Swimming for Social Change: Sarah Peck’s Birthday Swim

At 5:00 am on Saturday, September 22, 2012, when most Americans were still sleeping, writer and designer Sarah Peck climbed into a boat making its way to Alcatraz. Less than two hours later, Peck slipped into the frigid water and began swimming steadily from Alcatraz to San Francisco. An early morning swim in 55-degree water might seem like an unusual way to celebrate one’s 29th birthday. To make the event more memorable, Peck swam the distance wearing nothing but a swim cap. Why?

Sarah Peck swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco, September 2012. Photo from her blog, It Starts With.

She embarked on the swim to raise money for charity: water, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
Several major nonprofits sponsor marathon runs, walks, or swimming races to generate funds for charity. Swim Across America coordinates a swim across the San Francisco Bay to raise money and awareness for cancer research, prevention and treatment.

The difference is, most swimmers undertaking the 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco for charity (or any reason) wear wetsuits—the water temperature in the Bay hovers around 55 degrees.

Why did Peck swim nude in frigid, murky water? To make a point. After learning that 800 million human beings on the planet don’t have access to clean water Peck committed herself to making a difference. She set a goal of raising $29,000 to bring safe water to others.

Sarah Peck’s pledge, August 1, 2012. Photo from It Starts With.

Peck publicized the idea on her blog, It Starts With, boldly asking readers to forgo a bottle of wine or a take-out meal to donate to the cause of clean water. She reasoned that if 1000 people donated $29, she’d reach her goal. “It will be freezing. I will be very, very cold. But a little cold and a little bay muck is nothing compared to the lives lived on other countries in this world.” She promised that if she raised $29,000, she would embark on the swim wearing nothing but her birthday suit. And she did it.

In a nation where clean, cold water–often enhanced with vitamins–is available at nearly every corner convenience store, it is difficult to imagine having to walk five miles for potable water as some individuals must. According to statistics from the World Health Organization, diseases associated with unsafe water and unhygienic living conditions caused by lack of clean water kill more people worldwide annually than all forms of violence–even war. Young children are especially vulnerable to diseases caused by unsafe water. Sarah Peck swam to help change that.

Mercedes Gleitze, swimming the English Channel, 1927. Courtesy Christie’s Images, ltd., London.

Though she may not have realized it, Peck is following in the footsteps of other extraordinary women from past decades who used a passion for swimming to raise money to help others in need. Mercedes Gleitze, an eighteen-year-old typist in London, became the first woman swimmer to attract front page headlines in American newspapers when she announced her intent to attempt to swim the English Channel in 1922 (more on Gleitze to follow in subsequent posts).

American journalists reported favorably on Gleitze as the “beautiful London stenographer” in the “scanty swimsuit” who saved her money and tried seven times over five years before successfully swimming the English Channel in 1927. Like Peck 80 years later, Gleitze dedicated the money she raised from swimming to improving living conditions for others. Gleitze, a fascinating woman, swam dangerous straits around the world, including the Irish Channel, Hellespont, the Straits of Gibraltar (which she attempted six times before succeeding), the Cook Straits of New Zealand and the Dardanelles to raise funds to help the destitute in London.

Though Gleitze earned celebrity status among her contemporaries, she’s been largely forgotten, even by historians, today. Maybe Sarah Peck, who followed Gleitze’s example of swimming to raise money to help others, will help change that.

Peck modestly acknowledged that her swim wouldn’t secure clean water for 800 million people. But her accomplishment of raising nearly $30,000 from over 400 people–in only three months–proves that working together, like-minded people can make a positive difference in the world. “Swim for it.”

About Marilyn Morgan

Hi, I’m Marilyn Morgan and welcome to my research blog. For over nine years I've worked as an archivist at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women at that Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and I am committed to inspiring, supporting, and disseminating academic research, especially related to women’s issues in popular culture. My own research investigates 20th-century and contemporary American history, popular culture, and material culture, especially advertising; consumerism; marketing to women; socially constructed gender roles; cultural aesthetics and beauty pageants; cosmetics; women and sport, media treatment of women athletes; youth culture; body image; dieting; gendering of sport; women’s swimming; eroticization of women athletes; and beach culture.
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3 Responses to Swimming for Social Change: Sarah Peck’s Birthday Swim

  1. Marilyn,

    As a 1984 Harvard graduate, I was always most impressed by my female counterparts during my four years in Cambridge. As a kid growing up in the barrios of East Los Angeles, I had rarely met anyone who were as talented, driven and passionate about life as those young women were/are.

    Concurrent to that, I have always been involved with water polo and swimming, especially swimming in the open water. I have written since that time for Swimming World Magazine, Triathlon Magazine, Competitor Magazine and other publications about open water swimming, and now manage the Daily News of Open Water Swimming, the World Open Water Swimming Association, and the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame as well as Openwaterpedia and a variety of other open water swimming entities and brands.

    So I am FASCINATED about all the unique articles and extraordinary research that you have done. It is incredibly interesting to me and a wonderful read, especially about everything related to swimwear, bodies and the sport of swimming.

    I would love to link to and mention your articles when they involve swimming in the Daily News of Open Water Swimming, and ask you questions about swimmers. As the Chief Administrator of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and the open water swimming consultant to the Guinness Book of World Records, I occasionally face questions or issues about swimmers that I cannot confirm. This is especially true about female swimmers in the first half of the 20th century. Furthermore, I would like to know about swimmers BEFORE the 20th century. Quite frankly, I rarely hear about women swimming prior to 1900. I think I know the reasons why, but I am sure there are bound to be exceptions.

    Anyway, you do a wonderful job … and everything women at Radcliffe do has always impressed me since September 1980. Keep up the great work.

    Steven Munatones
    Huntington Beach, California
    +1-714-305-7374

    • Steven, Thanks so much for taking time to write. I admire your work–what I know of it from Open Water Swimming–and I had no idea if any swimmers would be interested in this work at all. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the wonderful feedback. The Open Water Swimming is FANTASTIC, btw. I have found material on late 19th century American women swimmers (open water swimmers) and quite a surprising amount on early 20th century women swimmers, especially in New England. Records are often buried in unlikely places but I’m determined and I absolutely love discovering them. Swimming fascinates me on so many levels and just have to carve time to post. I’d be happy and honored to help in any way I can.

  2. W. H. Armstead, Jr. says:

    Thanks a LUMP for posting said account about Ms. Peck’s successful bid to swim across said bay of the Pacific near S.F. in nothing but her bday outfit because I know if true that she could use it, we know lots of others also could use it, too….

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