Santa Cruz stories: Sjamsir Sjarif – Swimming is his life, one lap at a time
By Ann Parker – Sentinel correspondent
As is his birthday custom, Sjamsir Sjarif will swim 74 laps on his 74th birthday, April 18. (Shmuel Thaler/Sentinel)
On April 18, Sjamsir Sjarif will once again celebrate his birthday by swimming his age: one lap for each year. That means 74 laps this year, more than two miles. It’s a ritual he has performed on every birthday since he turned 47.
But it’s much more than just exercise.
“I’m not just counting laps,” Sjarif says. “I’m reviewing my life.”
He explains that when he first sinks into the water, he imagines being in the womb again. “Then I begin the first lap, the first year of my life.”
During his initial three circuits, Sjamsir says, he creates images from stories told by his mother. “The fourth lap starts the real memories of my life. And so on – until the last minute of that year.” His expressive face opens into a wide smile. “I feel peaceful in the water.”
Sjarif swam his first birthday laps in 1982 after a three-week class at Harvey West pool. “Before that, I just knew how to splash,” he chuckles, demonstrating. Now he always travels with his swimsuit and goggles, watching for a pool. His regular swim site, Harvey West, is closed this year; instead, Joe Schultz, director of Parks, Open Space and Cultural Services, has offered him complimentary admission to the Simpkins Swim Center on April 18.
Born in Indonesia, Sjamsir was the son of a grade school teacher. He followed in his father’s footsteps, earning a degree in education and history before teaching at the junior high level. After working several years in Indonesia as an
assistant to an American anthropology professor (from UC Santa Cruz) he came to America in 1966 and then earned his master’s in anthropology at the University of Illinois.
After Sjarif moved to Santa Cruz in 1975, he served 18 years as director of the Third World Teaching Resource Center at UCSC. He retired in 1994; since then he has been working as an interpreter, translator and cultural consultant for courts, libraries, hospitals and schools.
He also keeps busy and healthy at his gym, 24 Hour Fitness. “I do TKB (turbo-kickboxing) and zumba – I recommend that to anyone,” he says. “Also salsa and other dancing.” He laughs delightedly. “Often I’m the one man. I love that.”
Will Sjarif continue his yearly birthday swim? “Absolutely. All my life.” And considering that one of his father’s siblings lived to be 114, he may be in for a long swim.
Born: ‘April 18, 1935 – at 7:45 p.m. on a full moon – in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, Indonesia.’
Wife: Diah S. Sjarif, owner of Batik Cafe in Santa Cruz.
Children: Son Samudera, 19, and daughter Mutiara, 14. Both are swimmers.
Languages: Malay, Indonesian and Minangkabu (his ethnic group) and English, plus studying intensives in Spanish and Arabic.
Education: University of Andalas, Indonesia; UC Davis; University of Illinois.
His favorite sticker for swimmers: Just Add Water.
On inspiring others: ‘My doctor has started doing his own birthday swim.’
A life secret: ‘I’m never bored – I always have so much in my head.’
On pool swimming: ‘You’re peaceful but your mind talks.’
On ocean swimming: ‘My first time was my last time: I got a cramp and ended up in the ER.’