Record-setting Relay: La Jolla teen completes 24-mile swim with school team

La Jolla teenager Otto Lana participated in a first-of-its-kind swim with his school team, The Zombies, Aug. 21-22. The team was the first to complete the 24-nautical-mile swim in relay, swimming in 17 hours from Santa Rosa Island to Goleta in Santa Barbara. So far, only solo swimmers have finished the course.

Otto has autism and is non-verbal (communicating by typing), and is active with the swim team at the Del Mar-based private school, Sea Change Preparatory. School marketing director Jen Colonna said all the students swim two-to-four miles, three days a week, and the school integrates swimming into its learning platform.

“Swimming in the morning before school releases built-up energy so afterward, students can open their minds and learn,” she said. “The whole school participates in these swims, and as a school students participate in relay swims, but in order to be on The Zombies team, you have to do your homework and behave in class.”

For the August relay, The Zombies started in the middle of the night, with pairs of swimmers each completing a certain distance. They swam into the morning and all day, and finished the race when Otto touched shore, around sunset the next day. A documentary is in the works about the team and their achievement.

“I feel energized when I swim,” Otto shared with La Jolla Light. “Swimming as a sport is the absolute best thing in my life. It gives me a profound sense of accomplishment. The best part (of the relay-swim) was finishing it. (Head of School) Cheryl Allcock and I were the last team to rotate-in to swim. I felt excited to be the last swimmer and proud that I help set a record for the new school.”

He added that the hardest part was not sleeping for two days.

Swim coach Dan Simonelli, who also helms the La Jolla Cove Swim Club, has assisted with the team for four years.

“It’s neat to see these kids be successful in this,” he said. “There were three new kids who had never done anything like a longtime relay swim. To complete the swim is huge. The elation on the boat afterward was strange, because the kids were tired ... there was a subdued nature to it. But you could tell there was such as sense of satisfaction and achievement to overcoming such a huge endeavor. Their pride was bursting out.”

Simonelli went on to explain that The Zombies swim at La Jolla Cove on a monthly basis, but head of school Allcock asked for recommendations for organized swims the team could join beyond The Cove. (Fun fact: The name, The Zombies, comes from the team’s early morning swims, when, exhausted and sometimes in the pre-dawn dark, the students would walk to The Cove like zombies.)

“I wondered if they could pull-off a relay swim and we tried the first one in 2014 in Alcatraz. It was great; they all had a blast,” Simonelli said. The team competed in more and more relays and kept asking, what’s next?

Seeking to conquer something new, The Zombies set out to complete a relay race that had never been successfully finished. “I know a couple of swimmers who tried to do it as a team, but the water conditions are crazy and it’s easy to get blown off course,” Simonelli said. “Some solo swimmers have done it, but to have a team complete it is a first.”

When it was Otto’s turn in the water, Simonelli said he did his best freestyle arm stroke and breast stroke. “I could tell he was excited and focused. He loves the water. But he likes to float and play ... here, he did what he had to do. It was different than with his training,” Simonelli said. “There were a lot of unknowns, but Otto did great.”

— Sea Change Preparatory is a private school serving students in grades K-12. (858) 829-5366.