Trekking miles across open ocean, marathon swimmers are governed by strict rules: No breaks, no wetsuit, no help.
Maya Merhige, a 16-year-old Berkeley phenom who in January became the youngest person to swim the 28-mile Moloka’i Channel in Hawaii, has another rule.
“I’m not allowed to know how long I’ve been swimming for or how much I have left,” she said.
The Berkeley High junior has completed eight marathon swims, traversing the length and width of Lake Tahoe and becoming the youngest woman to swim the 20-mile Catalina Channel. She pulls off the extreme feats of endurance in the metaphorical dark — swimming, thinking, breathing in the present tense. The only way to get through the impossibly long swims is to empty her mind.
Just once has her crew team broken the rule.
Twenty-four hours into the swim from Moloka’i to Oahu, a treacherous stretch of open ocean nearly half the length of the San Francisco Bay, everything was going wrong.
They expected the entire swim to take 15 hours. But early on, Merhige had gotten stuck in a rip current and spent the first 9 hours paddling like mad, making little progress. Also called the channel of bones (Ka’iwi) for the bodies claimed by its waters, the swim has notoriously choppy waters, with winds whipping swells up to 15 feet high. (One hundred people have completed the swim; 6,000 have climbed Mt. Everest.)
Now, an entire day had passed, and Merhige had become hyperthermic from spending so long in the warm water; she was spasming in pain from jellyfish stings (she still has the scar on her face) and crying into her goggles (swimmers call it “croggling”). Delirious with exhaustion, she started doing flips, messing around in the water. Then, the crew — a team of eight that keeps Maya safe, keeps her on the rhumb line (the shortest, most direct route), talks to her and feeds her nutrition — spotted a shark 500 meters away.
Until then, no one had swum in the Moloka’i Channel for as long as Merhige, and anyone who had, had given up. If she had any chance of finishing, it was slipping away.
“We gave her an ultimatum. You either refocus, put your head down, and go — or you’re getting out,” said Kelly Gentry, Merhige’s crew chief who had completed many training swims with her. They decided to tell her she had five miles left.
Merhige snapped into focus. She uttered two words — “for Sam” — and put her head down in the water, serious again. Her friend, Sam, had died from brain cancer at 12 years old about a month earlier, and she dedicated the swim to him, writing his name on her swim cap and raising money for pediatric cancer.
She took off, stroking like she hadn’t already seen two sunsets in the water, and finished three and a half hours later. Her time — 27 hours, 33 minutes — set a record for the longest swim across Moloka’i and earned the distinction of joining the elite 24-hour-club, reserved for some 120 people in history who have surpassed the 24-hour-mark of open-water swimming without any stopping or assistance.
At home, she checked the Moloka’i Channel off her list. Two of seven channels done.
Merhige’s aim is to traverse all seven of the world’s most deadly channels, the open-water equivalent of summiting the world’s tallest mountains on each continent. Only 24 people have ever done it, eight of them women. Indian swimmer Prabhat Koli is the youngest to complete the Ocean’s Seven, finishing the Cook Strait in March at 23 years old.
So far, nothing but time appears to stand in the way of Merhige’s goal.
‘The most mature person in our family’
Merhige is seated at her kitchen table in The Uplands in Berkeley, a breeze blowing through large open windows that face the Bay, where she does training swims. She has a swimmer’s build after a childhood spent in the water and, as she fields questions about her feats of endurance with composure.
It’s not her first time being interviewed. Why, the journalists want to know, does she do it?
The swims are punishing. Moloka’i landed her in the hospital with hyperthermia. After completing the swim, her throat was so swollen from the seawater that it had started to close. She couldn’t lift her arms above her head for two days. Her mom, Liz Tung, vowed not to crew for her again — it was just too painful to watch. So why, when she finishes, is the next channel already on her mind?
In some ways, Merhige’s explanation is clear. She swims for anyone whose life has been touched by cancer. Since she was nine years old, she has raised over $76,000 for pediatric cancer through Swim Across America, the money going to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco Survivors of Childhood Cancer Program. Each swim, she writes the names of people whose lives have been touched by cancer on her swim caps.
In other ways, her reasons are both idiosyncratic and obvious, familiar only to the elite endurance community of which she is a part.
It’s all her parents can do to work up the nerve to watch her swim. Her dad, Chris Merhige, tends to keep a cooler head than her mom, but they remain in awe of their daughter’s composure, as legendary in her family as it is in the long-distance swimming record books.
“I don’t know. Maya is just who she is,” Tung said. “Chris and I joke but also believe in some ways that she’s actually the most mature person in our family.”
“Even when we were in the hospital, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll do that again,’” Maya Merhige said.
She describes the magic of the open ocean — once, she saw a shooting star; another time dolphins swam near her, seeming to drive away the looming presence of a more sinister beast.
The waters belong to the sea creatures, she explains, and humans are just visitors. But after so much time out there, she feels a sense of belonging with nature. “I didn’t feel really out of place; I kind of felt like I was part of it,” she said.
“She gets very spiritual about what she does,” her mother said. “I think it is this incredible meditation for her. When she goes into the swims, she is so focused on her breathing and her stroke and the bubbles in front of her.”
A feed log documents the snack bars and energy gummies she eats every 30 minutes and gives periodic assessments of her morale, which alternates between intense suffering and fleeting moments of joy and wonder.
Eight hours into the Moloka’i swim, Maya’s spirits were high, then dampened by jellyfish stings on her neck, face and back, then lifted again by dolphin song. Eleven hours in, she pleads with the kayaker to tell her where she is. “We told Tristan not to fall for it,” the log reads. She most enjoys swimming at night, when it’s easier to give up control and accept that all she can do is put one arm in front of the other.
In the water, Merhige is at her most creative. The crew gives her prompts to occupy her mind, keeping her thoughts from drifting to more distressing questions. On Moloka’i, Merhige built an elaborate dream house in her mind.
What else is she allowed to think about?
“I can see the stars,” she said. “I can think about getting to the next feed.”
Merhige’s Instagram account, chasing_channels, offers a simple explanation. The first line of her bio: “cause it makes me happy.”
The truth is, she was born for this, or something close to that.
Every year, Merhige’s parents did a relay swim across Lake Tahoe. Merhige, at about 9 years old, wondered if it would be so hard to swim across herself. “It doesn’t seem that far,” she thought.
Merhige started with a one-mile swim and soon after signed up for the 12-mile Tahoe traverse. From then, she was hooked.
Over time, the people she meets through swimming have become part of her reason for staying the course.
As she becomes more accomplished, there are fewer people who truly understand what she does. She forms special relationships with the people who support her swims — the crew captain, the kayaker who paddles nearby, the people who jump in the water beside her for brief increments. “It’s a lifetime bond because of the experience being so intense,” her mother said.
And the sport has shaped Merhige’s sense of self.
The confidence she gains from swimming, she said, bleeds into the rest of her life. Freshman year of high school didn’t seem so intimidating after swimming the Catalina Channel. Gentry, her crew chief, feels the same way, saying she has swimming to thank for getting her through life’s trials.
Merhige still likes to keep her swimming separate from her social life. She competes on the Berkeley High swim team, but many of her close friends didn’t know she was an elite marathon swimmer until her swims started making the news. While she bristled at media interest at first, she has accepted the role swimming plays in her life without letting it define her.
Swimming is just one activity on her bucket list
Six months after her record-breaking swim on Moloka’i, Merhige ticked another swim off her list — the “20 bridges” swim around Manhattan Island in New York.
The swim circumnavigated Manhattan, going through 28 miles of rivers. She finished in 8 hours, 43 minutes under the city’s sparkling lights, the Statue of Liberty and World Trade Center in view.
She shrugged off the swim like it was no big deal. In comparison with Moloka’i, this swim was easy. “Literally, nothing,” she said, explaining that she didn’t feel any pain the next day. She spent the next few days exploring New York City with her parents and sister, Lucy, before beelining back to the Bay Area in time for a Taylor Swift concert.
Merhige approaches swimming with such conviction that it’s easy to forget she is just 16 years old. Also on her summer bucket list last year: reading 30 books, getting a killer tan and dancing in the rain.
She has every summer and winter vacation cordoned off for the next few years. Her sights are next set on the English Channel, which she calls “the classic,” next July. She would like to swim the Strait of Gibraltar soon, but “they’re not going to let me do it until I’m 18,” she said, a bit dejectedly.