While her classmates were in school last month, Berkeley High School sophomore Maya Merhige was in Hawaii swimming for 27 and a half hours in the open ocean. On January 19, she became the youngest person to swim 28 miles of the Moloka’i channel in Hawaii, and 90th person worldwide to swim for over 24 hours. She set the record for the longest swim of the channel.
Merhige started swimming at an early age, and by age nine, she began swimming to raise funds for pediatric cancer research through the organization Swim Across America. She has raised over $55,000 to date, which she donates to local hospitals.
“I feel like everyone’s been touched by cancer in some way,” Merhige said. She swam in honor of her family friend Sam, who passed away from cancer last month at the age of 12.
Merhige described how Sam’s memory helped her get through the hard parts of the swim saying, “During the scary part, when I would see something or hear something … I’d always be like: ‘Sam, you can’t let me get eaten by a shark today.’ ”
Her journey from Hawaii’s Moloka’i Island to O’ahu began the night of January 18, with a rocky start.
“I got stuck in a current for the first 10 hours. So I didn’t really go anywhere,” she said. Merhige struggled to make progress with the current and the next morning, she could still see the place where she had started. On top of that, she braved the creatures of the ocean, swimming through jellyfish for three hours.
“I had just gotten stung by jellyfish and my back was cramping and I cried for two hours,” she said. “And then I was like: ‘Okay, don’t cry. It’s fine.’ And I just kept swimming.”
Merhige was not allowed to receive any support or help throughout her swim.Despite the difficulties, the swim was not as challenging for Merhige as past swims. She experienced moments of beauty and wonder throughout, highlighting a few moments where she “saw shooting stars … and I could hear dolphins underwater.” She even witnessed a birth, describing that, “a whale had a baby 100 feet away from me.”
Merhige is back at school, adjusting to all the attention she has been receiving. Still, she’s happy that the attention has helped her raise more money for something that she cares about.
As for her next swim, Merhige plans on completing the Ocean’s Seven, which is a series of 7 open water channel swims throughout the world.