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Butterfly Felt So Much Healthier

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Melissa Yasmin Berkay of Mills College in Oakland, California described her 12 hour 37 minute butterfly crossing of the Catalina Channel this week.

The 25-year-old music and journalism student from Mills College surrounded herself with stalwarts in the sport in her charity swim for homeless.

Not only did she train in San Francisco Bay’s Aquatic Park with Kimberley Chambers and other South End Rowing Club members, but she also had International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honour Swimmer John York and veteran Kelley Prebil as her observers.

Not since Canadian Vicki Keith completed a 14 hour 53 minute of the Catalina Channel in 1989 has anyone attempted a butterfly crossing of the Catalina Channel. Berkay explains her crossing below.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Why did you decide to swim butterfly?

Melissa Yasmin Berkay: I initially decided to swim the Catalina Channel freestyle. I interviewed Anne Cleveland for my Swimming World Magazine internship and she inspired and motivated me to apply to swim the Catalina Channel.

I then joined the South End Rowing Club in San Francisco which is near my college [Mills College].

Anne connected me to a swimmer from the Dolphin Club, but I joined South End instead of the Dolphin Club due to the fact that South End lets their swimmers swim outside of the Aquatic Park.

I met South End and Dolphin club member Kimberley Chambers. On our first training swim, I swam some butterfly strokes. I was doing freestyle and my shoulders were in pain due to some technical errors I do in freestyle that I have progressively been trying to fix for the past 10 years. Kim saw me do butterfly and then casually said, ‘You should do the channel fly.’ The idea sprouted in my head.

I then met with Dan Simonelli and Susanne-Baab Simpson for their 6-hour English Channel qualifying swim when they visited the Aquatic Park and did my first long-distance butterfly swim. It felt so much healthier for my shoulders.

I am lucky because I have one of those bodies that swims butterfly very naturally. It has also been my favorite stroke since age 12 when I won my first Junior Olympics in the 100 butterfly and when I was 14 and made the Championship Finals at my first Junior Nationals in the 200 butterfly.

The 200 fly has always been my signature event and I love doing 200-400 butterfly sets in the swimming pool.

I met Michelle Macy during that 6-hour training swim with Dan and Susanne. She and Dan commented, ‘Sshe looks so strong. Melissa needs to beat the previous English Channel butterfly record.’ I obviously am nowhere near prepared for the English Channel, but it is another one of my dreams.

I do not have the secure funds to do the swim or set my 1-2 year pre-booking date, but anything can happen. I still have until 2019 until my financial aid for college/graduate school here at Mills College ends, so it will be a while until I can secure a job to fund a swim like that. However, anything can happen, and I know that through the grace of God, I can raise the funds to do the swim during my college/graduate school years.

My family is reluctant to support my channel swimming, so I know that my success is in my hands. I am so grateful that the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation has a scholarship available. To answer your simple question; I did butterfly due to the fact that freestyle hurts my shoulders due to past tendinitis issues relating to stroke dynamics and incorrect underwater pulling, and also do to the ideas of some pretty amazing fellow open water marathon swimmers who never cease to come up with great ideas. We think a lot when we are in the water.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Did you feel sore in any way? If so, where? Neck, back, shoulders?

Melissa Yasmin Berkay: I feel sore right now for sure; surprisingly, the most pain I am having is in my left wrist joint. I think it may be due to the fact that I have been moving all day and typing on the computer. My neck does not hurt at all. My goggles left indents on my face.

My shoulders have felt like bricks for the past day, but with icing and no movement, have been recovering extremely fast. I made sure to take care of my shoulders prior to the swim to make sure I did not go into the crossing with any injuries. I was having tendinitis flare-ups 2 weeks prior to the swim due to a 10-hour test swim I did in my training program, so I listened to Dan and Steve Walker, a marathon swimmer from South End who wrote out my training plan and who is currently swimming the North Channel.

I did not swim for more than 2 hours after that 10 hour training swim. My abs hurt from projectile vomiting during my crossing due to nausea from boat fumes and incorrect feeding. Other than that, I am working my muscles again with moving and am trying to take it easy.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How did you train for 20 miles of butterfly? What were some sample pool and open water workouts?

Melissa Yasmin Berkay: Steve Walker sat down with me and we created a 20-hour per week training plan. Since the Aquatic Park has forever-changing currents which makes it difficult to count accurate mileage, we formulated the training plan based off of time in the water.

The training plan consisted of 7 weeks of building up and tapering down. For example, during week #1, I was in the water 4 days. On Day 1, I did 5 hours, Day 2, I swam 6 hours. Day 3 was 4 hours. Day 4 was 5 hours. Week #4 was the peak week with Day 1 with a 9-hour training swim, Day 2 was 4 hours, Day 3 was 4 hours, Day 4 was 3 hours. During Weeks #5-7 I was in the water 5-7 days a week breaking up the hours into smaller chunks. I was also required to log my sleep time, nutrition during the swim, nutrition in general, water temperature, and area covered while swimming.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Did you ever think about just switching to freestyle midway through your crossing?

Melissa Yasmin Berkay: No. I never thought about swimming freestyle during my crossing.

In the summer, I only swam freestyle in the swimming pool at Mills College when I had triple/double shifts working at the on-campus fitness center and did not have time to take the bus to San Francisco. I travelled 4 hours total every time I commuted to the club from my on-campus job and on-campus residence.

I would sometimes do individual medley sets in the pool, because IM sets really push my cardiovascular levels and get my heart rate up. I did not like the 82°F Mills College pool water though – it is too hot. So I tried to commute by bus to the club as often as I could to swim in the ocean.

At one point, I was so dedicated to my training that I was running on 4 hours a sleep at night with 9-hour and 8-hour training swims due to getting out of work late from my job. It was hard. But I really liked waking up at 4 in the morning to make it to the club. I thought taking the bus and trolley to San Francisco everyday and swimming in the Ghirardelli Square area made me cool.

I made it a steadfast rule to NEVER swim freestyle during my time in the Aquatic Park. I made an ALL_BUTTERFLY rule for the ocean. So when I jumped in to do the channel, it felt natural and extremely comfortable. Freestyle is not my favorite stroke, and is harder for me than butterfly. I am fast in the pool and in the ocean in butterfly.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Since you breathe forward, I assume you were looking at the finish at Terranea Way [shown above in Rancho Palos Verdes on the mainland] for a very long time. Did the shoreline look like it was never getting closer?

Melissa Yasmin Berkay: [Laughter] You know that experience all too well.

Terranea seemed so close when the sun rose. I thought it was so much closer than it was. It was a humorous experience. I got so excited about being close to reaching shore in the middle of my swim because I was seeing trees and indentations in the land that I went from 0.8 mph to 1.8 miles per hour.

I also puked and got sick during the night. After vomiting, my body was happier with me and let me go faster. I also switched up my feeds, and was able to go faster and pick up my pace due to that. But mostly, it was seeing the land ahead that pushed me to go faster. I was so excited. My excitement lasted for about 5 hours. I swore I was close during those full 5 hours [laughter]. What a trick. Then I saw some cargo boats a few times and realized I was not that close.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Where was your escort boat positioned – to your left or right or slightly in front or slightly in back?

Melissa Yasmin Berkay: My escort boat began leading me within the first 20 minutes, but I quickly told my kayaker for some suggestions.

We had originally planned for my escort boat to be on my right, me in the middle and the kayak on my right at my 1 o’clock. However, the exhaust fumes were terrible and we moved to the left side. The fumes were still bad, so my kayaker and I decided to stay in slightly in front of the escort boat.

During the swim, I almost got run-over. I remember seeing the front of my escort boat right by my feet when some crew members were shouting at me to move. The same thing happened about 3 more times.

So having my kayaker in front of the boat did not go so smoothly. But it prevented the fumes from getting into my lungs. I am unsure of whether it was a captain or kayaker or personal error, but something was not going smoothly.

My two crew chiefs had medical emergencies prior to my swim and cancelled. I went into my swim with no crew chiefs and very stressed because everyone was unorganized. David Harvey, the captain of the boat, did not pilot for much of the time either. John York, one of my observers, was very upset with the fact that I had no one organize prior to the swim since I was dependent on my crew chiefs and they couldn’t make it. It was hard.

My kayaker and old friend Kevin Anderson ended up being positive and kind and bringing his son, Tommy Anderson, to be my support swimmer.

Dan Simonelli was previously committed to crew for Robert Palmese‘s triple-crossing attempt that same night [which ended up being a 3-hour swim due to Robert having an injury].

So I was at a loss with my crew and many people were frustrated with me. My college rowing coach came on the boat to witness the swim and for moral support and ended up pulling the boat together, taking the responsibility of managing my feeds.

It was an unorganized swim, but I was positive in my mind, and thought about positive things. I knew things were not going the way they were supposed to be when I vomited and had an emotional breakdown around 3-4 am during my swim because I was stressed and disappointed about the disorganization of my crew.

However, I had interviewed Charlotte Samuels, a well-known swimmer, a few weeks prior to my crossing. Through me interviewing her for Swimming World Magazine, we became friends. She had received excellent mentorship and guidance throughout her marathon swimming training and knew that I was short on mentors and moral support – so she gave me a lot of advice. She told me to sleep on the way out to Catalina to prevent the mental hurdle of viewing the crossing before embarking on it.

She told me to never look back at the island, which I did not do and I knew her swim was very difficult. She went through emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion and stress and knowing that she pushed through those barriers and crossed in 20 hours motivated me to push further, no matter how long I took or how hard it was.

I know it might sound strange to think about inspiring people while I swim, but I needed to inspire myself and coach myself to go further. I thought about my old teammate from Mission Viejo Nadadores, Fran Crippen, and about how great of a teammate he was to me, almost like a big brother, and how if he knew I was swimming the channel butterfly, and he was still here, he would be extremely proud of me.

I thought about all the people and friends from Mills College following my tracker and how much love they had for me and what I was doing with my channel swim by fundraising for three non-profit organizations benefitting homelessness.

I thought a lot about God, and prayed a lot during my swim. I did a lot of mental positive-reinforcement during my swim. I hit many mental walls, but I talked myself through them.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: When channel swimmers are alerted by their escort crew to stop for a feeding, they are usually looking straight at their kayaker, paddler or boat crew as they breathe freestyle. How were you alerted?

Melissa Yasmin Berkay: For my feeds, my kayaker would quickly take about 10 fast paddles foreword and have me catch up to him while he got my feeds ready.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Did you use a pace swimmer and did they swim butterfly too?

Melissa Yasmin Berkay: Due to cancellations, I went into my swim with no pace swimmer. However, I was surprised last-minute by Tommy Anderson, who made a last-minute decision to be an emergency crew member for my swim.

We had swam together as children and teens on the same club teams growing up. It was good to have him on-board. When I hit a mental wall at about 3 am due to stomach cramps and nausea, I asked for him to jump in. He swam freestyle behind me. After I surrendered from trying to keep my food in and vomited, I had an easier time swimming faster. He jumped in again at the finish and swam butterfly with me to the shore.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Do you plan to be the first person to complete the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming all butterfly?

Melissa Yasmin Berkay: I have thought about it. It seems like a good idea, so why not? I better get on that fast.

Honestly, I like butterfly so much that I want to do more than become the first American or person to do any crossing or group of crossings. I am so competitive that I want to beat the previous times set my marathon butterflyers. I know that I am very fast.

If I had had my feeding down, my crew set, and less of a heartache getting my funds and commute logistics together prior to this channel, I have no doubt that I would have been faster than 12 hours. Being a student with internship commitments, job commitments, fundraising projects, and commuting obstacles is great, and a privilege.

But it is taxing. I hope to someday go back to the Catalina Channel, swim butterfly again, and beat my time. I know that I can do better. However, I am very happy with my swim.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: I guess a 200 yard butterfly doesn’t seem so far anymore.

Do you think this Catalina Channel crossing will enable you either mentally or physically to get faster I’m your short-course collegiate season?

Melissa Yasmin Berkay: The 200 butterfly seems like a sprint now. I really wanted to make the Olympic Trial cut this year, but missed it, so I made a deal with myself and with God. I said this summer I am either going to Olympic Trials or I am swimming the Catalina Channel.

Anne Cleveland reinforced that possibility and I sent the application to the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation and everything fell into place. The channel proved to be extremely rewarding and challenging. I am grateful to have made it and to have had so much support from friends and acquaintances. The 200 butterfly will be a major switch, and I look forward to competing against myself and beating my times from last season.

For more photos, visit here.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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