Only 55 people have successfully swum across Hawai‘i’s Kaiwi Channel, a 26-mile stretch of water between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu known for its strong currents and large rolling swells. Kim Chambers counts herself among them. In 2012, she spent the night braving choppy waters and nearly 20-mile-per-hour winds, until she finally crawled up the lava rock ledges of China Walls after 19-and-a-half hours in the ocean.
What makes her feat even more impressive is that she had only been swimming for three years. The 40-year-old grew up on a sheep farm in New Zealand, and for most of her life, went nowhere near the water. Yet, her Kaiwi crossing marked the start of a journey to becoming one of the top long-distance, open-water swimmers in the world. “It’s the uncomfortable, scary moments, like being in dark, rough, shark-filled waters, that have helped me realize my full potential,” she says.
In 2007, before the Kaiwi Channel, before she spent any amount of hours swimming the moody sea, Chambers was living what she thought was the American dream, with a high-paying tech job in San Francisco and a buzzy social life to match. Then one morning, when she was rushing to work in high heels, she fell down her apartment’s stairs. Blunt-force trauma to her right leg caused a rare condition called acute compartment syndrome, which occurs when excessive pressure builds up within a muscle. Doctors told her she had a 1 percent chance of ever walking unaided again. “It was the lowest point in my life,” Chambers says.
Two grueling years of physical therapy helped Chambers heal physically, but it wasn’t until she got into a pool for physical therapy in 2009 that she began to heal emotionally. Here, she was able to hide her limited mobility and feel a sense of freedom. “The pool was the beginning of my rebirth,” she says.
Chambers wasn’t a natural at swimming, but her dogged determination caught other swimmers’ attention, and earned her an invite to Dolphin Club, a group of hardcore swimmers who train in chilly San Francisco Bay. In those frigid, dark waters, she found her new path. “I loved being in an environment that humans aren’t supposed to be in, and having that intimate connection with nature,” she says. “I’ve had dolphins swim beside me and the whiskers of sea lions tickle my feet. I was also really drawn to the discipline and focus of long-distance swimming.”
Less than six years later, Chambers became the only woman ever to complete what many consider the hardest swim in the world: the 30-mile span of water between the Golden Gate Bridge and Farallon Islands, a haunting archipelago inhabited by great white sharks. This 17-hour adventure was chronicled in the 2017 documentary Kim Swims. She is also one of only seven people to have completed the Ocean’s Seven challenge, an aquatic version of the Seven Summits of mountaineering, which includes open-water swims across the English Channel and the Kaiwi Channel. Every long-distance endeavor raises funds and awareness for a cause, such as San Francisco Baykeeper, a watchdog of water quality.
Recently, Chambers has earned attention for what’s known as “Speedo diplomacy,” politically sensitive, unprecedented open-water swims meant to spark positive action by governments or leaders around the world. In May 2017, Chambers, along with 11 swimmers from different countries, swam 10 kilometers across the U.S.-Mexico border in an attempt to shine a global spotlight on immigration issues.
Each swim is also, she says, an opportunity for self-discovery. “At the end of a long swim you’re cold and exhausted and you are a completely different person from the one who got in the water,” Chambers says. “In the ocean, you flirt with life and death. I love that anticipation of surrendering myself to the unknown.”
Chambers frequently jokes about the Incredible Hulk moment she had at Adobe, where she works on the sustainability and social impact team. “I was fixing my hair in the mirror, and the armpit seam of my shirt ripped,” she says. “I should have been embarrassed, but instead I felt a sense of pride.” Chambers swims by English Channel rules, which means she doesn’t wear a wetsuit for her swims. Instead, to prepare for the North Channel swim between Ireland and Scotland, the former ballerina gained 65 pounds. She now keeps a wardrobe just for training. “In a world of Kardashian imagery, swimming has taught me to feel comfortable in my body,” she says. “To view it as a machine.”
Post-workout breakfast: “My colleagues at Adobe have gotten used to seeing me devour a breakfast burrito in the cafeteria, and then go back up for pancakes.”
Favorite food for bulking up: “Pints of ice cream.”
Reward food: After Chambers has gone through a tough patch during a swim, her support crew will often toss her mini marshmallows as a treat.
Swim fuel: Chambers tries to eat every 30 minutes during a swim. On a 12-hour swim, that’s 24 feeds, which are supposed to be under 10 seconds and require fewer than three chews. For this, she prefers foods that slide down the throat, like scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, and sliced peaches.
Sugar rush: The swimmer likes to make a mash of cooked white rice, Nutella, almond milk, and bananas. It tastes like a chocolate milkshake, and she can eat it on a swim.