A Number’s Worth

Chuck Cantoni ’57 may be the oldest person to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco—all to raise money for research into a potentially deadly brain condition.

A Number’s Worth
Alcatraz. Photo by Mariano Mantel via Flickr.

Numbers stand in for many things.

1 1/2: The miles between Alcatraz Island and Aquatic Park in San Francisco.

87: The years between the birth of Chuck Cantoni ’57 and his swim of that distance, a feat he may be the oldest person to accomplish.

17,565: The dollars Cantoni raised for research into hydrocephalus, a potentially deadly condition one of his children has lived with for 50 years.

It’s not the sort of thing anyone would have figured a younger Cantoni would do, jumping into the cold waters of San Francisco Bay near Alcatraz and then swimming to the City. He loved professional risks and challenges, sure, but physical ones? Those weren’t something he’d take on until later.

He’d always swam as his main form of exercise, and as pandemic quarantines kept people searching for an outlet, Cantoni began swimming longer distances. He took up a challenge from the American Legion to swim 100 miles over five months.

At the same time, he’d receive notices from the Hydrocephalus Association about an annual big swim to raise money for research. Hydrocephalus is when there is too much spinal fluid around the brain; it can cause headaches, seizures, and death if not treated. Cantoni’s son Jason was born with the condition and underwent his first surgery as a newborn, with others to follow.

The issue was dear to Cantoni. And now, after the Legion challenge, he felt he had the skills to meet the job. He trained for months, recruited a friend as a swim buddy, and began fundraising.

First, he had to master the distance, so Cantoni took up longer distances. Then, Cantoni says, he needed to train for rough waters. Twice weekly Bay swims with a group out of Berkeley did that.

The hardest part, he jokes, “was learning how to get the wetsuit on and swim with it.”

All of the training paid off. When he jumped into the water with the more than 40 other swimmers making the trek, it felt natural, if difficult.

“In the middle of the channel, the waves were pretty significant,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if we’d be breathing water or air.” (He also notes that he’d never be in any real danger, with two kayaks and a larger boat closely watching his progress)

After 1 hour and 10 minutes, he stepped on dry land, weak-kneed from the waves but triumphant. His family, wife, and three children were the first to welcome him.

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