Carmel Valley students conquer Channel swim with Arch Academy teams


The water was a chilly 54 degrees, at times choppy, and swimmers had to dodge jellyfish, but the conditions did not deter the iron will of two relay swim teams who braved the English Channel to successfully complete the 22-mile crossing, placing first and second against seven other teams.

It was the culmination of years of open ocean training and the 12 students of San Diego’s Arch Academy, with one alternate — split into teams Zombie A and Zombie B — made the crossing in 13 hours 8 minutes, and 13 hours 4 minutes, respectively, on June 25, without wetsuits or fins.

They set out at 4 a.m. British Summer Time from Dover, England, and arrived in France around 6 p.m. local time. It was an incredible accomplishment for the teens — who named their swim teams The Zombie Patrol because of their pre-dawn wake-up times for practice swims at La Jolla Cove.

Each team member covered about a mile, completing two or three rotations that spanned the 22-mile English Channel from Dover to Calais, using rules laid down by the Channel Swimming Association.

While overseas, the students’ discipline included no calls home. Instead, a daily blog informed everyone of each day’s activities.

After the channel swim, Lisa Weinreb blogged that the team had had “an intense day both emotionally and physically. They are a little sunburned, a little stinky, and riding an incredible high from conquering the seemingly insurmountable goal they had set for themselves.”

The students trained for some of the week with two Australian teams, and part of the satisfaction of the win was beating both by about an hour.

Making all of this possible was Arch Academy, a Kearny Mesa-based school that welcomes students with autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, substance abuse and learning disabilities. The private school serves K-12 students “who are not flourishing in other schools,” according to its website.

The school, co-founded by Cheryl Zak and Art Aragon in 1996, and then called RESCU, has a curriculum that includes swim lessons.

Zak, a licensed clinical social worker, was also a medalist for the swim team at her alma mater, Ohio State University, and is able to coach her students well.

Carmel Valley resident Blair Lindberg until recently had two of her children, Betzi and Paul, at Arch Academy. Betzi is a graduate heading to the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, while Paul will be entering his senior year in the fall.

Students swam 150 laps, three times a week at Santee YMCA to train. This led to ocean swims of one, two or four miles; as students improved, their names went on a plaque. “The kids worked hard to achieve this recognition,” said Lindberg.

Stepping up their game, students then trained for a year to swim the choppy, cold bay water from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, which they completed in June 2014. In August, they swam the 22 miles from Catalina Island to Palos Verdes.

All team members’ names were added to the Doorway of Fame in the White Horse pub in Dover, and each received a medal adding to the list of former Channel swimmers.

“We fought tall waves, jellyfish, currents, fatigue, cold, fear, frustration, and avoidance, sometimes all in a single practice, and we helped each other through it,” wrote Betzi. “Through this experience I believe that we have gained an invaluable intrinsic self-motivation.”

While this was a swim adventure for the teams, it was also a life lesson, commented Lindberg. “Paul is opening his eyes in ways he’s never done before, which is exactly why the school takes them on these international trips,” she said. “The trips also help the kids open up their eyes to themselves.”

To learn more about Arch Academy, visit