On a ferry ride to Alcatraz Island off the San Francisco Bay, Yosemite High School senior Shanelle Koellish, 17, leaped over the edge of the boat into the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean in the early morning hours of Sunday, May 19. Koellish was joined by about 900 other swimmers, including her step-dad and Ducey's on the Lake architect, Michael Karby, as they took part in the 22nd Annual Sharkfest Swim.
Swimming is not new to Koellish. She been swimming since age three and has been on the YHS swim team since her freshman year. So, when she heard Karby talk about Sharkfest, she knew that's what she wanted to do for her senior project.
"He had talked about it a lot and I thought it would be interesting," Koellish said. "None of my friends have done anything like that, so thought I'd try it."
However, Koellish also wanted to benefit the community through her project, so she asked friends and family for support by having them donate money to her youth group.
"I chose to raise money for the youth group, because it was a big part of my life when I was growing up," she said. "It was always there for me, so I wanted to do something to try and give back to it."
For three months, Karby gave Koellish tips to prepare her for the 1.5 mile ocean swim from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park. When the day finally arrived, Koellish set off at 4 a.m. with her mother, Colleen, and Michael. It was a two-mile walk from their hotel down to Aquatic Park. After registration, swimmers boarded the ferry for a 50 minute ride to Alcatraz. The race began at 7 a.m.
The swim took the same path that prisoners Anglin Brothers and Frank Lee Morris took when they successfully escaped from Alcatraz on June 12, 1962. It was Karby's 19th time participating in Sharkfest. Karby said he's helped train many people for Sharkfest, but participating with Koellish was a completely different experience.
"Over the years, I've taken lots of people out and trained them to do this and swam it with them, and they're all the same," Karby said. "When they get on the boat, their eyes are bugged out, they get tunnel vision, they are panicked and swear they'll never do it again -- But not Shanelle -- She jumped off the boat into the water smiling."
"I wasn't nervous at all, I was just ready to swim," Koellish said. "I'm glad I wasn't nervous, because it made the swim much more enjoyable."
Two minutes after the start of the race, Koellish powered ahead of Karby.
"The swim went very well, I was amazed at how fast it was going by," Koellish said.
However, partway into the race, Koellish found herself in trouble when she got caught in an ocean current.
"Panic then set in," Koellish said. "I remember thinking, 'I can't believe this is happening to me.' Michael had been coaching me for months to avoid that. I had completely forgotten about the dozen people in kayaks that were there to keep the swimmers from getting lost and swept out to sea. I thought that it was completely up to me to get myself out of this. I started sprinting as hard as I could against the current and about two minutes later, I finally made it out and into Aquatic Park."
At that point Koellish was exhausted and on the verge of an asthma attack, so she had to rest for a minute before continuing on and finishing the race. She finished the 1.5 mile race in 35 minutes, 17 seconds and came in 283rd out of 703 swimmers in the wetsuit division.
"It was unfortunate that I got caught in the current, because II could of shaved off a good five minutes or probably more from my time," Koellish said. "Even with all that, though, I still got a better time than I expected, and I am very proud of myself for doing this."
When Karby finished the race 11 minutes later, he said all his step-daughter could talk about was getting a better time next year. She is already signed up for Sharkfest next year. But first, Koellish plans to go to pursue a degree in culinary arts at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria. Koellish hopes to own her own wedding cake bakery someday.