Backpacking in Europe for three months taught me the joy of living minimally, but it took a great toll on my back. I needed to restart my exercise routine. Facebook knew me well and recommended a fundraiser challenge to swim 20 miles in August. I swam 680 laps in 16 days. This is the story about how I started swimming and ended up here.

I have Multiple Hereditary Exostosis and many bony tumors throughout my body. I don’t even know exactly how many I have. Growing up, I occasionally felt my bones clicking with the joints. It was an ominous sign that someday, I would get surgery to remove the bones. I had other issues, too. One day, I realized my heart kept beating fast after returning from a school field trip. The doctor found one of the valves in my heart had a hole. Since the open heart surgery to stitch the valve, I have had no problem with my heart.

The surgeries did not just involve cutting the bones. Sometimes I had to lengthen bones to stop my limbs from curving too much. The surgeries did not just involve cutting the bones. Sometimes I had to lengthen bones to stop my limbs from curving too much.

All my life, I was afraid to push myself physically. I worried that the racing heartbeat would continue forever. My body was very inflexible; I could not put on socks alone. While recovering from the surgeries, I would miss school for months. When I returned, I would sit out during PE classes and watch my classmates play sports. I was a “walking hospital,” as my PE teacher said.

The most challenging part of MHE was the back pain. After sitting on a chair for hours, I felt numbness in my back, and my legs began to tingle. While the pain made me miserable at times, I did nothing to address it. When doctors said swimming could be an exercise that would help with the pain and my parents signed me up for it, I missed most of the classes because I sucked at swimming. I was competitive and did not want to lose to anyone. So instead, I spent all my energy on what I was already good at, just powering through school work and onto the next life goal: going to a good college.

In the Summer of 2008, after graduating from high school, I did another round of surgery to remove bones in my legs and chest. We did a full body scan to ensure nothing was left behind, and a CT scan revealed a large bone tumor on the right pelvis, which had pushed my spine to the left and caused scoliosis. The doctor determined that removing the bone would significantly alleviate the back pain. I was thrilled I could finally live without pain. But the night before the surgery, he came to my room to explain the chance that I might lose control of my right peroneal nerve after the surgery since the tumor sat very close to the spinal nerve. For the rest of the night I dreaded imagining what it would be like wearing a support device to walk. Luckily, the surgery went very successfully. As soon as I woke from anesthesia I tried to rotate my right ankle. I could move it.

A few months later, I moved to Philadelphia to start college and begin a new chapter. After spending the first semester battling Philly’s brutal wind and eating loads of Chipotle burrito bowls and Jimmy John’s sandwiches (I haven’t had these two since I left the college), the back pain returned, and it was much worse than before the surgery. I studied for much of my final exam lying down and after the final exams I told my advisor I needed to take a medical leave.

I entered rehab for a month. I slept while hanging on pulleys with weights to stretch my spine. The increased pain came from my right back, which used to be supported by the bone and did not have muscles to support the right side. I learned rehab exercises to combat this issue and wore a brace covering my entire torso to support it and to prevent my spine from curving more.

The body brace that does not breathe at all. The body brace that does not breathe at all.

Six months after doing rehab exercises and wearing the brace, tucked under the shirt on the hottest and humid days in Seoul’s summer, I returned to the hospital and hoped to get a positive answer to return to school. However, the doctor did not see much improvement and recommended I rejoin rehab. I was in shock. I walked home for a few hours and realized two things:

  • The problems I am facing are very unique to me. MHE is a rare disease, and it all manifests differently. Therefore, a ‘one size fits all’ solution is impossible. I did not believe that doing rehab exercises and wearing the brace would drastically improve my condition.
  • Have I ever pushed my body’s limits? No. I had never done any exercise regularly before starting rehab.

The next day I started the first campaign to address those realizations and dragged myself out to a swimming pool. I went for the first time since I was a kid and could not even swim 25 meters without stopping. After an hour I was so exhausted I almost threw up. But it felt super refreshing afterward and I did not know any other exercises, so I stuck with the plan, blindly believing this would lead somewhere. I returned to Philly and always carried a swimsuit and a towel in my backpack, which smelled like chlorine. By the end of college I could swim freestyle a lap without a break comfortably, mastered side turns, and became a regular at the sauna.

In 2013 after finishing school I moved to San Francisco to join a startup in Burlingame. I spent two hours commuting daily so finding time to exercise was challenging. I would go weeks without exercising, which made the back pain come back. When I joined Airbnb in San Francisco in 2014 my commute got much shorter, so finding time to go swimming was much more manageable. I squeezed in time to swim at least 2-3 times a week after work.

One day looking out in the San Francisco Bay, I saw a couple of heads poking out from the water. They were swimming in 60°F (15°C) ocean without a wetsuit. I knew the sea between SF and Alcatraz was so dangerous that they made a prison, and very few prisoners were able to escape. But they told me they are practicing for an annual swim race from Alcatraz to Pier 39! Ever since that day, the swim has stuck in my mind, and every time I saw Alcatraz from afar, I told myself I would do it one day.

Alcatraz Island looks so close from San Francisco Aquatic Park. And it is!Alcatraz Island looks so close from San Francisco Aquatic Park. And it is!

The Alcatraz race website says participants should be able to swim a mile “comfortably” in 40 minutes. I could not swim more than ten laps without stopping yet, and my solution to pushing the limit was to keep swimming until my heart was pounding, take a one minute break, and continue until I reached a mile. I was young. And every time, one fascinating thing remained the same - the first ten laps were the hardest. The first five laps are a breeze, then with more and more laps, it gets more challenging and I feel out of breath at around the tenth lap. There, the key is not to give up and adjust the pace if needed. After a couple of tough laps my body gradually loosens up and from there, swimming 40 laps feels the same as swimming 20 laps. It does not keep getting more and more painful.

Once I could swim a mile in a pool without stopping, I signed up for the Alcatraz race with three months left and started to practice in the open water. I biked half an hour to the Aquatic Park, swam an hour, and biked back. On the way back I still felt the chill and numbness on my hands and feet. Swimming in the open water is a different beast than swimming in the pool, and the most challenging part was learning to go straight toward the target. I had to adjust my swim technique to poke my head high enough to see the target every few strokes. It took a while not to gulp any water and not breathe in simultaneously. And it was mentally challenging too, because I always felt like I could see a big dark object like a whale or a shark underneath me. To this day I have not seen any sharks or other wild animals, but I know they live there.

I could not keep the smile because my face was frozen I could not keep the smile because my face was frozen

On August 13, 2016, I woke up at 6am and arrived at the Aquatic Park. The park was full of swimmers getting ready to board the boat to Alcatraz. Everyone on the ship looked nervous and I could feel my heartbeat racing. So I wrote a Facebook post to numb the feeling, hoping it wouldn’t be my last post.

With the sound of the first horn, the swimmers jumped onto the frigid cold water. The water was choppy and I had already swallowed some salty water while adjusting my goggles. With the sounds of the second horn hundreds of swimmers started swimming toward San Francisco. After initially getting kicked around by swimmers around me, almost like you are in a kickboxing match, I was left alone. From there, it was just me against the wave.

About halfway between San Francisco and Alcatraz I felt super exhausted. The waves were higher than the ones I practiced with. I turned to breathe, but many times my mouth was still underwater. My heart was beating rapidly and I stopped to catch my breath and looked around. There was the panorama of the most breathtaking views of San Francisco and its surroundings. I spent a few minutes feeling the adrenaline and took a mental picture I will never forget.

The event started when there was little to no current but by the time I was close to the cove’s entrance, I was swimming against it. Swimming against the current with high waves is like staying in the middle of a storm. I was unsure if I was moving forward no matter how hard I kicked. But eventually, I passed the entrance of the Aquatic Park and the waves suddenly became quiet. I could see the finish line; everything was so peaceful and within my control. Then, suddenly, the last thing I expected at that time, my abs started to cramp. I’ve never had cramps on my ab before or after that. It was such a sharp pain I had never felt before. But I could see the finish line. The pain would be over soon.

The moment I could see the bottom and scooped the sand was surreal. I could not stand up immediately, and with some help, I regained my ability to deal with the gravity and passed the finish line. My record was one hour and 18 minutes, placing 579th out of 609 participants. I continued to swim in the Aquatic Park to compete in Golden Gate Swim in 2018. That time I was too far behind the group after the start and was assisted by the boat to catch up with the group to finish the race.

The victory moment I finished Golden Gate Bridge Swim in 2018The victory moment I finished Golden Gate Bridge Swim in 2018

Swimming is my favorite exercise to sort through tangled thoughts and clear my mind. And this journey leading up was a massive part of my 20s. I learned that I, too, could reach a certain level in physical activities if I put in consistent effort for a long time. I know it applies to other areas I am fearful of. To put in work into something I suck at, again and again, I learned to let go of my ego and focus on the real goal. And accept all the challenges as gifts. Whenever I saw someone in my lane swim past me, I used to feel ashamed or competitive and swam faster. And I got tired more quickly. I learned to define a narrow corridor with just me and focus on the real goal of swimming - to keep my pace, focus on shoulder and body rotation, and most importantly, just enjoy gliding in the water.

The most meaningful gift from this experience was growing my passion for understanding my body and experimenting with it. Over the years, I adopted various diets and supplements to help with inflammation and joint health and learned mobility exercises like yoga, pilates, band workouts, and kettlebell exercises. The foam roller and the massage ball became my best travel buddies. Through this experience, I gained a deeper understanding of my physical limits, learning when to push myself and when to give my body the rest it needed. A perfect example of this was during the last day of this 20 miles swim challenge. On this final day, I swam only a mile, deliberately stopping half a mile short of reaching the 20-mile mark. This was not due to a lack of determination, but rather a conscious acknowledgment of my low energy levels. I had recently arrived in Korea and, despite the fatigue of travel, had managed to swim three miles in less than 48 hours. Despite falling slightly short of the ambitious 20-mile goal, I was able to swim an 19.5 miles in a month, which significantly surpassed my previous personal best.

I would never “overcome” my disability - I live with it and embrace the challenge and gift from this journey.