March 13, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – To say that the last year of Katie Kramer’s life has been interesting would be an understatement the size of the Rock of Gibraltar … which kind of takes us to the point of the story.
Kramer, a junior swimmer at Marshall and one of the university’s prestigious Yeager Scholars, will soon attempt something that most people don’t even think of, much less dream about.
During the second week of May, Kramer has plans to swim – solo -- the Strait of Gibraltar, the narrow strip of water that separates Spain and Morocco, as well as the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea.
Kramer is primarily a butterflier and sprint freestyler for the Thundering Herd, and distance isn’t the Naples, Fla., resident’s specialty. She knows that.
At its narrowest point, the strait is 7.7 nautical miles (8.9 miles, or 14.3 kilometers). Most who make the crossing end up swimming 16-22 kilometers, because of the currents, or missing approved landing points and having to swim toward the next one.
“I’m figuring on about 20 kilometers,” Kramer said, fearlessly.
According to the Asociacion Cruce a Nado Del Estrecho de Gibraltar (Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association), there have been 424 successful one-way crossings in history, with 126 of those from 2011-13.
If Kramer completes the swim, she would be the youngest woman to finish the task since 16-year-old Sarah Marie Clifford of Ireland in July 2010.
It can be a treacherous trip, considering wind and water currents – never mind the 300 or so ships, barges and ferries that make their way through one of the world’s busiest shipping passages daily.
Kramer, who carries a 3.91 grade point average in economics at Marshall, will finish her undergraduate degree work in May, and will return to campus for 2014-15 to finish her swimming eligibility and get her MBA. She has permission from her professors to complete her spring semester work early.
Kramer, 21, will fly from Huntington on May 7, and meet her parents, Bill and Susan Kramer, in Miami. The trio will fly to Spain the following day. There, Kramer will stay in Tarifa, the origination site of her swim and wait for the word from President Rafael Gutierrez Mesa of the strait’s Swimming Association that conditions are OK to go.
“I think anxious,” Kramer said when asked whether her emotions include nervousness at this point. “The feeling, it’s not real yet to me. It’s obviously been a long time in the making, but it’s not real until once I get over there and see it.
“Tarifa is the wind-surfing capital of the world and I’ve seen video. The wind is no joke, and the currents are pretty unpredictable, I’m told … Honestly, my biggest fear is I get over there and I don’t get to swim (in a week-long window). You never know what the currents are going to be like, so I won’t know until the day before. The association decides once they have the forecasts of the winds and the currents.”
Kramer has been in touch with some Americans who applied to swim the strait last summer. They were there after a three-week period in which no one could attempt the crossing at all. Kramer said the fee for doing the crossing – usually from Tarifa to Punta Cires, Morocco -- is about $3,000 U.S.
“This is going to be a fantastic experience for Katie,” Marshall swimming and diving Coach Bill Tramel said. “She always seems to be seeking out new challenges and adventures.
“Considering she focuses on sprint events during the collegiate season, it’s a bit surprising a sprinter would sign up for something like this. Usually, sprinters don’t like anything over 100 meters. But that’s Katie. She never shies away from a challenge.”
And while Kramer’s endeavor to swim from Europe to Africa is intriguing, so is just how she got to that point – especially since Memorial Day weekend of 2013. Her discovery of the swim she will attempt came very much by accident – in more ways than one.
“In October 2012, I was concussed,” Kramer said. “It was a freak accident, miscommunication, where I dove into (the Fitch Natatorium pool) onto a teammate, Sarah Kay. It was a while and I still couldn’t pass the baseline test to compete again.
“One day I was on the computer, Googling for opportunities to study abroad through the Yeager program. I went to Oxford (England) last summer for three weeks through it. In addition, we also get some discretionary funds to study abroad another time, to study the language we’re learning or something pertinent to our major.
“So, I’m looking into Spain, and I just started to wonder if people did swim the Strait of Gibraltar. I was wondering how far of a swim it was, and I remember reading a Parade (magazine) multiple years ago, and there was a section in Turkey – Istanbul – where you can swim from the Asian side to the European side.”
Kramer did some internet study on the swim and contacted the strait’s swimming association, which governs all attempts to make the crossing, handling passport work, documents and communication between Spain and Morocco and other details.
Eighteen months ago, her parents didn’t think she was serious, Kramer said.
“I emailed Rafael, back in October 2012, and as it so happens I got the last date for 2014. I told my parents and they thought, ‘Yeah, OK, you can do it, we’ll talk about it later,’” Kramer said, smiling. “I emailed and got that one date left. I thought if I had to cancel later, I would.
“The rule is one person total per week, and it’s allotted by the federation, from May to October, and I’m the second person scheduled to swim this year, which means the water will be cold. The coast is jagged. Depending on currents, you aim for a point and if you miss that, you’ll have to swim farther to the next point and then, you reach a point, if you miss, you’re out in the Mediterranean – and you’re not going to finish.”
Kramer is intrigued by what she calls “a fun statistic.”
“Five times the amount of people have climbed Mount Everest as have swam the Strait, so it’s pretty rare,” she said. “It’s one of the busiest shipping lanes or channels, with huge freighters and barges. I’ll be wearing a wetsuit, but I try not to dwell on what’s going to be in the water. Maybe dolphins?”
Kramer will be accompanied by two boats. One is her lead, tracing a path for her across the strait, negotiating her way through the traffic. Another boat travels by her side for safety, nutritional, and medical reasons, carrying fresh water and food for Kramer. Her parents will ride on that vessel.
“Some of the biggest issues are because of the currents and the salt water,” Kramer said. “And from large ships, the exhaust, you can get nauseous and start throwing up, or swallowing salt water as well.
“Even with a wetsuit, you can get hypothermia, they can pull you for that. There is a point where you’re in the water where if you miss a last point, you’re done.”
Learning she could swim the Strait of Gibraltar was one kind of accident. The other occurred last May 26, in her hometown of Naples, when Kramer was riding her bike on a Sunday afternoon, heading to the Greater Naples YMCA – where he T2 Aquatics Club works out.
It was just days before Kramer – she’s the oldest of four sisters – and her family were scheduled to take a vacation in Italy, to be followed by her Yeager Scholars venture to Oxford.
“I’m riding my bike, middle of the day on Sunday,” Kramer said. “I’m on a sidewalk parallel to a major road, where the perpendicular streets very little traffic, and its May, and so half of Naples is empty. I’m not going super-fast, had the ‘Walk’ signal, had the right of way.”
When she looked to cross the street, a woman driving an SUV with a toddler in the backseat turned from the right lane, across the center turn lane and hit Kramer.
“She was looking for a street and turned at the last minute,” Kramer said. “I only had a second to brace myself when I was hit. I flew off the bike, the bike was mangled way down the road, and the point of impact was my right ankle.
“I had a bimalleolar fracture, both ankle bones broken, needed two pins, one plate and five screws in my ankle. I had surgery May 29. I was amazed at first. I had some road burns, though I thought I was good to go, walking to the curb. And as soon as I sat down, I saw my ankle was so clearly broken.
“I’m just so thankful; it could have been much worse.”
Kramer’s father, Bill, has been the football coach at Naples High since 1998. A former wide receiver at Liberty University, his Naples teams have won two state titles.
“Usually,” his Marshall swimming daughter said, “our final four playoff opponent is Miami Central, where (Herd stars) Rakeem Cato and Tommy Shuler played.”
Bill Kramer was called into duty to push his daughter’s wheelchair through Rome – “a real trooper,” his appreciative daughter said. In Venice, she traveled on crutches, which was her mode of travel on the next jaunt, the three weeks of study at Oxford.
After that, Kramer and some of her Yeager program friends traveled on to Paris and Amsterdam. By this time, Kramer was able to walk with a boot to protect her major fracture, although she would be limited in some of the Herd team’s early conditioning and the opening meet of the 2013-14 season.
But her year of bizarre circumstances and experiences was far from over.
“I wasn’t able to train with my club team when I got back from Europe because of my ankle,” Kramer said. “So, I’d go to the Naples Y and work out by myself. I was going there almost every single day.
“On Aug. 26, we had a bad thunderstorm and the YMCA was struck by lightning. It caught fire and most of it burned down.”
Finally, Kramer had another cause besides desire to swim Gibraltar.
“Doing this swim, I hope to raise funds for the swim program there, the Greater Naples YMCA,” Kramer said. “When I get home for spring break (the end of this week), I’m going to train with my dad in the open water, do some interviews about what I’m doing, hope to raise some awareness.
“I’m doing it for a cause; I didn’t want to do just for fun.”
Kramer’s younger sister by a year, Courtney, also is a Yeager scholar at Marshall, a sophomore majoring in biology education. Katie arrived at Marshall with 47 credits through Advanced Placement courses in high school.
She ended up choosing Marshall in much the same way she found her way to the Strait of Gibraltar swim – through solid research.
“I was Googling around, looking for college, where I’d fit in well, looking for swimming, and wanted a football school because of my dad,” Kramer said. “I didn’t want to go too far north – this is about as far north as I’d consider – and I wanted academics in what interested me.
“I kind of made one huge list, more than 20 schools, checked all of them out online, and Marshall was perfect. It fit in swimming-wise, and the atmosphere here, I loved it. And when I learned about the Yeager program, that was a big selling point.
“The Yeager process is intense. You apply online, then phone interviews, then if you are chosen you come here for a final weekend for in-person interviews. We’re the 25th anniversary class of Yeager Scholars.
“There are six in each class, and if we all stay together, we will be the first that stays together all four years and graduate together as Yeager Scholars. That would be a real accomplishment.”
She could say that about swimming the Strait of Gibraltar, too.