La Jollan completes ‘swim of a lifetime’ from Windansea to Shores

La Jolla resident Laura McDonald emerges from the ocean at La Jolla Shores, having completed a 4-mile swim from Windansea.

It may have taken twice as long as she anticipated, but La Jolla resident Laura McDonald completed what she called the “swim across La Jolla” — others have called it the “swim of a lifetime” — in recognition of her 60th birthday July 19.

Entering the water at Windansea Beach around 9 a.m. July 17, McDonald swam past The Village, including the site of the former Scripps Memorial Hospital on Prospect Street, where she was born in 1960, and around the Children’s Pool and The Cove, emerging four miles north at La Jolla Shores around 1 p.m.

“The swim was an amazing challenge,” she said. “The rip currents at The Casa Reef [between the Children’s Pool and The Cove] felt like being in a washing machine. I felt strong and like I was swimming as hard as possible while going absolutely nowhere!”

Helping her along the way was a support team of Windansea Surf Club members (on paddleboards alongside McDonald for safety) and lifeguards who were notified that she was coming and kept on “high alert.”

Friends and family members of La Jollan Laura McDonald await her at La Jolla Shores after she completed a 4-mile swim.

And when she emerged, her family (including her infant grandson Jameson), friends and a select group of lifeguards were waiting.

“The community support was unbelievable and a gift unto itself,” McDonald said. “And what 60-year-old woman wouldn’t love to have a string of great men following her on her birthday!”

Her support team included lifeguards Bruce Jamieson, John Maher, Mark Feighan, Tim Homan and Windansea Surf Club members Andy Prado, Shawn Donavan, Ozstar De Jourday, William Fitzmaurice and Adam Bloomberg.

Friend and event photographer Joby Bakken said it was “touching” to have the lifeguards enthusiastically participate. “They had a guard stationed in her chair there, and when Laura was approaching, [the guard] stood up and stood at attention with her red guard rescue tube high overhead to signal to her comrades their swimmer was approaching. As Laura got closer, [the lifeguard] went out into the water up to her knees and continued to signal, then the truck approached with two other lifeguards to welcome her in. [I got] goosebumps to hear them radio in ‘Our swimmer is in.’”

McDonald, who has run marathons and competed in triathlons, decided to embark on this personal and physical challenge as a way of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I decided this is a time when people, psychologically, are on a roller coaster,” she said. “I thought, ‘What can I do to distract myself, be safe and be positive?’ I thought it would be great for my birthday because it honors the place I love. And when I see La Jolla from the ocean, it is the most beautiful perspective.”

McDonald, a frequent user of the Coggan pool at La Jolla High School, said she swims in the pool to stay in shape during the winter and in the ocean during the summer.

“I don’t like to go in below 61 degrees,” she said. “But when COVID hit, I couldn’t swim in the pool and it was too cold for the ocean. When I decided to swim the coast, I started by studying the tides and charts, currents and temperature. At the end of March, the ocean just got warmer and warmer so it got better and better.”

McDonald used the same training model she used in her training efforts for the New York Marathon.

“You run a long distance and build up,” she said. “One day you run eight miles, and then you run four and then you take a day off, then you take a big day and run like 12 miles. So I swam a mile and then I started swimming by time, so I swam an hour, which could have been two miles. My furthest swim so far was two hours 15 minutes in time, but I was swimming against the current, so I only went from Marine Street to Boomers and back.”

Another way she trained was through carb-loading and massages in the days leading to the big event.

“I want to look and feel good for my age. I don’t want to look like my 34-year-old daughter, but I want to feel good for my age,” McDonald said ahead of the swim. “But instead of going on a diet, I decided to set this physical goal and train. So I have been eating all the bread and pasta I can.”

Having completed the swim, McDonald said friends have come forward, inspired by her achievement.

“Some of my friends have started swimming,” she said, “which I love because being at the beach lifts your spirit. There are too many people at the beach right now, so I go really early in the morning and then I am out of there and have my endorphins for the day. Keeps me fit, helping me through the lows of this.”

Her advice to would-be swimmers: “The key is to relax. A huge part of this is mental and staying with the breath, meditating and concentrating so you are not thinking about anything but what you are doing.” ◆