Alison Berkley: The Princess’s Palate

Alison Berkley
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

So I’m heading to Trinidad on Sunday.

Yes, the Trinidad that goes with Tobago, the island in the southern Caribbean that’s about 7 miles off the coast of Venezuela. That’s about all I know. I also know booking a plane ticket from Aspen to Trinidad is no simple or easy task, that is unless you’re willing to airport-hop all over kingdom come and pay a clean 2k for the privilege.

It all began last summer, when Aspen Peak gave me an assignment to write about Jennifer Figge, the Aspen-based endurance athlete who swam across the Atlantic for the first time last February.

Interviewing female athletes is one of my favorite pastimes, though I can’t say I’d ever interviewed a trans-oceanic swimmer, but that’s only because there never were any, at least before Jennifer came along.

We did that first interview in her living room on Smuggler. I did my best to reassure her Aspen Peak was not interested in some kind of tell-all expose but a nice profile about her experiences as an athlete who is part of the Aspen community. As she smiled at me from behind her pink-rimmed glasses, spiky blonde hair pointing every which way like it had somewhere to go, I got the distinct feeling she didn’t quite believe me.

But who can blame her? After the conclusion of that first swim across the Atlantic in February 2009, the media was all over her. The story quickly turned from “first woman to swim the Atlantic” to “the great swimming hoax.” It seemed that before her hair had a chance to dry, they were deconstructing the validity of her accomplishment. It seemed the sharks in the water weren’t the ones she needed to worry about.

They questioned her methods, like the use of a support boat and crew, even though Benoit Lecompte, the first man who swam the Atlantic, did it the same way. While he swam a longer, colder route, he only swam in two- to three-hour increments and took a week off to rest in the Azors, and no one questioned him.

“You can’t turn a boat around in 30-foot seas or you’d be underwater,” Jennifer said. “You also can’t drop anchor in the middle of the Atlantic.” So you drift. Drifting is part of the deal.

Did I mention she is 57 years old?

There were also numerous erroneous reports that Jennifer swam protected by a shark cage, when in reality, the cage was destroyed by high seas within the first few hours of the voyage.

That was all the stuff I’d read, anyway, on Google. Jennifer’s story had little to do with any of that, even if she was the object of the subject, so to speak.

I began with a few innocent questions like, “How did you get into open-ocean swimming?”

It might have started when she was a kid flying home from visiting her mother, then an opera singer living in Italy on a trans-Atlantic flight and contemplated the notion of having to swim in case of crash, but that’s not really the meat of it. What the media didn’t report is she also has 20 years of endurance feats under her belt. She ran marathons, ultra-marathons, and then ran across states, countries, even continents. These weren’t races so much as they were expeditions, journeys to faraway lands that she chose to explore on foot. These feats, when she’d run a marathon distance or more every day for days on end, went under the radar.

After she ran 60 miles on a broken leg to complete her traverse across Mexico her running career was finished. So she turned to swimming. Soon she was swimming long distances in bays, then channels, then oceans, often commuting from one island to the next, or even one city to the next, as was the case in south Florida.

“When you’re talking south Florida, it really is faster than driving,” is one of her favorite lines of all times.

Others are, “I like swimming in the ocean because I’m no good at kick turns,” and, “I save money on airfare because I only have to buy a one-way ticket.”

Naturally the progression of her swimming went in a similar direction as her running – always wanting to go further: greater distance yes, but also farther away from it all. She loves being out there in the middle of the ocean, she says, where you have no choice but to keep going. There’s no looking back.

“Do you ever get scared?” I asked.

“No, no I don’t,” she said.

“You never get scared. Not even when the waves are big?” I knew she’d swam in waves up to 30 feet on her first crossing. I knew there were sharks, too.

“No, I love big waves!” she said. “I got scared when I was running across India and saw kids eating newspaper for lunch. That scared me. But swimming, no.”

“I seriously think there is something wrong with your brain,” I told her. “I think there are neurons that aren’t firing or something because that is not normal.”

“Well,” she said, her wide smile brimming like a beer that was poured too fast and about to overflow. “If I functioned on common logic, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

My article was published a few months later, and it wasn’t long before another trans-Atlantic swim was in the works. The next thing I know she’s hired me to be her PR girl for her third crossing, which she’s doing right now.

In fact, she’s just two days away from reaching the shores of Trinidad. Little did I know I’d be crossing an ocean, too – albeit 30,000 feet in the air.

“Alison, I’d like for you to be there when I arrive,” she said. “That is, if you want to go.”

So yes, it was hard to book those tickets, but it certainly was not impossible.