The article below originally appeared on MercuryNews.com and is being reprinted with permission.
Iya Oto was two minutes away from land when she had to jump out of the English Channel and onto the escort boat. Her hour-long turn in the water over, and it was time for another swimmer to dive in.
Just over a month ago, the 18-year-old was part of a six-member relay team that swam across the English Channel — and back. A three-time All-America sprinter at College of San Mateo, Oto stepped out of her comfort zone in the pool to confront the icy waters and currents during a 62-mile journey on the first Sunday in August. The roundtrip voyage from England to France took her 24 hours … plus those two extra minutes on the boat.
“They just asked me,” said Oto, who was invited to join the relay by members of the San Mateo Athletic Club and Aquatic Center. “And it was pretty daring of me, because before I said yes I had never done any open-water swimming before.”
For the 5-foot-4 Oto, distance wasn’t the issue. In fact, she said she would consider attempting the feat again if she can increase her hours of swimming.
“She’s a distance swimmer, she’s a sprinter,” CSM swimming and women’s water polo coach Randy Wright said. “She’s just a phenomenal swimming athlete.”
The main concern was the temperature of the water in the Atlantic Ocean. To make the swim, the relay team was not allowed to wear wetsuits and could only use a single cap. To acclimate herself, Oto trained in 50-degree waters at Half Moon Bay.
“The distance wasn’t too hard, but a lot of it was the cold water,” Oto said. “And I really just wasn’t ready for that.”
The swim began Aug. 5 at 1:02 a.m. Cramped into a tiny boat, the team left from the Strait of Dover with its destination the Cap Gris Nez in France.
“It was definitely smaller than I was expecting,” Oto said of the 30-foot escort boat, which followed the swimmers from a safe distance.
The sixth of the hour-long legs of the relay belonged to Oto. To her delight, the water in the English Channel was in the 60-degree range, so it actually felt warmer than training in Half Moon Bay.
“The four hours that I was in the water was definitely really tough,” Oto said. “But the remainder of the hours I was able to sleep because I took sea-sickness pills, and those made me super drowsy. So I was actually out. It was kind of a good thing because otherwise I think I would’ve been up the whole time.”
Oto was not only awake when the crew reached France, she was the only swimmer to walk onto shore because the boat had to wait in deeper water.
“I loved being able to at least touch France,” said Oto, who was greeted by a small crowd clapping for her.
There was not time to celebrate. Instead, Oto turned around for the return swim. A little more than 12 hours later, the relay team was back to where it all began.
“Once we returned to Dover and the whole swim was over, we were just all so dead,” Oto said. “But we couldn’t stop smiling. We were just so excited. It felt so great to be able to accomplish such a feat.”
- Oto took a quick tour of London with her brother Masa, a former swimmer at CSM, before attending the USA men’s water polo quarterfinal match against eventual gold medalist Croatia.”It was so awesome being there during the Olympics,” Oto said. “The energy is just crazy.”Oto watched along with her CSM coach as his brother, Adam Wright, played for the Americans. But Oto didn’t get a chance to catch any of the swims from Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte or Missy Franklin.”I wasn’t even really able to watch it on TV because in Great Britain they would mostly show the sports that they are really good at,” Oto said. “So it was a lot of equestrian and stuff like rowing. So we watched horses, like, all the time.”
- Oto graduated from Aragon-San Mateo in 2011 and enrolled at San Jose State before transferring to CSM in the middle of the academic year.”To be honest, I was just really homesick,” Oto said. “Being out of the water and not being able to swim, it was just tough on me.”She turned in All-America efforts in the 50-, 100- and 200-yard swims as a freshman, and now that she’s back in warmer waters the goal is to become the first female to win a swimming state title at CSM. But don’t expect her to go the distance.”Even though I swam the channel, I think I’m going to stick with the sprint events,” said Oto, who will play for the women’s water polo team during the fall.