Swimming the distance for psoriatic disease

| Steve Bieler

In December 2018, we told you about Hillel Katzeff of San Diego. Katzeff’s youthful promise as a runner had been cut short by psoriatic arthritis. But in his middle years he became an athlete again, thanks to biologics and a switch from land to the ocean, where the pain of PsA couldn’t reach him. Two years ago, looking ahead to his 60th birthday, he set himself the goal of completing the Robben Island Freedom Swim in his native country, South Africa. He would also use this swim as a fundraiser in support of the National Psoriasis Foundation.

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years on Robben Island. Every April 27, people swim either the 4- or 6-mile route from Robben Island to Cape Town to honor Mandela and celebrate Freedom Day. This open-ocean swim features cold water, varying winds, stinging jellyfish, sunfish masquerading as sharks and, yes, the occasional shark. Katzeff intended to swim the 4-mile route, and without a wet suit.

“I had only swum in San Diego, where it’s warmer. Cape Town was a whole ’nother ballgame,” Katzeff explains. “The water could be 59 degrees one day, 51 another. It’s not the distance. I’ve done four miles before. It’s the uncertainty.”

Katzeff and his wife, Jeanie, arrived in Cape Town on New Year’s Day to begin training. He also began making friends. “I showed up at one place I knew people would swim and I asked what’s going on,” he says. “I was connected with two WhatsApp groups of swimmers. Then I found out about other swims and groups and, before you knew it, I was part of the whole scene and meeting all kinds of people.” He also connected with a family member he’d never met before, a second cousin named Wayne, who was an experienced open-ocean swimmer himself.

You can’t call room service while you’re swimming

Katzeff wasn’t going to take chances on the weather on April 27. On the sunny morning of Feb. 25, he stood on the rocky shore of Robben Island, contemplating the distant, hazy mainland. Then he waded into the water and began his swim.

Wayne had advised Katzeff to come prepared with squeeze bottles of whatever nutrition he wanted. “When you’re in the water, you can’t ask for a sandwich,” Katzeff says. According to the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association rules, you can’t even touch your support boat. “They throw the bottles to you. You eat and drink, throw the bottles back, and go back to swimming,” he says. 

The warmth of the sun and the heat he generated as he swam balanced the effect of the cold water. At the halfway point, the wind picked up and the swells grew larger. He noticed a catamaran heading straight for him. It pulled up about a hundred yards off and all the people onboard – more of his new swimming friends – began cheering for him. It was cool, Katzeff says, and he appreciated it, but it was also a distraction. “When you’re in the water, you’re not wasting time,” he says. “You just keep going.”

Three hours after he began, Katzeff emerged from the surf and walked triumphantly onto a Cape Town beach. After two years of training and a leg cramp in the final half mile, he had achieved his goal. His PsA had not been a factor. He had made many new friends, in local swimming clubs and at the South African Psoriasis Association. And he had raised $4,000 for NPF.

“Looking back on it, it’s like a dream,” he says. “And I met such amazing people along the way. It’s been an incredible journey.”

Build your own fundraiser

You don’t have to fly halfway around the world and swim 4 miles in the open ocean to join Team NPF. Learn how to design an event that’s fun and achievable.

Photo: Jean Tresfon

Driving discovery, creating community

For more than 50 years, we’ve been driving efforts to cure psoriatic disease and improve the lives of those affected. But there’s still plenty to do! Learn how you can help our advocacy team shape the laws and policies that affect people with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis – in your state and across the country. Help us raise funds to support research by joining Team NPF, where you can walk, run, cycle, play bingo or create your own fundraising event. If you or someone you love needs free, personalized support for living a healthier life with psoriatic disease, contact our Patient Navigation Center. And keep the National Psoriasis Foundation going strong by making a donation today. Together, we will find a cure.

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