Film spotlights health-conscious Alcatraz swimmers

February 5, 2010 6:43:54 PM PST
A special film festival is underway in San Francisco. It is the Ocean Film Festival and the movies and documentaries focus on the power and beauty of the ocean. One of the films showcases a program ABC7 first told you about four years ago; it involves a local doctor, some unique tourists and an unusual challenge.

Dr. Nancy Iverson has a special relationship with San Francisco Bay. She swims in the ice cold waters to relieve back pain, and those waves have the starring role in a documentary she produced and directed called "From the Badlands to Alcatraz."

So why did she switch hats from being a pediatrician to becoming a filmmaker?

"The whole story is so in a sense bizarre, that it's not believable until you actually see it," she said.

In 2006 we saw Iverson bring residents from South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to swim in the bay. In just a few days they were trained to make it all the way from Alcatraz to San Francisco.

"The first 90 seconds is really excruciating," said Richard Iron Cloud, one of the first to take the plunge seven years ago. It made him a hero both on and off the reservation, inspiring many other members of the Lakota Sioux tribe to follow. "Particularly for the young people here on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, it elevates their self-esteem and their feelings about themselves. For me that's worth everything in the world."

That is in keeping with Iverson's non-profit called Pathstar. She grew up in South Dakota and wanted to promote healthy lifestyles for people she met on the reservation.

"Haiti is so much in the news right now, but the only place in the western hemisphere with a lower life expectancy than Haiti is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation," Iverson said.

So she teaches them yoga and gives tips on nutrition, and of course, encourages them to take the Alcatraz swim. Her documentary highlights some of those who do.

"They end up being amazing heroes in the film and it's possible for each and every one of us to make that choice and to move foward in that direction," she said.

"From the Badlands to Alcatraz" premieres at Theater 39 at Pier 39 on Sunday, Feb. 7 at 10 a.m.

ABC7 is a sponsor of the Ocean Film Festival. For more information on the festival, visit