Mind Over Murky Water: First Woman to Swim San Francisco’s Entire Shoreline Says the Strength Is All in Her Head

Maryam Sharifzadeh, the second person and first woman on record to swim the 22 miles around San Francisco all in one shot, says the frigid water and rough surf are the ultimate test of mental fortitude

What to Know

  • In October, Maryam Sharifzadeh became the second person and first woman on record to swim San Francisco's 22-mile shoreline
  • The rules for marathon swims dictate that the journey must be completed in one shot, with no wetsuit, and no touching boats or other swimmer
  • Sharifzadeh began long-distance swimming as a tribute to a friend who died in a plane crash, and believes grief can be a powerful motivator

San Francisco is known for many things — but warm, inviting water isn't one of them.

So when Maryam Sharifzadeh first decided she was going to enter the world of open water swimming, the reality of what she was about to do hit her like a bucket of ice.

"When I got in, I was freezing," she said, tensing up a little just at the thought of it.

Maryam's motivation to brave the frigid water came out of tragedy: the death of her childhood friend Nasim, who was like a sister, in a 2018 charter plane crash.

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area

"I had a lot of grief, and it was a very physical feeling for me, so I knew I had to process it in a very physical way," she said.

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Maryam first set out to raise money for Nasim's favorite charity, No Kid Hungry, with a 12-mile swim across Lake Tahoe. (She also supports the charity through her business, Office Yoga.) After training 4 to 5 days a week in the chilly water at San Francisco's Aquatic Park, she completed the Tahoe swim alongside a boat full of friends and family, with Nasim's picture taped to the side of the vessel.

"But when I was done, I felt like I still had more in me," she said.

That's when Maryam made the decision to attempt a marathon swim that's only been completed by one other person: The 22-mile shoreline of San Francisco, from Daly City to Brisbane.

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area

"It's so much more mental than it is physical," she said, "And I was surprised at the mental strength that I had, and that a lot of other marathon swimmers have, to be able to get through something like this."

Maryam's journey around the three sides of San Francisco that are surrounded by water was not a straightforward one. While other swimmers have tried and failed at routes that began in the Bay and ended in the ocean, she followed the advice of Joe Butler, the first person to successfully complete the swim, by starting in the ocean — taking on the coldest, roughest water while she was still fresh and full of energy.

"It was way longer than what I did for Tahoe, the conditions are colder, the water's a lot more difficult to swim in," Maryam said. "And so I had very little expectation of actually completing the swim."

Courtesy of Maryam Sharifzadeh

Maryam said she resolved to set small, incremental goals for herself. First, to make it to the Golden Gate Bridge, then the Bay Bridge, and so on. But equally important to the mental battle she fought was the team aboard the boat and kayak that escorted her through the water — helping her avoid ships, marine life, and in one case, discouragement from a big mistake.

"I believe the tides were predicted a couple of hours off," said boat captain Brent McLain.

Swimmers move through the water at about one nautical mile per hour, McLain explained, and the fierce tides at the Golden Gate can move at five times that speed — either drawing a swimmer into the Bay, or expelling her into the ocean.

Courtesy of Maryam Sharifzadeh

"In the beginning, she was in the same spot for almost two and a half hours," said kayaker Miguel Melendez. "She didn't know the difference, but I did."

Maryam's team realized as the sun came up that she'd been swimming against the tide, and wasn't making any progress. In the interest of keeping Maryam's spirits high, the team elected not to tell her what was happening. As the tides shifted and they began making slow progress toward the Golden Bridge, they steered her away from breaching whales, foraging sea lions and a fast-approaching container ship, without telling her a thing. Maryam's sole focus had to be on moving forward, except for a brief stop to eat every 30 minutes.

"It's kind of like feeding wildlife off the side of a boat," said Tiffany Fields, who coordinated Maryam's food during the swim.

Courtesy of Maryam Sharifzadeh

The World Open Water Swimming Association's guidelines for marathon swims dictate that swimmers can't receive assistance during the journey — from either people or technology. That means there's no wetsuit allowed, no touching the boat, and no touching other people. So during her meal breaks, Maryam's team would throw her packets of baby food — packed with sugar and easy to digest — and then reel in the empty containers with an attached string after she finished.

The breaks had to be kept short, in part because of the cold water.

"My feeds were about 30 seconds to a minute," Maryam said. "Because you just get too cold — you want to keep moving."

Nearly as important as a steady supply of sugar, she said, was the emotional support that's allowed and regulated by the association's rules: a "support swimmer" who can jump into the water for an hour at a time.

Courtesy of Maryam Sharifzadeh

"You can't swim in front of the person. So you're not pacing them to swim faster, you can only swim next to them," said Vanessa Brown, who swam with Maryam for three stretches of one hour each.

The last of those stretches came right before Maryam reached the finish line — the invisible San Mateo County line, somewhere in the middle of the water. Brown had to get back on the boat before her time expired, as the team struggled with GPS and nautical charts to find exactly where the finish was.

"She got to get back on the boat, and I didn't," Maryam said. "Which was really hard at the very end when I just wanted to be done."

In fact, McLain said marathon swims often end abruptly in just these situations.

"I've done a lot of swims where the people make it within 100 yards of completing it, and they get a mouth full of water and they just don't want to do it anymore," he said.

Courtesy of Maryam Sharifzadeh

Ultimately, the team made Maryam swim several hundred extra yards into San Mateo County, to be doubly sure they'd crossed the finish line before delivering the good news:

"You did it!" Melendez exclaimed from his kayak.

After nine hours and eleven minutes of nearly continuous swimming, video from the boat captured Maryam's celebration: a floating victory dance in the middle of the Bay, with all the screaming and splashing you might expect from someone who never thought she'd see this moment.

"I think I tapped into a deep well within myself that I didn't even know I had," Maryam said.

Exhausted and shivering, Maryam thanked the crew aboard the boat, but also silently thanked her other teammate: Nasim — whom she says was there the whole time, in her heart.

"I thank her continuously for being there and helping me get across," Maryam said. "Because I don't think I could've done it without her."

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