San Francisco

Recovered Quadriplegic Swimming From Alcatraz to San Francisco

Robert Heitz of Chicago broke his neck 19 years ago, and now his unthinkable journey of escape will culminate with a symbolic swim for his foundation

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A Chicago man rendered quadriplegic after an accident two decades ago is doing something Friday that was once unimaginable: He's swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco to raise awareness for his foundation.

Robert Heitz was 22 in 2003 when he dove off a boat on Lake Michigan into a sandbar and broke his neck.

Heitz recalled the dreadful day he received the prognosis: "I remember the doctor telling my family, 'Your son’s injury was really bad, he broke his neck at a high level, and it’s severe enough that 95% of the people that we see with this degree of injury never walk again.'"

Three years after his accident and after a lot of physical therapy, Heitz was able to regain function in all four of his limbs. He returned to school, studying biomedical engineering, he was driving and he was fully functional.

Courtesy of Robert Heitz
Robert Heitz during therapy and his X-ray after his accident.

Fast forward to today: Heitz on Friday will make the harrowing swim in San Francisco Bay waters from Alcatraz to city shores. It's not an easy feat whether one is able bodied or not. But Heitz doesn’t scare too easily from big challenges. He says it's the culmination of a journey that started 19 years ago.

"It's going to feel like … a real recognition that, Rob, you did it -- you went from quadriplegia that you felt you were never going to get out of, where you really believed your life was over, to now doing something really amazing," he said.

Heitz said he has always been a strong swimmer, and on Friday, he is claiming his place in the water, where his injury happened. He is completing the difficult swim to raise awareness for the Paralysis Foundation, an organization he founded after his injury.

Heitz has been training since January 2021, and the reason he chose the Alcatraz swim is for its imagery and personal symbolism. When he was a parapelgic, he felt trapped in the prison of his own body, he said.

On Friday, he is escaping.

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