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Open Water Redemption

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A few years ago, Kimberley Chambers was your average high-tech drone in the San Francisco Bay Area. By day she worked at a software company in Silicon Valley. In her meager spare time, she describes her former self as a “gym rat who barely ever went outside,” despite living in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. In theory, Kim was drawn to the out-of-doors and dabbled in photography as a sometime hobby, but couldn’t quite manage to make the leap and devote herself to wild pursuits, despite being surrounded by the mountains and oceans of Northern California. Her urban lifestyle revolved around office buildings and highways. She wouldn’t have described herself as a passionate person, necessarily.

But things changed in an instant, as they are wont to do. One day, by random chance, Kim fell down the stairs. It was a freak fall, and painful, but she picked herself up, brushed herself off, and carried on. Her leg really hurt. Really, really hurt. A tough girl—she is a native Kiwi, after all—Kim waited until she really couldn’t stand it any more before she went to her doctor. It turned out that Kim had fallen very hard and just right on the muscles of her upper leg. She had Acute Compartment Syndrome—a somewhat rare condition that can result in amputation. And amputate is exactly what the doctors proposed.

Despondent but stoic, Kim resigned herself to life as an amputee.

And then, a short half hour before her scheduled surgery, the doctors informed her: “Good news—we are able to save your leg. But you may never be able to use it again.”

For two years, she was totally incapacitated, and her entire life revolved around physical therapy and multiple surgeries. It was during this time that Kimberley discovered what would become not just a path to healing but a raison d'être; told she might never walk unassisted again, she began instead to swim. What started as a component of her physical therapy regimen quickly sparked something in Kim that drove her to spend more and more time in the water, where her nonfunctional right leg and her impaired, atrophied body were rendered buoyant and could slowly begin to heal and strengthen. She began to spend every possible moment swimming.

But rehabilitative swimming in an indoor pool is one thing. Open-water swimming quite another. After xx months of slow and steady rehab, Kim took her first step into the icy San Francisco Bay in 2009. Encouraged (one might say “dared”) by a few friends who recognized a newfound passion and resolve in Kim, she tiptoed into the 54-degree Bay water one fine, frigid day in November. Standing near the shore, contemplating her first Bay swim, she felt nervous and, well, cold. She was wearing just a bathing suit and an old-fashioned thermal cap. No fancy wetsuit. No protective support team. No trainer. Just a few good friends and the memory of a near-crippling experience urging her on. From Kim’s very first post on her Kim Swims blog:

"My legs are numb."

"That's good, your whole body is going to be numb in about 3 minutes."


3-2-1. I dive in.

Wow. I remember I couldn’t really breathe because of the shock to my body. I felt like someone had their foot on my chest. But that brief moment of panic paled in comparison to the utter exhilaration I felt in my heart.

I felt so alive. It was unlike anything I had ever felt before. 25 minutes later, my friend Jordan remarked that he had never seen anyone jump in the Bay for the first time and smile, ear-to-ear.

I was hooked.

From then on, Kim continued to tackle daring swims That she chronicles on her blog. In May 2012, she took part in a group relay from the San Francisco Bay to the Farallon Islands—the only woman on a team of six to complete this relay through a lovely little slice of water that happens to have the world’s largest concentration of Great White Sharks.

Now, four and a half years later, Kim’s leg is back to its full functionality, and her body is stronger than it ever was before. She has become a medical case study and, along the way, an international open water swim champion. Since 2009, she has fervently completed relays in the Bay, New York, and the English Channel and competed in triathlons in San Francisco and Hawaii. She writes from the heart about every one, chronicling her triumph and her renewed passion for life. Indeed, Kim says: “In many ways, my life truly began after my accident. I appreciate what I have. And swimming has been such a gift. To swim in the open ocean—a feeling of being so free. It changed my life.”

A few weeks ago, Kim completed a solo crossing of the Cook Strait in New Zealand, a 17-mile shark-infested swim in 58-degree water without a wetsuit. Only the 83rd person to ever complete this swim in history, this has been one of her greatest swim accomplishments so far. In September, she will join five other swimmers for a record setting non-stop relay swim from San Francisco to Santa Barbara in an effort to raise $500k for Semper Fi Fund. If you ask Kim, she’ll tell you emphatically that she has dedicated the rest of her life to inspiring others to overcome seemingly impossible challenges. And truly, just hearing her story, in her own words, is inspirational.


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