile swim from Malibu to Marina del Rey in July, and as she trained, she met and talked to swimmers who were more familiar with Malibu.

“More than once I was told hey, you should do the [Santa Monica Bay swim],” Bergman said. “I couldn’t really get it out of my head. For better and for worse.”

She asked Cole to help with logistics. The other swims had been simple: train, show up, swim. The Santa Monica Bay swim was more complicated. She needed a boat, a crew, and observers. Meanwhile, she was working full-time and applying for PhD programs.

Cole took care of the details. 

“She did a fantastic job,” Bergman said. “I owe so much to her for this being successful.”

Crossing the Santa Monica Bay was, for her, a bright spot in a strange year for America and the world, despite how the swim began. She wrote on her blog that “although I expected ‘local’ to mean lots of Chicago lake swimming for 2020, it appears that staying local actually meant returning to my childhood home and spending the summer enjoying every minute I get to [spend] in the Pacific.”

Bergman is the kind of person who sets another big goal as soon as she reaches one.

Aside from getting into a PhD program, she plans to do the swims she’d originally planned for this summer. She’s also set her sights on doing a double crossing from Ventura to Anacapa Island and back, a swim she did half of last year. 

In her professional life, Bergman studies human behavior. Her research interests, according to her LinkedIn page, include “motivation and goal setting in business and sports settings.”

“I love having big goals to work towards and it balances out because I spend my work life on the computer,” she said. “I need big outdoor goals, too.” ER

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