Marcie Kjoller’s manifesto is embossed next to her favorite barstool at The Red Piano lounge in downtown Santa Barbara:
Drink the good stuff
Sing loudly and dance
Be kind, generous, and loving
Create your own sunshine
Kjoller, a schoolteacher and fitness trainer, was so full of life that it was shocking and bewildering when she died March 31 doing what she loved: swimming in the ocean off East Beach. Her impact on the community was evident a week later, when the beach was so thronged at her memorial that some people could not find a parking space.
Her death sent tears flowing, but in the months after, it has left flames glowing. The very passion for life that she espoused has taken hold of her friends, inspiring some of them to do things they had never conceived of doing.
They are doing it for some of Kjoller’s favorite causes. On Sunday, August 24, eight of them participated in the Santa Barbara Triathlon to raise money for The Marcie Kjoller Red Piano Music Scholarship. Later this month, six women will swim a relay across the Santa Barbara Channel from Santa Cruz Island to the mainland, a fundraiser for Heal the Ocean.
The Tri Tribe
Kjoller herself put the bug into her friends at the piano bar to undertake some fitness training. Larone Young, the security guard, had undergone the amputation of his left leg because of a nasty infection. “Marcie said it would get him moving,” said Jason Jones, co-owner of the business. “That was the driving force when we got started.”
Doing the triathlon was a distant goal. “When Marcie passed,” said Colin Campbell, Jones’s partner, “it made us committed.” They entered Sunday’s coed sprint event: a 500-yard ocean swim, six-mile bike, and two-mile run. Young was not ready to do it, but Jones, Campbell, and piano player Jason Libs all completed their first triathlon.
They were trained by Michael Robinson and Dawn Schroeder, Kjoller’s best friend. “I hated it at times,” Jones said. “Dawn took us to swim in the afternoon when the waves were rough. I’d get pissed off. I’d tear off my swim goggles and throw them down on the beach.”
In her own personal crusade to honor her friend, Schroeder went to the limit on July 28. Along with her son Grant, she did the 140.6-mile Ironman Canada.
Joining the Red Piano crew at the S.B. Tri were Kjoller’s husband, Kevin, and daughter Alanna. “[Marcie] was an incredibly generous and caring person,” said Kevin, who won the 50-54 age division in 45 minutes, 54 seconds. “She always put herself out there to support and encourage others, myself, and our daughters. I felt her encouragement Sunday.”
Jones was the last finisher of the group, just breaking an hour in 59:41. He might have had the most to celebrate. “I lost about 25 pounds training for this thing,” he said.
Rachel Horn did a 12-mile solo swim from Anacapa Island to Silver Strand Beach in 2016, and her ambition early this year was to make the 19-mile crossing from Santa Cruz Island to the Oxnard shore. Her preparation included swimming off East Beach on most Sundays with Marcie Kjoller.
“She was the first to stop swimming and point out a pod of dolphins,” Horn said. “She was the only swimmer smiling when we gathered the group together mid-swim, regardless of the conditions. When we all decided to bring leftover Christmas cookies, she made a fresh batch of the best cookies we’d ever had.”
Horn missed the Sunday swim when Kjoller died. The tragedy brought about a change in her plans: not only to do the channel crossing in memory of Kjoller and her love of the ocean, but also to involve more of Kjoller’s swimming companions, some of whom also were in the ocean on that fateful day when she did not make it to the shore.
Instead of a solo swim, Horn and five others — Liz Boscacci, Emily Case, Chelsea Jones, Hilary McAvoy, and Heather Royer — will cross the channel in relay fashion. They intend to plunge from the island at midnight on September 19 (or any succeeding night up to September 25, if conditions are unfavorable). They will swim without wetsuits in 30-minute shifts, hoping to reach the beach in midmorning.
The women have been dubbed Marcie’s Mermaids. They are professionals in various fields ranging in age from 34 (Horn) to 63 (Boscacci, a retired CPA). Besides Horn, only Royer has experienced a channel crossing — three of them, in fact: Catalina, the English Channel, and the Strait of Gibraltar.
All of them remember the “Heal the Ocean” sticker on Kjoller’s car and decided to do their swim in support of the organization devoted to keeping human waste and other pollutants out of the ocean.
Even normal waves and currents make the channel a challenging place to swim. The water is cold and will seem even more so during the hours they swim in total darkness. Aboard an escort boat will be Jane Cairns, an observer for the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association, which sets the rules by which crossings are officially recognized.
“They are solid swimmers,” Cairns said of Marcie’s Mermaids. “They just have to stay warm, keep the fluids and carbs coming.” She said the support crew has the technology to steer clear of container ships crossing the channel.
What about sharks?
“Shark attacks are a mistaken identity situation,” Horn said. “Out in the channel, the water is crystal clear. They know who we are.”
“Chelsea says the sharks should be more afraid of us than we are of them,” said Royer, a UCSB economics professor. “I’ve never heard of a shark attack on a channel swim. I feel less safe here [East Beach] on Thursday night. The water is murky.”
Royer expects their adventure to be exhilarating. “When you overcome obstacles, it’s so gratifying,” she said. “You want to get so close to your ultimate being, to do something that you didn’t think was possible.”
Just what Marcie would have wanted for them.