Chetan Raghavan, 14, emerges from the water and runs to the finish line at the San Francisco Aquatic Park on Aug. 7, 2022. Credit: Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim

Chetan Raghavan, 14, boarded a ferry headed to Alcatraz Island on Sunday. 

Raghavan, who lives in Berkeley and is a rising sophomore at the Head-Royce School in Oakland, disembarked directly into the cold water, joined by several of his schoolmates. Together, they treaded water, waiting for the start of the annual Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim race, which begins on the infamous island and ends at the San Francisco Aquatic Park. 

At 8:59 a.m., an air horn blared. The contestants began to make their way toward the opposite shore, arms cutting through the water again and again, like oars. Kayaks and support boats bobbed along nearby. 

“When the race started, I sprinted to get ahead to not get kicked in the face,” Raghavan said later. “It’s generally a brutal start.” 

It might have been Raghavan’s first open-water competition, but he was no swimming novice. His mother, Karen, said she signed him up for lessons when he was just 6 months old because she had a “maybe not-so-irrational” fear of her children not being able to hold their own in the water. 

At 5, Raghavan joined his school’s swim team (he was then living in Singapore), and has been competing ever since. He swims on the Head-Royce school team and is a member of the Albany Armada Aquatics. 

“I perform a lot better when racing against others because it just pushes me to another level,” Raghavan said. “In practice, most of the time you’re racing against yourself or your teammates, and then you can go to competitions and then race against other people. And you’re always pushing each other on.” 

When indoor pools closed in 2020 due to the pandemic, his coach moved team practices into the Bay, in shallow waters on the Richmond and Alameda shore. This year, practices were moved back indoors. 

Raghavan heard about the Alcatraz swim from a teammate and jumped at the opportunity to compete in the open water for the first time.

“You have to … make sure the current does not sweep you away or make you take a really long route,” Raghavan said. “Another thing that’s really important is something called sighting, which is when you have to look forward to see or to map out the direction that you’re trying to head” to make sure you’re staying in a straight line.

Swimming is just one of Raghavan’s passions. When he grows up, he wants to work in STEM; he loved a computer science class he took last semester. He also plays piano and viola, and intends to form a chamber music ensemble this year. 

He entered the Alcatraz race “mostly for fun” and without expectations of winning, especially since he hadn’t trained for the specific event. But his competitive spirit kicked in once he entered the soup. 

He ended up winning first place in the race’s non-wetsuit category. 

“I don’t actually have a wetsuit,” Raghavan said, “but I generally deal with cold very well, so I was fine.” Plus, wetsuits aren’t exactly comfortable, he added. 

He was the second swimmer to reach the finish line out of more than 700 contestants, coming in just four seconds behind the first-place winner with a time of 30:25. Next year, he’s aiming for the overall victory.

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Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...