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Sonoma teen conquers Alcatraz to San Francisco swim

Jack Weinstein walks into San Francisco after swimming from Alcatraz last Friday. (Carole Kelleher/Special to the Index-Tribune)

Jack Weinstein walks into San Francisco after swimming from Alcatraz last Friday. (Carole Kelleher/Special to the Index-Tribune)

By Carole Kelleher/Special to the Index-Tribune

Jack Weinstein swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco last Friday, making the mile-and-a-half swim in an amazing 45 minutes, and rising out of the bay with a smile on his face that made everyone who was there cheer him on, teary-eyed.

Jack is 15 years old, 75-percent blind and holds a vision for life that is perfectly clear.

“I did it to show people that if you really want to do something and you go ahead and try, the chances are very good that you can do it,” Jack said. “And I wanted to get as much information out as possible about No Barriers.” His swim raised $44,250 for the nonprofit, and Jack lives by its motto, “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.”

“Seeing the number of people who donated shows me how many people believe in me. That support is all the motivation I needed to get into the water.” Jack has juvenile retinoschisis, a one-in-a-million genetic disease that’s left him blind in one eye and with two-thirds vision loss in the other. But he can see. “I can see things very well but only within a certain distance,” he said.

Jack, who lives just outside Sonoma, has been swimming since he was 2 and had a longtime goal to swim the Alcatraz swim. He trained for the past month with his mother, Kathleen, swimming four days a week in San Francisco Bay at the Dolphin Club. Jack started with a half-mile a day and worked up to two miles. Kathleen made the Alcatraz swim 19 years ago.

On Friday, Jack had a whole team to support him as he swam freestyle through the 59-degree water. Kathleen was alongside him in a kayak, which at one point she briefly flipped. His father, Paul, and sister, Hailey, were in a Zodiac, ABC newsman Dan Noyes was filming from another Zodiac and, as a surprise, seven members of the Dolphin Club, escorted by a Zodiac and seven kayaks, made the swim with him in his honor.

“I feel great,” Jack said, as he pulled off his swim cap and walked up on the beach. “The hardest part was knowing I had all that way to go, but it was worth it. It was awesome.” He said he was very cold, and then numb. “The numbness is almost as scary as the cold,” he said.

His goggles stayed clear, and he managed to endure the saltwater splashing in his mouth every few strokes. “The best part was getting out of the water and seeing everyone here.”

Jack’s godmother, Debbie Alcom, was there with one of the many hugs he received when he landed. She is also Jack’s doctor at Stanford, and was the one who diagnosed him when he was 2-years-old. “She is the nicest, kindest, most compassionate person,” Jack said. He endured six surgeries when he was very young, in failed attempts to save his right eye.

Researching Jack’s disease, Kathleen learned about Erik Weihenmayer, who has the same rare disease and lost his vision completely at age 13. Kathleen reached out to the Weihenmayer family and they became friends, so Jack has known Erik since he was a boy. “Erik is my mentor, my idol and my best friend,” Jack said. And Erik is a good friend to have.

Erik is the only blind person who has climbed Mount Everest, and he has conquered all of the Seven Summits as well. He has been on the cover of Time, interviewed many times on TV, is a motivational speaker and, most important for Jack, he is one of the people who founded No Barriers in 2005. No Barriers hosts a biennial summit featuring innovative technologies that enable people with disabilities to envision a full and active life. The No Barriers Mindset is to realize that you can build the vision, tools and support system you need to attack challenges head on and create a life of fulfillment, purpose and impact. It’s a mindset Jack embraces. “Erik has opened a very wide world for me to look into,” he said.

The Weinstein family has attended the No Barriers summit twice, most recently in Colorado last August, where among other things they joined a No Barriers group that climbed to the top of Mount Telluride. Jack has made many friends who face challenges at No Barriers, and they fuel his positive spirit. “They are all able to get past it and be some of the happiest people I know.”

“If there is one thing this disease has given me, its the sense of optimism I have about everything,” Jack said. “Watching a movie, or something as simple as looking out a car window, can be beautiful,” he said.

Jack is a sophomore at the Branson School in Marin. At the family’s home on five-acres, in the hills above Sonoma, Jack helps tend a massive biodynamic garden. He brought about 1,000 pounds of produce to Vintage House senior center last summer to share with the seniors, and sometimes while he’s there, he plays chess. Jack loves the game Go, can ski double-black-diamond trails, and has studied non-sparring martial arts. He keeps a notebook of things he wants to make someday, like longer-lasting batteries and natural fuel made from water, and he dreams of eco-friendly cities and cars.

“I know I am very fortunate. I’m getting a good education, I have a very nice home and great friends. And I have this amazing family. You couldn’t ask for a better mother, a better father, a better sister,” he said. “And look at the No Barrier people and tell me that people are not good.”