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The Life Out Loud: The $29,000 Birthday Swim

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To celebrate her 29th birthday, San Francisco resident, storyteller, landscape architect, urban designer, writer, athlete and born risk-taker Sarah Peck has thrown down the gauntlet. She is asking in person, on her website, via direct emails, on Facebook and on Twitter for 1,000 friends, acquaintances, and start-ups to donate $29 each (or more) to charity: water, a non-profit that brings safe, clean drinking water to people in developing countries.

If she raises at least $29,000, Sarah has promised to do a birthday swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco -- in her birthday suit. That's right. She'll cross the 1.5-mile channel in freezing water wearing nothing but a swim cap. (Please note: This will not be a spectator event).

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"A little cold and a little Bay muck is nothing compared to saving lives," Sarah laughed.

And... why? Sarah explained on her blog it starts with:

"When I returned from the World Domination Summit this year, I was humbled, quiet, confused, and a bit sad. Despite all of the engagement, inspiration, and learning, I still wonder: Am I doing things worthwhile? I'm not sure yet. Is there more to do? Absolutely. Have I reached all of my capabilities? I don't think so. Can I do more? Yes. There's so much more I want to do."

Raising $29,000 for charity: water was one way Sarah could make a difference right away. But this isn't the first time that Sarah has taken radical action to demonstrate her commitment to her values.

In 2011, to show how easy and freeing it can be to live simply, Sarah chose to stop buying new clothes. As she wrote on the blog Becoming Minimalist:

"Over the course of the year, I thinned out my closet and pared down to a few favorite items. I made over twenty trips to charity with bags of clothes and gently worn shoes that I no longer needed. At one point, I had socks and underwear with holes in them, and I got out my sewing machine and fixed them up."

The experience taught Sarah a valuable lesson. She said:

"Untethering from the need to consume was surprisingly easy. It was the attitude change that made the most difference: looking through my things and realizing I already had enough -- that I didn't have to rush out and buy something new to fill a hole or a need -- let me breathe again ... What you are is already good enough."

Sarah was born in Germany but grew up in Palo Alto, where her father studied at Stanford University and both her parents worked as engineers. She left to attend college in Ohio. Although she had been a swimmer all throughout high school, it was during this time that her talents blossomed. About a month into the first season, her coach said, "You'll have the steepest learning curve, but if you can just not give up for six months, you'll be amazing." Sarah put her blind trust in her coach and swam herself silly, loving every minute of it. Sure enough, just six months later, Sarah made the national team. In the next four years, she was a 20-time all-American.

"I would look in the mirror and think, 'Who is that?' I couldn't believe it was me who pulled that off sometimes," Sarah said, shaking her long blonde hair.

After college, Sarah studied landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. "I learned about how green is woven into everything: from what's hidden and below, to the living metabolisms of cities," she explained. She moved to San Francisco after completing her MLA, and began working at SWA Group, an international landscape architecture group.

Then, three years ago, Sarah had a serious health scare. Her fingers started tingling, and she thought she had developed carpal tunnel due to long hours at work. But her grandfather, a doctor who was still does house calls at age 87, advised her to have it checked out the next morning.

The next day, Sarah's doctor sent her to the hospital immediately: she had a blood clot the size of a pinkie finger inside her chest. Thirty doctors came to see Sarah's unusual case. They decided to treat her with a potentially deadly blood thinner, dripping it by IV into her chest through tiny tubes snaking in through her elbow creases. The hospital staff would wake her every hour for 36 hours to make sure that she was okay. Blessedly, her mother and sister were able to be there with her.

After a few days, Sarah's doctor said, "You have two options. One, you can take blood thinners for the rest of your life and give up being an athlete; or two, we can take a rib out of your body."

Sarah was flabbergasted. But once her doctor had explained that because her collarbone and rib were nearly touching, it made her prone to blood clotting, she said yes. Two days later, the ER was booked for an all-day operation to have the blood clot and rib removed.

It "felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to my chest" Sarah said when she woke up because breathing, talking, and moving were so painful. She wondered if she had made a mistake having the operation. But just 12 weeks later, she was back in action and back at work. Her doctor had told her she might never swim again, but after six months, she slowly made her way back into the pool, too. By the end of the following year, she was doing long open water swims with ease and joy.

Sarah said, "I would never wish what happened to me on anyone. But the other side of trauma is phenomenal, amazing. I've been on a high ever since. I feel so grateful for my life and everyone in it. It's like nothing changed but everything changed. It's given me a laser focus and clarity. I have this huge sense of freedom, knowing that we all have the ability to do whatever we set our minds to. But with that freedom comes immense responsibility to make the most out of my blessings in this life."

These days, in addition to working at her full-time landscape architecture job, Sarah publishes the online journal Landscape Urbanism, and enjoys leading workshops and speaking at conferences about storytelling. She stays physically active with swimming and running.

I asked Sarah what it means to her to live the Life Out Loud. "It means saying yes!" she practically shouted in reply. Then she backed down a little. "If it's new, uncomfortable, different, hard, say yes. Of course, there's a challenge in saying no when something isn't a good fit. I also have to keep myself from always saying yes, and remind myself that what I'm doing now is sometimes good enough. But still, my mantra definitely is, 'Say yes to life!'"