Swimmer Profile: Meet Johanna Staples-Ager and Joel Ager


“We're both athletes, we both lead high-energy lives, and we both like pushing our performance -- so the weirdness and accomplishment of open-water swimming was a wonderful outlet for us both, something to look forward to every weekend.” -- Johanna Staples-Ager

Father and daughter Joel and Johanna Staples-Ager have a relationship that’s strong enough to withstand the choppy waters of the East Bay. The duo tests this theory regularly with Odyssey Open Water Swimming.

We interviewed the two about their experiences in the water, love for swimming, advice for fellow swimmers, and more. Read below to learn about what keeps them excited about swimming and spending time together.

Driven to Swim

Johanna, who we quickly learned is a natural-born writer, shared the following explanation of her love of swimming on a recent college application:

“Swimming is the best kind of insignificance. When I swim in the San Francisco Bay, I am moved by forces far beyond me -- the Moon’s orbit, the wind’s velocity, the eons of sediment gathered at its bottom. That I can exist within such a vast, incomprehensible system, maintaining my own, much smaller one, delights me: I cut through the ocean at its barest surface, without having to understand it at all. Doing so is a safe way of exploring survival: though the environment is monitored by kayaks, when the temperatures drop in the winter months, my body constantly tells me I need to get out or freeze to death. There is something inimitable about knowing, factually, that you are safe, but traveling along that knife’s edge anyway.”

Both Johanna and Joel credit the other with being one of the main reasons they swim. “My dad is the one who got me into open water swimming. We went on our first Odyssey swim after he had been going for a few months, and I was hooked,” says Johanna. Joel says that he dove into swimming late in life although swimming runs in his family. “I swam with my father and it is wonderful to be able to do the same with my daughter,” says Joel.  

A runner and cyclist, Joel disregarded swimming as boring and refused to further explore swimming until his daughter’s success in races. “Watching my daughter compete in (and win) triathlons motivated me to finally learn how to swim efficiently,” says Joel. “When I began, I could barely do 200m without stopping, but after a year of Saturday’s at King Pool in Berkeley, I finally got it,” Joel continues.

The Benefits of Swimming in the Open Water

“Open water swimming is a full physical and mental experience - if you haven't tried it, you should.“ -- Joel Ager

In addition to the obvious benefits of exercise, swimming in the open water helps Johanna focus her mind. “The bay is an environment of almost complete sensory deprivation -- you can't see anything but that teal-gray water, and you can't look for anything but the next buoy,” Johanna states. “I often think through scenes and plot elements while swimming, and I tend to feel closer to my characters there, because the cold and the rhythm of swimming so thoroughly roots me in my own mind and my own body,” she continues.

Out of the Water

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Out of the water, you can find Joel cycling, rock climbing, skiing, practicing yoga or running.  Joel also coaches a youth track and field team.

When Johanna isn’t in the water, she’s attending classes, playing violin, writing science fiction, or reading. “I work on my post-apocalyptic novel every day in the basement of my school's library; it involves four rogue scientists on a spaceship, revenge, evolution, chess, brain-machine interfaces, and the truth,” says Johanna. Johanna also practices Hapkido and is an archer who loves practicing in her backyard.

Choosing Odyssey

Johanna states that it’s the people behind Odyssey Open Water Swimming that keep her and her father coming back to swim with the group.

“People at Odyssey -- from the swimmers to Warren and Taylor on the kayaks -- are just the best.  Nowhere else have I found such welcoming, committed, and nice athletes and organizers -- it's a little shocking going there every weekend and being so rooted for, almost as shocking as jumping into the winter seawater.”

Asked why he swims with Odyssey Open Water Swimming, Joel says, “They are fantastically nice and supportive!”


What’s your pre-swim routine include?

Johanna’s starts with a hearty breakfast and by applying anti-chafe balm to her wrists. “There's not really any way to mentally prepare for jumping into that cold water, but I usually jump around, crack jokes with my dad, and then dive in all at once,” says Johanna. Joel echoes that sentiment, saying, “You just have to jump in and trust in your metabolism to keep going.”

Asked about her post-swim routine, Johanna says, “I take a hot shower, watch my feet turn interesting colors, and then eat an even heartier lunch.”

For those who have yet to spend an extended amount of time in the open water, Johanna states that “pants are overrated.” She continues:

“No matter how well you dry yourself, your swimsuit will soak through the butt of your pants, and you will be very sad.  If you have the luxury of a car and do not have to bike home, spare yourself the sadness and wear a bathrobe or towel.”

Swimming Forward

While the two have enjoyed dozens of adventures together, Joel believes there is still much left for them to explore. “Three quarters of the planet's surface is covered with water - there are many possibilities ahead,” says Joel.  

Asked if other fathers and mothers should swim with their sons and daughters, Johanna says, “Yes! There's nothing like being very cold and deliciously tired to stimulate family hugs, not to mention family bonding.”

Bring out your loved one for a swim with Odyssey Open Water Swimming! We recommend starting with a Berkeley swim. Each week, a great group of swimmers joins us for a .5-3 mile swim.

Congratulations to Joel and Johanna for sharing so many wonderful adventures together. Thank you for sharing your love of open water swimming and strong bond with Odyssey Open Water!

Warren Wallace