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STEVE FLORES: Alcatraz swim more than just a swim

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Californian community columnist Steve Flores.

If Dirty Harry, Mary Poppins and Aquawoman could suspend the laws of biology and somehow have a child, that baby might look a lot like Roxanne Shuford.

In equal measure, her personal history, driven yet bubbly personality and tremendous athletic abilities create an almost Clark Kent aura.

Unless one is willing to probe, the Bakersfield resident, 63, is too humble to talk about her fascinating family history and astounding aquatic accomplishments.

Fleeing persecution during the Russian Revolution, Roxanne’s grandparents fled their home for Shanghai, China, where Roxanne’s mother Valentina was born and raised. Years later Valentina would meet and marry Roxanne’s dad, Tom Clanin who was in the U.S. Navy and stationed in China. The married couple eventually moved to the United States to raise their family.

In her earliest memories, Roxanne recalls family trips to San Francisco to attend annual Russian Orthodox Church Easter celebrations. She vividly remembers the sights, sounds and smells of Market Square and the ferry rides in the San Francisco Bay with compelling views of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and the City.

Roxanne couldn't have known it then, but the terrifying experience of almost drowning in a horse trough at 4 — she was saved by her brother — was the start of her aquatic aspirations. Those aspirations would eventually bring her back to the San Francisco Bay — but this time to swim in its frigid, deadly and treacherous water currents. Did I already mention shark infested waters?

Over the course of several years, Roxanne swam the mile and a quarter distance from Alcatraz to San Francisco six times. She was joined several times by her husband Dan. Both are retired California Highway Patrol officers.

Her sore back and chest cold took a toll on this year's swim. Several Saturdays ago, Roxanne firmly announced that this would be her last Alcatraz swim.

The Alcatraz swims, coordinated by Water World Swim, include many international participants.

A little history.

Alcatraz prison guards nicknamed the federal penitentiary “Sharkatraz.” Those guards at "the Rock" repeated a myth about a great white shark that, because of a damaged fin, could only swim in a circle around the prison as it looked for prey.

In 1962, ignoring the shark myth, three Alcatraz prisoners chipped through their cement cell walls and escaped into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay. They disappeared into the night, wearing only the meager life preservers they made from stolen raincoats, and were never found, seen, or heard from again.

Fast forward to October 2015.

Tourists visiting “the Rock” witnessed what was reported to be a great white attack that killed a seal about 50 feet off Alcatraz’s rocky shore. The attack was caught on camera in what experts say is the first recorded “great white shark predation event in the waters of San Francisco Bay.”

Experts tell us there are 11 different species of shark that call San Francisco Bay home. Unless you count the three prisoners, there are no known fatal shark attacks on people in the San Francisco Bay area. The sharks that do call the Bay home are primarily bottom feeders.

I feel so much safer now.

I partially blame the 1979 Clint Eastwood movie “Escape from Alcatraz” for the moth-to-flame attraction of people who feel an irresistible need to swim from “Sharkatraz” to San Francisco.

But Roxanne doesn't make the swim because of Clint. In part, it's for her mom, who died of cancer when Roxanne was 12.

Roxanne admits her return trips to San Francisco help her embrace her youthful memories of her mom. Her swimming view of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, are much different than what she remembers of those family ferry boat rides from many years ago. But the smells, sounds and sights bring back that closeness to her mom.

“Why did you do the Alcatraz swims?” I asked Roxanne.

In her loveable Mary Poppins voice, she responds, “In part it reminds me of our family trips, especially with my mom.”

Then, in her best Dirty Harry voice, she firmly adds, “You can’t grow if you stay in your comfort zone.”

See. I told you. Mary Poppins, Dirty Harry and Aquawoman all rolled into one.

Email contributing columnist Steve Flores at His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.


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