Many athletes live not only for and from their sport. Quite a few only find themselves through their passion; they live through the sport - like open-water swimmer Kim Chambers and mountain biker Lukas Kaufmann.
Kim swims. Which - that's not even a fraction of the story. You won't meet New Zealander Kim Chambers in a pool doing her laps back and forth. Kim is one of the best marathon swimmers in the world, at home in the shark-infested, ice-cold waters off the coast of Northern California. Her daily training ground is San Francisco Bay, most mornings around six-thirty.
The water here is rarely more than a robust 53 degrees Fahrenheit, about 11.5 degrees Celsius. No big deal for Kim. The 46-year-old New Zealander is one of not quite two handfuls of people who have completed the legendary Oceans Seven Challenge (equivalent to the "Seven Summits", this involves swimming across seven straits). In the process, she has swum through the North Channel in the Irish Sea, the English Channel, the Tsugaru Strait, and the Catalina Channel, among others. Always without a wetsuit.
How does it feel to start a normal day early in the morning in the Bay? "Your whole body is telling you with every fiber how idiotic it is," Kim admits bluntly. But there is something immensely satisfying about challenging yourself, she adds. "And when the hardest thing that can happen to you in a normal day happens at six-thirty in the morning, the rest is a breeze," she says with a laugh. And it clears the mind. Kim worked at Adobe in San Francisco for more than ten years, most recently as a spokesperson for the company's global sustainability and social impact initiatives. She's now a successful speaker, and author. But more on that later.
Lukas Kaufmann also has to laugh when the Gerlos Pass towers up in front of him after the first 1369 kilometres in the Race around Austria (RAA). On this rainy August night, it's unusually cold in the Oberpinzgau region - and the 22 hairpin bends on the way from Salzburg to Tyrol still lie ahead of him. But there are a few friendly revellers on the side of the road cheering him on, loud music blaring from the support vehicle. "That was a crazy tough moment," he'll recount later, so tired, cold and wet in the dark on the road. "And yet I was grateful that I get to do exactly what I want to do, that gave me strength".
Lukas Kaufmann is a professional mountain biker. And for the last six years, he has deliberately been without a team. As a one-man team, the 26-year-old tours Europe's biggest marathon races, finishing third last season in front of Corona at the legendary Salzkammergut Trophy. He said he realized early on that he was drawn to the long haul, even though many still thought he was too young. The problem: "There is no team in Austria that can really offer professional conditions".
So, barely 20 years old, he started his solo mission. At that time, that meant working 25 to 30 hours a week to be able to afford training, travelling and competitions at all. First with the Austrian army, later in logistics and food wholesaling. Not particularly demanding, sometimes dull; only to be managed with the big goal in mind: to be a professional cyclist.
Since the 2019 season, he has been able to make a living from his sport. And is thriving in the process. Since he has been his own team manager, PR man, travel planner, manager and marketer, things have gone steadily uphill. Even Corona could not slow him down. Of course, the cancellation of all the races was tough at first, he says. "That's when I realized how addicted I am to racing". It's always great fun, he says, "I meet like-minded people and we let off steam together." For him: the best job in the world.
But it's not the big successes that drive Lukas. It's the passion for the sport itself. No races because of the pandemic? Lukas looks for his own challenges. He starts at multi-sport challenges like the Dachstein RUSH, collects donations at 24-hour runs and looks for completely new challenges.
Which brings us back to the Race around Austria. "Three months before the event, I didn't even have a racing bike, let alone a team," Lukas says. So he gathered twelve companions from his friends and acquaintances and dared the adventure, 2200 kilometers non-stop, once around the Alpine Republic. In the end, he finished in fourth place after four days and six hours in the saddle.
Long-distance swimming in ice water, days non-stop in the saddle - why do that to yourself? Kim is asked this question more often. And it never ceases to amaze her. Swimming, she says, is simply an important part of who she is. Yet she never consciously decided to become a swimmer. Sports, she says, were always important, but her earlier life was rather superficial. "I was obsessed with being extra slim and fitting into any designer outfits," Kim says.
Until she suffered a serious injury shortly after her 30th birthday. She fell down a flight of stairs and suffered what's called compartment syndrome - only surgery saved her leg from amputation. Whether she would ever be able to put full weight on it again was written in the stars at the time. "But people like me love to be challenged. I wanted to prove the doctors wrong."
Rehab lasted two years. Swimming was part of it. Then, in November 2009, she got into the Bay for the first time at Southend Rowing Club's pier. Terribly cold it was, "but I just couldn't stop smiling," she recalls today. And, more importantly, "at that moment I knew I'd done the rehab, that I could move forward again."
She's been swimming ever since. Sometimes, as in the English Channel, to the point of unconsciousness. Or on the way from Farallon Island to San Francisco without a shark cage and for 17 hours always on the verge of hypothermia, often beyond. "Swim marathons like that are 90 percent mental," Kim says. The trick, she says, is to surround yourself with people . "When I'm out and about, I'm chanting, asking the sea for permission to keep going." It sounds like a prayer in the water.
And the person who climbs onto the beach at the finish is always a different person than the one who started. An experience that mountain bike pro Lukas Kaufmann also had on his way around Austria. "I just didn't know what was going to happen, I was excited like a little boy before his first race, he recalls. "Then the Race around Austria was so hard ...".
Still, he said, he never once thought about giving up. "What certainly helps me is that I did my jobs to finance the sport. The hard time back then helped me immensely to enjoy it all today." What passion means to him? Doing everything with love and enthusiasm. And above all: to be grateful for the good moments and the experiences. "Because nothing can be taken for granted," Luke says.
For today's Kim Chambers, her passion for swimming is just part of an overall package. She uses her notoriety to talk to girls and young women about their experiences in the ocean. Not everyone needs to swim with sharks because of it, she says. She is more interested in talking to her audience about body image issues, motivation, perseverance, dealing with one's own fears, about the great potential that lies within people.
And about the freedom that open water swimmers experience and that Kim wishes she had in real life: "In the open sea there are no separate classifications for men and women, we move together on the same playing field, compete on equal terms. I love that."