By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
Three bank robbers used spoons to dig out of their cells. They climbed up a vent and escaped from Alcatraz on the night of June 11, 1962.
What became of them is a mystery. It’s part of the lore that makes Alcatraz Island so intriguing.
Since that daring escape, the former federal prison famously called “The Rock” has become a tourist attraction. And thousands of swimmers have made it safely from Alcatraz to San Francisco.
A Lake Stevens man, 38-year-old Brian Couch, is about to take that challenging plunge.
He’ll swim with about 800 others May 19 during the Alcatraz Island-San Francisco Sharkfest swim. Couch will join in the nearly 2-mile swim with Team Hydro, which raises money for the Hydrocephalus Association. The nonprofit group supports research to cure hydrocephalus, an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain.
Couch is a partner with his father, Bill Couch, in operating Donna’s Travel Plaza’s Inc., a truck stop they own near Marysville. He has no personal connection to the hydrocephalus cause. His decision to brave the choppy, 55-degree water off San Francisco is part of a fitness journey.
Over the past couple years, Couch and his wife, Melonie, have worked to lose weight and step up their exercise regimen. Couch has lost 50 to 60 pounds. Last summer he ran, biked and swam in two triathlon events, one at Lake Stevens, one in Kirkland.
His neighbor Mary Sue Balazic, also a swimmer, got him interested in the Alcatraz event and in Team Hydro. Couch said she plans to swim with him May 19.
Peter Finlayson knows firsthand what their Alcatraz swim will be like, and also the need for research into hydrocephalus. With his brother, Sam Finlayson, the Bay Area man founded Team Hydro after the death of their 26-year-old sister, Kate Finlayson. Born prematurely, she had battled the condition and had more than 100 surgeries before she died in 2010.
By phone Friday, Peter Finlayson said he and his brother — both played water polo at Stanford University — created Team Hydro six years ago. They raised $10,000 for research the first year, when just a few swimmers were on Team Hydro. This year, Finlayson, Couch and more than 100 others will swim for the cause. The Team Hydro effort has raised more than $300,000 over the years.
“It was something we could do, and our sister could see we were doing something concrete to help,” Finlayson said.
The swim two weeks from now will be Finlayson’s sixth. “It is cold and rough. Cold is the biggest factor,” he said. Most people wear wet suits, but about a quarter of the swimmers don’t, he said.
The fastest finishers make it from the island to San Francisco’s Aquatic Park in about 35 minutes. “If it takes longer than an hour and a half, they start pulling people out,” Finlayson said.
He said the Coast Guard closes shipping lanes, and the early morning swim is timed with the tide.
“When you start swimming, you’re pushed into the bay a little bit. Then there’s a period — a golden time — it’s like when you throw a tennis ball up, and it seems to stop for a second before coming back down. We’re swimming in that little window, when the water’s not moving too much,” Finlayson said.
Couch figures he’ll be in the water 45 minutes to an hour. He’s been swimming at the Lake Stevens High School pool to prepare. He grew up in the Seven Lakes area, and did a lot of swimming in Lake Ki. He once jumped in the lake on Christmas, just for fun.
San Francisco Bay, that’s a whole different story. In the history of the federal prison, no escapees were known to have succeeded in a swim to freedom.
Couch knows there will be support boats looking out for swimmers’ safety. He has only been to San Francisco once, and looks forward to seeing the sights — all except one. The swim is called the Sharkfest, but Couch really, really hopes not to see any sign of sharks in the water.
“That’s sort of in the back of my mind,” he said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help
Brian Couch of Lake Stevens will swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco as part of Team Hydro Swims for a Cure. He’ll swim May 19 in the Alcatraz Island-San Francisco Sharkfest. Team Hydro raises funds for research to cure hydrocephalus, a problem with cerebrospinal fluid that affects the brain. To learn more or donate, go to www.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=1061674&supId=369342555