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West Hawaii women swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco


The Kona convicts made a break for it Saturday morning.

This is no gang of hardened criminals, but rather a group of four Big Island women who planned, then executed their own escape from Alcatraz.

Sue LaLanne, Kathleen Leahy, Christine O’Gorman and Kate Shannon dove into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay, as part of the 23rd annual Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim, and headed for the shores of Aquatic Park, 1½ miles to the south.

While no prisoners were ever confirmed to have successfully escaped from the famed prison, Saturday’s event was completed by each of the area women – who jokingly referred to themselves as the “Kona convicts.”

Leahy, 56, from Waikoloa, finished the event in 53 minutes, 4 seconds while the 50-year-old Shannon of Kailua-Kona swam it in 57:03. O’Gorman, 62, of Kailua-Kona, completed it in 1:03:00 while LaLanne, 70, of Kailua-Kona, finished in 1:18:52.

“I am exhausted,” said LaLanne, who was the oldest female to finish the race. “It was nasty. We all made it, and I won my age division, but it was hard. Most people were saying ‘I’ll never do it again.’”

LaLanne estimated she had participated five times previously in the event — which her uncle, late fitness expert Jack LaLanne, once famously did while handcuffed. On one of her previous attempts she had to be pulled from the water, which happens to a number of competitors each year.

“I had to be rescued one year because I had a panic attack,” she said. “I could have finished the race, but I was way behind the pack and thought ‘What the heck? Why do this?’”

That’s a question some might ask before ever getting in the water, but LaLanne said it is an amazing — and challenging — experience. She said the water temperature this year was 56 degrees.

While the water temperature can be dangerous, the most treacherous part of the swim is the currents that swirl around San Francisco. The race date varies from year to year, as it is dependent on the projected currents. Swimmers are told to aim about 200 yards left of the entrance to Aquatic Park; otherwise, the tides could sweep them past the landing point.

“You have to line yourself up just right or you get whipped back in under the bridge,” LaLanne said.

The area women each competed in the wetsuit division, but this year’s race was so difficult — LaLanne said she was still shaking from the cold more than two hours after she completed the race — that she might not do it again next year.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “I’ve done it enough times. I got so cold this year.”

But, she quickly changed course and let open the possibility of a return to Alcatraz.

“It’s kind of like giving birth,” she said. “You think afterward, ‘Oh, I’m not doing that again!’ But then I’ll start thinking about how much fun we had.”