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Natalie Merrow Completes Catalina Channel Swim!

The original article by Ryan ZumMallen is posted (with pictures) on LBPost since Wednesday, September 29, 2010

11:00am Wednesday | Open-water swimming enthusiast and Long Beach native Natalie Merrow has become the newest member on a short list of people to successfully swim across the Catalina Channel from Catalina to Palos Verdes, beginning her journey around 11:00pm on Monday evening and finishing in a time of 13 hours and 50 minutes.

After months of intense training and physical preparation - detailed in the profile story below - Merrow had hoped to finish somewhere around 13 hours and expressed excitement, relief, joy and fatigue in a series of text messages and e-mails. We'll have more information and a follow-up interview later this week, as Merrow is understandably taking the next few days to rest.

2:00am Tuesday | Natalie Merrow prefers to swim in the open ocean when it's cold.

Around 57, 58 degrees, preferably sub-60. This is where she feels at home—her strokes perfectly timed, her streamlined shape slicing through the water, her mind drifting into a focus so sharp that she forgets she is even swimming. It's a comfort zone that has developed over the course of a 30-year love affair with swimming, and one she'll need later tonight when the Long Beach native embarks on the 20-mile swim across the Catalina Channel.

"When I turned thirty, I wanted to do something crazy," Merrow says. "And this is certainly that."

Crazy, maybe, but also the calculated result of a lifelong passion and plenty of hard work. After competing at Wilson High School and then as a member of both the UC Irvine and Long Beach State Master's swim teams, where she earned the nickname "The Animal," Merrow found new joy in open-water swimming, driven to tears of inspiration after reading the book Swimming To Antarctica by marathon swimmer Lynne Cox. After years of small competitions and friendly group ocean swims, she felt the urge to accomplish something bigger.

"I'm pretty much doing this to prove to myself that I can, that I'm worthy," Merrow says. "I'm a swimmer and I want to prove to myself that I can overcome a crazy endeavor in my life and say, damn, I did that."

In October 2009, Merrow swam as a support swimmer while another hero and mentor, Lynn Kubasek, swam the Catalina Channel. It was settled right then and there—completing the Catalina Channel swim herself was all that Natalie Merrow could think about. She mulled the idea over for a few months and then made the call in January, booking a date with the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation and paying for the near-$3,000 fee herself. There was no turning back.

"I feel really energetic and alive, mentally really strong right now and nothing is going to stop me," she says, standing on the beach before a Naples run one morning in August. "I'm going to finish. I don't care if I doggie paddle or breaststroke."

Only 187 people have successfully completed CCSF sanctioned swims across the channel, and many more have attempted. Though Merrow certainly has the heart—"The only thing that's going to stop me is like a shark, or hypothermia"—there are more realistic dangers to consider. Along with the English Channel and Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, the Catalina Channel is one-third of the elusive swimming Triple Crown that only forty people have ever completed. For good reason. The 20 miles from Catalina to Palos Verdes are a grueling battle with fatigue, wind, water conditions and temperature. Merrow has trained in a variety of conditions specifically to conquer those challenges.

To perfect her rhythm, Merrow regularly trains by swimming around the canals of Naples in Long Beach for hours on end. She's competed in several races this summer from San Diego to Santa Barbara, in varying distances and with varying water conditions. To combat the cold, Merrow has gained 75 pounds, she excitedly reports to me one day in July. Like her idol, Merrow needed the weight to deal with the temperatures.

"You get cold in your fingers and your toes but in the core body, I don't get that cold," Merrow says. "Pool swimmers are just really lean and they have no body fat, but the real open water wimmers like Lynne Cox were big girls. They all had excess, you kinda have to when you're spending eight or more hours in the saltwater in the middle of the ocean."

Once a slim 140 pounds in college, Merrow planned to be over 210 for the channel swim. Through the intense summer of training and strict eating habits, she has molded her body into the perfect long distance swimming machine. The name of the game is consistency, whether through waters choppy or freezing, and Merrow has put herself in position to handle any physical situation. It makes it that much easier to handle the cold water she's been anticipating because, again like her idol, Merrow doesn't wear a wetsuit. Though this unexpected heat wave may make the conditions warmer and smoother than she ever anticipated, the key to Merrow's success will still be that extra mass.

"I feel good and thats all that matters," she says. "Being big runs in my family and I said, you know what, I'm going to accept it. It's a good structure. 'Solid' is a good word."

"Solid" is a good word to describe Merrow on many levels, especially looking back on the relationship she's had with swimming. Born right here at Long Beach Community Hospital, she learned the craft in her family's backyard swimming pool and began competing as soon as she could float. At Wilson High, she says she was never first but never last, and focused more on the Crew team than pool swimming. In college, she left the sport but "I was getting down on myself physically" and was drawn back to the pool. While completing a Psychology degree at CSULB, she joined both the Master's teams there and at UCI. "I became very fast," she says. She gained a reputation for showing up to practice early and quickly was competing among the best. But it wasn't until she discovered open-water swimming that Merrow found her groove. Freed from the tyranny of flip-turns, Merrow finds a Zen-like retreat in the water.

"When I'm having a really good day, I just crank it out. I do get into a zone. It's like waking up when you're not fully awake, almost trance-like.You're just swimming," she says. "That's a good day. Now, when I'm having a bad day, ugh, it's just boring as hell. I've made grocery lists in my mind, I sing songs and that doesnt even help because I can't get the rhythm right or whatever."

That's what kayaker Beth Barnes (pictured right) is for. A Wilson alum herself ('75), Barnes accompanies Merrow on most of her local swims and advises her training, monitors her pace, and keeps her from bonking into boats or other swimmers. The mother of two college-aged children who aren't all that interested in swimming, Barnes is happy to have a willing pupil.

"I love being out here with Natalie," she says, oar in hand one Wednesday morning. "I can be a nurturer and I get to be on the water." Merrow calls Barnes a hero, and says she the channel swim wouldn't be possible without her. The bond only grows stronger on this hazy morning in Belmont Shore, when Barnes surprises Merrow with a gift: The swim cap used by longtime marathon swimmer Jim Barnes during his 2006 swim across the English Channel. Merrow is ecstatic, running her fingers along the American flag emblazoned onto the rubber, the tool of an athlete who has accomplished the Triple Crown that Merrow herself one day aspires to complete. She holds Barber's past in her hands but stares at the cap like she can see her future reflecting back at her.

But first things first, and Merrow's big day is upon her. The swim will begin tonight, around 11:00pm or midnight, as boat traffic will be less frequent. The water will be cold, which will suit her perfectly. The accompanying boat will be loaded with supporters and officials. Merrow will slip in, relishing the sting, and letting her training take over. A kick off, a few powerful strokes, time to let the nerves fade away and Natalie Merrow will be alone in her zone, just her and the water like she's done so many times before.