Kicking Through Challenges: Melissa Kegler's Great Kick Around Coronado

Kicking Through Challenges: Melissa Kegler’s Great Kick Around Coronado

Melissa Kegler, known as “The Triple Crown Mermaid” is an American marathon, channel, and ice swimmer, who recently undertook an extraordinary challenge: The Great Kick Around Coronado. In a heartfelt blog post, Melissa shares her unique experience of circumnavigating Coronado Island—not through traditional swimming—but by kicking. Her inspiring story is an exploration of self-identity and how she learned to redefine her connection with the ocean and swimming.

The Great Kick Around Coronado was born from necessity when Melissa faced shoulder surgery, putting her swimming abilities in question. Melissa’s adventure began with a pressing question: What if she couldn’t swim anymore? This led her to explore kicking as an alternative way to connect with the water. She gradually worked her way up in kicking distance, aiming to visit her beloved seals, Luna and Lyra, at the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Her journey took her from short distances to the ambitious goal of kicking around Coronado.

On December 29, 2023, Melissa kicked around Coronado Island – a distance of 18.5km (11.5 miles) using only fins and swim aids.

Melissa describes the sensory-rich experience of her kick, from feeling the ocean swells to the warmth of the sun. She used various swim aids to navigate challenges like neck strain and maintaining shoulder stability. The swim reinforced her belief that she is more than just her athletic abilities, but rather her strength and adaptability.

Melissia shared her insights and reflections with us on this unique experience:

Can you share the motivation behind creating this unique event?

Melissa Kegler: Around the time of shoulder surgery, I had a lot of stressors at work with the most recent round of layoffs, benefits, and the possibility of not being able to swim again. Even low-risk surgeries, things go wrong and I had never had surgery before, so I was scared. After surgery, life was challenging. I went from working out and swimming 6 days a week to 0 overnight. I was gaining weight. I couldn’t work until I could use my arm again to type, and I was worried if something didn’t change that I’d go into a dark hole. Kicking was something I could do. I had legs, and I wanted to see my seals again. I needed to be able to kick 2km to get to my seals. The distances slowly started increasing from there and as I watched my other friends finish events like Coronado, I wondered if I could do that too? I called Dan, and he said yes, so that gave me the motivation to for real move forward with whatever a kick Around Coronado would ultimately look like.

How did you mentally prepare for the Around Coronado Kick, especially given it was your first event after shoulder surgery?

Melissa Kegler: My main concern was about stabilizing my shoulder. I had to use swim assistive aids, essentially making the event an assisted event – no ratification, in order to make it work. It was a lot of trial and error and I leaned on my swim friends as well as the surgical team to help me figure out things that would work that wouldn’t jeopardize my health. Finishing an event was never worth the risk of set-back and I had to always keep that in mind. The other big mental aspect that worked in my advantage is remembering what it felt like to be a new marathon swimmer. I had no idea what I was doing and in many ways you can ask all the questions in the world, but you kind of “wing it” your first big event and hope all the knowledge and training pays off. Knowing that I’ve been there before, just in a different capacity, helped immensely.

What were the biggest physical challenges you faced during the kick, and how did you overcome them?

Melissa Kegler: Shoulder stabilization was the biggest physical challenge, secondly neck stabilization. I ended up training a lot with my swim buoy mimicking my shoulder abduction pillow in my sling to stabilize my shoulder. Dangling my arms in the water created tons of micro-movements that I wasn’t ready for that caused unnecessary pain. Using the buoy for a stabilizer enabled me to restrict movement and allow my shoulder to rest while I could focus on long kicks. A very similar device was used for neck stabilization. In the open water, there are waves and when kicking on your back, there was too much pressure on the neck and spinal column to hold the head up above the waves to breathe. I had an idea of using an airline pillow to alleviate the pressure from holding my neck and in my online search came across kid’s water pillows. I tried a few, made a few adjustments, but it works. All the pressure from holding the neck in an unnatural position is absorbed through resting your head on the pillow. It allows the water from waves to also crest over the pillow so they don’t crash on your face, minimizing the choking and swallowing hazards of sea water when on your back.

During the swim or any long kick, there is a lot of pressure and pulling on the top flexion of the foot and ankle as well as other leg issues like cramping. Learning and really paying attention to the proper mechanics of the kick and how your body is designed so that you can adjust where needed was critical during the event. I kept asking myself when my legs got tired that all kick originates in the hip, what am I using to kick? Many times when I did get tired, I was using my quads as the origin and not my hip flexors, which essentially shortened my kick and wore out my muscles prematurely. Leveraging my hips first, utilizing body rotation, and viewing my legs as an extension leading to propulsion helped alleviate muscle fatigue from the quad all the way to the flexion of the foot. This also helped minimize cramping and when the leg did cramp (which for me is usually only one time in my right calf 2 hours in like clockwork), learning how to release a cram and work through it to continue is critical as well.

During your kick around Coronado Island, what were some of the most memorable moments or sights that you encountered?

Melissa Kegler: There was a moment when I was out past the jetty, about an hour from the beach, and it was so quiet. I was looking up at the sky, watching this rainbow halo forming in the clouds around the sun. I could feel the lull and rise of the swells of the Pacific, and in that moment, I felt this immense connection with the ocean, something that I hadn’t felt for a long time. It was like the ocean was swallowing me up with emotion and welcoming me home. It was the greatest moment of emotional connection and energy I can ever remember feeling, and I wasn’t swimming. It was out there in the open. I felt that no matter what happens in my life, I will be okay. I can find another way, an alternate path, and my life can be fulfilled without swimming. As a swimmer, that’s a very strange thing to think. I would be okay without swimming. For me, it made me realize that I don’t ever have to be defined by swimming or anything else. That the connection with the ocean and the animals will always be there, and that whenever anyone finds that connection, they will always be able to find a way back to it regardless of the challenges they face. I’m crying again….. another tissue break 🙂 

Summer Wesson, Dan Simonelli (Open Water Academy), Melissa Kegler

How did the Open Water Swim Academy contribute to your experience, and what role do such organizations play in promoting unique swimming events?

Melissa Kegler: They said yes. And that is the single most important thing they could have said or any role they could have played, saying the word yes. In a time where it’s important to have our name in the books, to have a swim ratified, myself included in wanting that for events, this was a fully assisted swim… if you could even call it that. I had tons of swim aids. It wouldn’t be ratified. My name wouldn’t be on any list, but it was for me and it was going to be 100% fun. There’s lots of organizations who don’t take “non-English Channel rules” swimmers, and that’s okay. It does, however, make it hard to find those organizations who want to see people succeed in their goals, regardless of the rules they follow or not. It’s important to be transparent, which I spoke about with Open Water Swim Academy, in that I didn’t want to hide that I was doing an assisted event (obviously because I would never kick it without fins) and I also don’t believe anyone should be any less proud to do an event with assistance if that’s what’s needed to accomplish their goal. It’s really important that people and organizations look beyond to support swimmers of all types. It’s not for every organization, and that’s okay, it’s not meant to be. So finding a network of support organizations that support the love of sport, that’s special and what is so important about recognizing organization like Open Water Academy.

How did your shoulder surgery impact your swimming, and what adjustments did you have to make in your training and during the event?

Melissa Kegler: I talked a little bit before about stabilization of my shoulder, but should surgery impact everything because I couldn’t swim. I only got cleared to start swimming again in November, so the idea of even competing again was something that wouldn’t be possible without kicking. I needed to do something for me, to get me active again, and kicking was the vehicle that got me there. It helped me physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to get back in the water again and focus on something. I’m going to start swimming again now that I’ve completed Coronado and I know I’ll be taking a step back on speed, distance, everything. But lack of swimming doesn’t have to limit what I can do in the water any longer because I’ve learned how to adjust. Training wise, everything was really the same. I did vertical kicking in the pool while the team was training and I kicked in the open water during our regular sessions. Learning how to adapt was the biggest struggle, but through trial and error, I figured it out.

After successfully completing this kick, what are your future plans or goals in open water swimming?

Melissa Kegler: I want to get back into swimming for sure, but I don’t know what that looks like for me yet. I don’t know what I want to do or how I’ll get there as I’m currently only swimming 100 strokes at a time before taking a break to kick. There are some events in the Pacific Northwest I want to tackle, but now that I am kicking and have a baseline, I have a wider range of options in addition to swimming. I want to continue cold water marathon swimming, ice swimming, I want to do it all. Will I be able to? That’s a big question that I’ll have to wait for an answer, but I’m not scared of what that answer will be any more and kicking gave me that. Another big kick isn’t out of the question yet either!

Based on your extensive experience in open water swimming, what advice would you give to swimmers who aspire to participate in similar marathon events?

Melissa Kegler: My advice would be if you can dream it, you can do it. Swimming isn’t just for swimmers who want to do big events or channel crossings or triathlons distance events. Swimming is for everyone who wants to get from point A to point B in the way that makes it doable and enjoyable for them. Yes, there are rules and yes, some people choose to follow those rules. I am one of those people, but when I don’t choose to follow the rules or don’t have the ability to follow the rules like in The Great Kick Around Coronado, there’s no shame in that as long as you are being open, honest, and transparent about what you are choosing to do. There are a million different reasons why people choose to or not to do something. Integrity of sport is important and fun is too. I think you can have both and be successful in your swimming career.

How has marathon swimming influenced your life beyond the sport itself, and what lessons have you learned from it?

Melissa Kegler: Marathon swimming has given me perspective. The biggest lesson I’ve learned, and this is more dramatic than it probably needs to be, is there have been times I think as marathon swimmers we all come to, places we all go, things that happen, when we think this is it. I’m not going to survive this, and then we do. Nothing at work has ever been as difficult as those moments in marathon swimming. Nothing in my personal life has ever been as difficult as getting out mentally from that dark place. I’ve had lots of challenges in life, some very personal and others not. Each time I think back on marathon swimming and think if I can get through that, I can get through this and vice versa too. It goes both ways. It’s also built by community, family, and a network of people I can count on. It’s given me a blueprint for what positive adult friendships and relationships look like. It’s made me want to tell young people who are picked on or bullied in their youth that the best days of your life are ahead of you. Marathon swimming has given me some of the strongest female friendships I’ve ever had, where we support each other, and praise each other not for what our bodies look like, but for what they can do. Marathon swimming has changed my life in every way possible and every way for the better.

During your swims, you must have encountered various marine animals. Can you share an unforgettable wildlife encounter that left a lasting impression on you?

Melissa Kegler: Georgie. If there’s one encounter that has shaped my relationship with wildlife, it is Georgie, the original harbor seal that befriended me at Alki Beach in Seattle. When I was training for the English Channel, this little juvenile seal came up to me and bumped my toes. This bump was different and I don’t know why, it just was and I could tell. He had a unique spot pattern that I memorized, so I could look to see if it was him and tell him apart from the other seals. Georgie would swim with me for 3-4 hours at a time while training. We saw each other 4 to 5 times a week for months. He was my guy! On the last morning before I left for England, it was sunrise and I stopped to admire the Olympic mountains turn orange at the peaks from the sun hitting what was left of the snow. He popped up beside me, so close I could have hugged him, and we just watched the sunrise in the middle of the Sound like two best friends. Georgie is now and adult and I see him from time to time at Alki, but I imagine he has other lady seals to chase and young pups to raise. Even as an adult, when I see him, I think he still knows it’s me. He’s my original seal, he’s my Georgie.

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