Mills student Melissa Berkay set a new swim record for being the first American to cross the Catalina Channel swimming with the butterfly stroke this summer.
On Aug. 10, Berkay began the 20.2 mile journey from Catalina Island to Ranchos Palos Verdes and finished in 12 hours, 42 minutes, and 11 seconds, according to The Mercury News. She is the first American to swim the Catalina Channel with the butterfly stroke, previously done by Canadian swimmer Vicki Keith who completed the same swim in 1989 with the butterfly stroke, according to swimcatalina.com.
One of Berkay’s mentors, Anne Cleveland, an experienced marathon swimmer herself, said that this accomplishment has set Berkay apart from other swimmers.
“She lights up the swimming community,” Cleveland said. “She’s come a long way.”
Berkay raised money and donated the proceeds to three nonprofit organizations that assist the homeless: God’s Extended Hand Mission, Jazzie’s Place and Rachel’s Women’s Center. She has experienced homelessness herself and wanted to give back. Jazzie’s Place provides a shelter for homeless people of the LGBTQ community.
“I wish I had access to a place where I wouldn’t get harassed or threatened,” Berkay said. “Some people gave me basic necessities, and I wanted to give back to them.”
To prepare for the crossing, Berkay practiced at the South End Rowing Club to condition her body for the cold weather, the currents and the natural elements of the open water. Berkay started practices at six hours. By the end of her training period, she was practicing up to eight to ten hours.
Steve Walker, another of Berkay’s mentors and an experienced swim coach, helped lay out her training plan. Since Berkay wanted to train so much, Walker wanted to make sure that she had a plan that took into account recovery time.
“Melissa has a fire in her belly that pushes her to do things that other human beings can’t,” Walker said. “It is rare, but not unique. All world-class athletes have it.”
When deciding a stroke for the cross, Berkay chose the butterfly stroke – notoriously known as the most difficult stroke – after a member of the South End Rowing Club suggested it jokingly. Surprisingly, the butterfly stroke is actually easier on her shoulders than freestyle due to rotation issues.
Marathon swimming is not something done alone. Berkay had an escort boat, a kayaker, her supporters watching from a live stream and a support swimmer who helped her keep mental focus. It was her faith that kept her going; praying, as well as positive affirmations, gave her the motivation to finish.
“[The swim] was something I always wanted to do, but doing it for charity is what kept me going,” she said.
Berkay’s hard ethic and character isn’t new news to Neil Virtue, Mills College’s head swimming coach. Virtue was one of the first people who made Berkay feel comfortable as a new student at Mills. Unable to speak about the crossing, according to NCAA federal regulations, Virtue spoke highly of Berkay’s focus to complete her goals.
Berkay’s outstanding swim performance is not new to the Mills College swim team. After turning heads in the Liberal Arts Championship with record-breaking times, Berkay was the first Mills swimmer to qualify and compete in the NCAA championships for Division III schools. There, Berkay qualified in the 200-yard butterfly and placed 13th at the event.
This upcoming swimming season will be Berkay’s last, as she will be aging out of the NCAA eligibility. She hopes to swim fast for Mills. Virtue said that Berkay is not afraid to work hard and dive into the practice grind.
“She has shown me that she thrives in that environment,” he said. “I’m excited to have a great season with her.”