Once-Homeless Mills College Swimmer Sets a Record -- and Helps Others

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Mills College junior Melissa Berkay warms up at an outdoor pool at Mills College on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016. Berkay is attempting to become the first American woman to complete a 20-mile open-water swim using only the butterfly stroke. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

UPDATE: Aug. 11, 3:30 p.m.

Mills College swimmer Melissa Berkay has become the first American to swim the Catalina Channel using only the butterfly stroke. Berkay started her swim at Santa Catalina Island on Wednesday night just after 11 p.m. and finished  more than 20 miles later at Rancho Palos Verdes just before noon today.

Berkay’s training, which included swims as long as 10 hours, kept her from getting too fatigued, but she did battle intense nausea, leading her to vomit at several points along the way. She also battled self-doubt, she said, but she relied on prayer and her experiences when she was homeless to keep her going.

"I would think to myself, 'The charities I'm raising money for, people in those situations, the same situation I was in, I can't forget that I didn't have a choice to simply give up and get out of there, so I'm definitely not going to do that right now,'" she said. 

As of Thursday afternoon, Berkay had raised more than $2,700 on her GoFundMe page for three nonprofit organizations that serve California’s homeless population.


According to the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, Canadian Vicki Keith is the only other person to cross the Catalina Channel using just the butterfly. She made the swim in just under 15 hours in 1989. Berkay bested that time by more than two hours, completing the swim in 12 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.

"I'm in awe of that fact," Berkay said of her record-breaking swim.

Berkay had friends waiting for her and cheering her on as she sprinted to the end of her swim.

"It just seemed like a very surreal moment," she said. "I couldn't believe the swim was finished, and I had actually done it."


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Melissa Berkay is not your average Mills College swimmer.

“We don’t usually get athletes of her caliber," said Neil Virtue, head coach of the swim team at the small liberal arts college in Oakland.

A competitive teenage swimmer in the San Diego area, Berkay earned a scholarship in 2009 to Rider University in New Jersey, which has a Division I swim program. But she wound up coming back to California after just two years. She was out of school -- and out of the pool -- for four years, including an eight-month stretch when she was homeless.

"It was a combination of relationship and financial and job issues and lack of safety net and familial support that led to that," Berkay said in an interview with KPBS. "It was definitely a growing experience I wouldn't have been able to make it through without the support I received. I'm motivated by that experience to give back to those communities and to show that a person who has been in that position can make a difference."

That experience has motivated Berkay to attempt something no American has done before. This Wednesday, she will try to swim the Catalina Channel -- 21 miles from Santa Catalina Island to Rancho Palos Verdes -- using only the butterfly stroke.

She says she has wanted to do a marathon swim -- an open-water swim of at least 10 kilometers -- since she was 11, but when the opportunity presented itself this summer, she knew it had to be more than just a swim.

"I'm going to do this swim, but I really don't want to do it for myself because there's something I can do with this," Berkay said in an interview last week. "This solely shouldn't be about me."

She had seen other marathon swimmers raise money for diabetes or cancer, but rarely for organizations that focus on homelessness. Knowing firsthand how important these organizations can be, she decided to use her swim to raise money for three California nonprofits focused on homelessness: God's Extended Hand Mission and Rachel's Women's Center in San Diego and Jazzie's Place in San Francisco.

"Giving back to the community that helped me at one point is really important to me personally," Berkay said.

She set up a GoFundMe page, which has raised more than $1,300 so far.

Berkay fell back on her swimming experiences and her "almost military-style" training out East to help her get through her hard times after returning to California.

"'If I can do that, I can deal with this economic crisis I'm in right now,'" she said she told herself. "That really helped me adjusting to a situation that would be hard to get through if I didn't have that experience."

Berkay was rarely in the water during those four years and thought she would never swim again. But it didn't take long for her to kick off any rust she might have had when she joined the Mills College team in January.

“The first few times I saw her in the water, it was like a machine," Virtue said. "She was go, go, go. It was like she was her full self in the water.”

After just two months of training at Mills, Berkay became the school's first swimmer to qualify for the NCAA Division III national championships and was named to the Scholar All-America Team.

She has spent the last two months training to swim the Catalina Channel, sometimes spending eight or 10 hours straight in the water. Those long days swimming lap after lap at Aquatic Park in San Francisco are Berkay's favorite.

"I think they're fun," she said with a laugh.

Virtue isn't surprised that Berkay has been able to commit herself fully to this new goal.

"She has this uncanny ability to say, 'That's what I want,' and then go there," he said.

Berkay says a lot of people have been asking her if she's looking ahead to the chance to compete at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. She won't commit either way on the Olympics, but she does plan on continuing with marathon swimming and using her swimming to reach a bigger goal.

"[I want] to dedicate athletic achievements to more important topics and issues that affect people today in real-life situations," she said.