Two Wellesley Alumnae Swim on First All-Female Relay Team to Double Cross Catalina Channel

Two Wellesley alumnae in swim caps
Image credit: Catalina Channel Swimming Federation
June 20, 2017

Two Wellesley alumnae were part of the first all-female relay team to complete a double crossing of the Catalina Channel, swimming from the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Palos Verdes, Calif., to Catalina Island and back. The six athletes, who attend or graduated from Seven Sisters schools, began their quest at 7:30 pm on Friday, June 16, and swam in one-hour shifts. After touching shore on Catalina Island, the team—composed of Abigail Bergman (Smith ’18), Eliza Cummings (Smith ’17), Gabriela “Ika” Kovacikova (Wellesley ’14), Rebecca Nevitt (Wellesley ’88), Cathleen Pruden (Mount Holyoke ’16), and Charlotte Samuels (Smith ’20)—turned around and swam all the way back. They completed the 40-mile round trip in just over 18 hours.

In addition to being the first all-female team to complete the route (known as a double crossing relay), the group, all of them competitive college swimmers, also set a women’s relay record of eight hours and 16 minutes for the distance from the mainland to the island. (The Catalina Channel Swimming Federation must confirm the time before it is considered official.)

The Catalina Channel is one of the most grueling open-water routes in the world, along with the English Channel (21 miles) and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (28.5 miles). The water is cold, currents can be strong, and swimmers are not allowed to wear wetsuits—just one porous suit and one bathing cap. They must also begin their journey at night, with only the light from glow sticks until the sun rises—a daunting task. Swimmers cannot lean on a support boat to ask a question or get a drink (though they are permitted to eat and drink as needed), and must not provide any flotation support to each other as they change positions. (Those who aren’t swimming ride in the main support boat.)

Bergman and Nevitt organized the event. “Having seen how some Seven Sisters graduates have come together recently in Los Angeles to work on political issues, I knew this was going to be a great experience, and it was,” said Nevitt, a visual researcher and working mom who hopes to inspire women of all ages to carve out time for exercise and self-care. “We’ve started something that I think will continue to grow—a tradition of working together for things we believe in.”

That collaboration included the swimmers—who high-fived each other when changing places—and the support crew, who cheered for each swimmer as she exited the water, no matter what hour of the night. Melissa King ’93, who has swum some open-water relays herself, was one of the four escort kayakers, all of whom were women. Heather Barber, Nevitt’s first coach at Wellesley, kayaked as well, and encouraged each swimmer before her swim. “A true Wellesley coach to this day,” said Nevitt, who completed a solo Catalina swim in 2014.

The support and camaraderie were crucial to helping Kovacikova overcome her initial unease during the first leg of her Catalina swim, when it was pitch black and she was in the middle of the channel. Just as she began to feel comfortable, she said, she heard her kayaker yell to the boat, “I just heard a splash! There’s something in the water!”

“She asked me to swim an inch away from the kayak for safety. I kept going, but with every stroke I looked up at her and saw her anxiously gazing at our surroundings. After about 10 minutes, she heard the animal ‘breathe’ and saw the blowhole of the dolphin. Phew!” said Kovacikova. “In those 10 minutes, it took every last ounce of courage I had to keep swimming.”

By 1:30 pm Saturday, June 17, the team was back on solid land, and grateful that they had demonstrated their mission statement, written weeks before the event, to “be an example of empowerment; the empowerment found when women take on an incredible challenge as a team and work together…and being a role model for those who want to dream big and fulfill their own goals.”

That ideal has helped Kovacikova achieve great things in and out of the water, she said. Kovacikova, who was born in Slovakia and grew up in New Hampshire, swam backstroke and butterfly for the Wellesley Blue, earning the Wellesley Athletics Inspiration Award and Seven Sisters Marly Pineda Award for sportsmanship and love for the sport of swimming. In 2013, she successfully crossed the English Channel in 11 hours and 28 minutes.

“I had a wonderful crew during my English Channel swim, which included the current Wellesley swim coach Bonnie Dix, my Blue teammates Annie Hamilton ’14 and Gabriela Cooper-Vespa ’15, and my training partner Nial Funchion,” she said. “The English Channel was an amazing experience. However, I did not consider attempting another marathon swim. Instead, I decided to target my energy toward applying to medical school.”

Kovacikova will begin her second year at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College this fall. Swimming for the Blue taught her that “in order to achieve a goal in the pool, you must practice every day as if it were race day. I find the same to be applicable in everyday life,” she said.

At Wellesley, Kovacikova also discovered how important teamwork is to her. “I love sharing successes, ups and downs, with other people. A shared success is much more meaningful and fulfilling to me than an individual success, which is why I immediately said yes when I was invited onto this relay, despite my busy schedule as a medical student,” she said. “I so much looked forward to the Catalina Channel relay, and I was pinching myself the whole time I was there. I feel incredibly proud to have swum amongst these amazing women, these incredible sisters.”