Ocean’s Seven – the Hawaii Edition, starring Terri Dietz

AgeIsNoBarrier summary:  52 year old business owner who only swam for fun and recreation just 5 years ago, recently became one of maybe 65 people to EVER complete the full 28.5 mile Kaiwi Molokai Channel Swim. 

If the swimmer is successful, they arrive here, in Oahu

I normally begin these interviews with quick responses to a series of questions I refer to as: “50+ years in 50 seconds“. For this interview, I chose not to interrupt the flow of Teri’s story, but if interested, I have included that brief Q&A at the very bottom of this interview, or you can use the link above.

The Kaiwi Molokai Channel Swim is an open water adventure that allows you to share your unprotected body with all the ocean’s children – from Man O’ War jellies, jagged reefs and of course…sharks.  For 28.5 miles (if you swim in a perfect straight line), you will fight the winds, currents and ocean swells to cross from the Island of Molokai to Oahu.

As you might imagine, this is a very exclusive club

This is not the story of a professional swimmer, or even a competitive club swimmer.  Not originally.  This story is the equivalent of a casual hiker suddenly deciding to climb Everest.  This is the story of a 52-year-old woman who runs a corporate wellness management company (WYAO Hawaii), and very successfully competed in Aerobic Gymnastics for 18 years, who used to swim just for fun. 

Terri is very athletic, with nearly two decades of awards and accolades to her credit, but not as a swimmer.   Life was good on land.  Then Terri’s doctor showed her an MRI image of her back, and her life forever changed.   This was not an injury Terri was going to be able to outrun, or out-train.   Today, a metal rod and 4 screws have been added to her original blueprint, fusing the L4 and L3.  There would be no more high impact activities, no pounding,  or compression of the spine.  Her doctor recommended other, low impact activities such as cycling, or swimming.

Terri chose swimming.  

That fateful choice occurred less than five years ago, a brief moment in a nearly five-decade lifespan.  Five years and one day ago, Terri was a self-described “rock with arms and legs”.   Last month. Sept 14th, 2022, that rock with appendages became a member of a very exclusive club when Terri completed all 28.5 miles of the Kaiwi Molokai Channel swim.   Maybe 90 people ever have completed this swim.  This is not an easy event.

The Kawai Molokai Channel Swim

Terri may not have been a swimmer, but she is and always has been a giant of determination and perseverance.   At some indeterminable moment in her past, Terri made two decisions and has never wavered:  she would constantly push herself physically and mentally to answer the question, what is possible, what can I really do and she would use those accomplishments to show others what was possible, to motivate anyone to “find their own channel”.

Start Swimming

What Terri needed to be possible

The Molokai Kaiwi Channel is a 28.5 mile life-altering adventure between Molokai and Oahu in Hawaii, and one of seven long-distance open-water swims that make up the Ocean’s Seven.   It is the longest swim of the Seven.  If you are not familiar, the Ocean’s Seven is marathon swimming’s equivalent to The Seven Summits mountaineering challenge.  It is a global challenge with a very small graduating class.

There is no specific calendar date for the attempt – you swim when you and your team are ready.  The rules are simple – I have provided a modified list below, and you can click over to this source for the expanded version.
• Swim from shore to shore.
• No Swim aids other than goggles and one swim cap.
• You may not touch the boat
• No supporting contact whatsoever with the swimmer shall be permitted by any person or object.
• Your official observer is your escort boat driver, he is the driver and the observer, and one more crew member as a witness to sign off on the completion of the swim.

Similar to Michael Anderson when competing in the Swissman (part of the Xtreme triathlon series) the athlete is responsible for assembling their own team, in this case: Your Boat Captain, the First Mate and your two “feeders”, usually close friends.

Terri’s swim begins at 11pm from the Molokai coast

The swim traditionally starts in the dark, swimming alongside your escort boat that contains everyone and everything needed for the crossing.  Your team sleeps on rotation so there is always a couple of people on watch for any obstacles – from sharks to jellies, to oversized waves.  If all goes well, the swimmer will emerge on extremely shaky legs the next evening on the shores of Oahu. 

When you read, “Terri swam 28.5 miles from Molokai to Oahu”, it is easy to see the words without the comprehension of what it really takes to push the body to such an extreme.   Can you recall the last activity of any kind where you kept moving non-stop for more than 12 hours?   Personally, I cannot relate to that effort either physically or mentally.   So, I made a short list below of endurance events and the average length of time to complete, starting with what is relatable to many, finishing with what is relatable to only a few.

The average length of time required to…
• run a 10k:  50-70 minutes
• complete a marathon: 4:29:53.
• to ride a century:  7-8 hours
• to climb a Colorado 14’er:  8 hours
• to complete an ironman:  13-13.5 hours

To successfully swim the Molokai Kaiwi Channel:  on average, you can expect to be in the water and swimming for at least 16-18 hours, potentially up to 20.  

One more ah-hah realization:  approximately 560 people climbed Mt Everest THIS year.  Only around 90-ish souls have successfully completed this channel swim – ever.

Keep Swimming

How Terri would make this possible

She already has the mindset, now she needs to assemble her team, starting with her coach:  Michelle Simmons.   Michelle has been successfully coaching Ironman athletes for 14 years, but Terri would be her first ultra-swim athlete.  “This is a whole other level” Michelle would say to Terri, “from any event or athlete I’ve coached.  There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to rest”.   Once she agreed to take the challenge, Terri remembers Michelle telling her, “I don’t know what your potential is….but let’s find out”.   (Today, Terri uses that same philosophy with her employees)  Michelle wrote a wonderful blog of her experience coaching and supporting Terri, highly recommended.  

Terri and her feeders, ready to start

Next, she chose her boat captain and first mate:  she found Keith Baxter to pilot the boat, and Mark Spalding, a Hawaii swimming hall of fame inductee and someone who has also completed this exact channel swim – to serve as first mate.  Perfect fit.  The boat captain’s guidance and experience cannot be understated.  They are crucial for the success of the athletes.

Last, Terri would also need two feeders, who would occasionally take turns in the water, swimming beside her and on the constant watch for those nasty little cookie cutter sharks.  Her coach Michelle filled a dual role as one of those feeders, her close friend Andrew would be the other.

With her “pod” in place (nickname for her support team), and weather conditions looking great, they began the swim.   And failed.   Terri’s first attempt was a DNF due to jellyfish stings – Man ‘o War.   The night of the first attempt, there was a great deal of bioluminescence in the water.   Absolutely beautiful to watch, but also attracting many other species, some you don’t want around.  After 5 hours into the swim, Terri realized she had swum right into the middle of a jellyfish nest.   She was quickly surrounded, and then covered by the Jellies.  Too many stings.  Terri started vomiting and was soon experiencing partial paralysis.  The call was made to pull her out.  

In pain and sick from the jelly’s poison, it would be so easy to quit, to shrug and say “well, we tried”.   But with her husband offering full support, Terri immediately made the decision to schedule another attempt.  In her words that day:  “she spit me out, I was not given permission to cross that night”.

Keep Swimming
Legs not quite working yet

Determined to make this possible

No suspense here – one year later, the second attempt was successful.  Terri completed the crossing.  Elated and indescribably exhausted,  she tried to stand but the legs did not agree.   But rules are rules and no one could help until she rose above the water line.   Once she wobbled close enough to shore for the clock to stop ticking, Terri was quickly wrapped up in care and support by her immediate team, and a team of locals.  After almost 20 hours of being horizontal in the ocean, Terri managed to stand on the shore of Oahu and celebrate.  

But on the way…
For the second and successful attempt, Terri’s team managed to guide her away from the jellies and mostly away from sharks.  After the first hour, Terri would stop and tread water every thirty minutes for a squeeze bottle of fuel.  Which worked great, until it didn’t. At some point, the variety of fuel perfectly selected for this event, stopped agreeing with her and would not stay down.   Somehow, Terri managed the remainder of this epic swim on the energy boost provided by Coke and Sprite – a 12 pack of each.

Swimming with First Mate Mike Spalding, and maybe a shark or two

For her mental nourishment, Terri’s feeders would take the 30 seconds of her fueling break to relay any positive, encouraging comments being received via text from friends and supporters.   One huge mental boost came when her husband was flying back to Oahu, and explained to the pilot what his wife was attempting.  The pilot altered course enough for a fly over, and flew low enough to get photos of Terri.  Once he landed, he sent those photos to her escort boat – and of course, they showed her the photos during the next scheduled feeding.   Sometimes, technology just works perfectly.   

Keep Swimming

I had so many questions!

Terri – you occasionally had someone in the water with you, but mostly, you swam alone for hours and miles.  Where did your mind go?    -To stories I have filed away that I would tell myself.  I would focus on the stroke, repeat my mantras, think of my next feeding.  

Did you distract yourself with ear buds, for music or inspirational messages?    – No, no outside noise.  I would just listen to the water and my movements.  I wanted to remain present for the entire experience. Throughout the swim, I experienced an amazing emotional, spiritual peace, feeling a very strong connection with nature.  

Maybe a little internal dialogue?     -I was constantly doing mental calculations of how much energy I could expend, versus how much I needed to conserve.   And there were stories I would tell myself, mantras I would repeat – that I keep in a mental folder and use as necessary.  The primary one being very simple:  ‘just keep swimming’.  Occasionally, the ‘I want my mom’ folder would emerge, and I would hear:  ‘you chose this, stop complaining, let’s go’.     

Did your team do a physical check during each feeding?     – My ‘pod’ gave me a lot of energy and encouragement, but they would never ask “how are you feeling”.   They already know the answer:  tired, miserable, hungry.   And in this moment – who cares?  To complete this type of extreme event, physical discomfort is the only certainty.  It’s not relevant.   

An event this grueling – more mental or physical?      Most fail because they gave up mentally, not physically.  You can work with the best coaches and trainers but without strength of mind, how can you keep pushing yourself?  How can you keep going?  Mentally, you have to know why you want to do this.   You have to know who you are, and how much potential you have.   And be patient, everything will align in time with patience.

You swam alone for almost 20 hours – can you elaborate on what being patient meant to you in that moment?    -It’s easy to be anxious and worry about all of the little “what if’s” that are out of your control.  Once you pause, and listen to your thoughts, the ocean has so much to teach you.   But you have to slow down, be patient, and listen.  Allow yourself to be lead, and not by fear.

Coach Michelle, about to join her athlete for a swim

Why, why, why?  Five years ago, you swam casually, for fun.  Three years ago, you hire a coach so you could competently compete in a 10k swim.  Then you decide to take on one of the Ocean’s Seven, and the longest of the seven.   Why?     -I competed athletically for 18 years and suddenly that was no longer an option.  I have a new back, aerobic gymnastics is now my past.  But I remain competitive, and mentally determined.  I am not the most gifted or talented athlete by any stretch, but what I have figured out is with the right team, the right training, support and mindset –  I can be “that” athlete!  I can find potential I never knew was there.  I can say, “I did it!”  And no matter how long it took, it was my “channel” and no one can EVER take that away from me.

But more importantly, did my example help/motivate/inspire others to step into their best selves?  Can I help others step out of their box, get uncomfortable, and make their dreams into realities?  Everyone has their own challenges; everybody swims their own channel.   My “why” was proving to myself what I could still achieve at my age and after back surgery – and hopefully showing others what was possible.  If I can do this….what else can I do?   What else can YOU do?

If any individual makes those behavior changes because of you – and becomes healthier, stronger, more mentally determined – how does that impact Terri?    -How does this impact me?  It’s everything.  It renews my purpose and makes me strive to be the best I can be.  My Life’s Purpose is to fearlessly engage in my own wellness and well-being to UNLEASH energy that will help and inspire others so we can all live our best lives.

Terri, thank you for sharing this incredible journey with all of us and I hope you will let me know once you start training for your next big adventure.   I am also using this space to issue a challenge to join us next August for the Triple Bypass in Colorado. To anyone reading this, it should be abundantly clear that Terri will not allow Age To Be a Barrier to any goal she sets for herself. 

What’s next?

Congratulations Terri for this incredible accomplishment!

Celebrating with her husband, Don

50+ years in 50 seconds

Athlete:  Terri Dietz
Home residence:  Hawaii
Age:  52
Occupation when not participating in your sport:  Own WYAO Hawaii Corp Wellness, a consultancy company supporting organization’s well-being culture with wellness programs that make sense! 
Sports/activities in order of time and preference:  Aerobic Gymnastics(18 years), Cross Fit and Outrigger Canoe Paddling (5-ish years) Currently open ocean swimming 4 plus years. 
Exactly how much do you love coffee?  LOVE LOVE 1-2 cups! BLACK!
Did you play sports when younger?  I tried swimming, soccer, cross country (tried cross country because I figured it would make be a better soccer player…. didn’t happen. I was terrible at soccer and cross country for that matter, LOL! Have always taught group exercise classes.
Past injuries, fully recovered:  Fused back! I am bionic! 
Past injuries that effect today:  Messed up feet and back
Age when I stopped recovering quickly from injuries:  Still ok here!
Medications I currently use:   N/A
Medications I was able to stop using once I started training:   N/A
Supplements I currently use:  Basic vitamins
Dietary choices or restrictions:  I eat food that gives me good healthy, sustained energy! AND I LOVE a good chocolate chip cookie and PIZZA! 
Average hours of sleep:  8-9 hours
Do you track your quality of sleep?   Yes
Greatest achievement of being a 50+ athlete:  Completing the Ka’iwi Channel swim.  The second time was a charm!

Questions for Terri? Or Coach Michelle? Comment here and I will be sure to forward their reply.

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