Keeping alive the Seven Sisters tradition (started by Emma Reim and Mackenzie Bradley from Smith College and continued by Ika Kovacikova from Wellesley, all whom I consider my Channel godmothers) is to write a brief synopsis of the swim. Enjoy!
If there is one thing that I have learned these past 12 days it is that even the best, most well trained and prepared swimmer can never be 100% ready for what the channel has in store for them. There is a reason that only 1 out of every 10 individuals who attempt the crossing make it. You are not only fighting the obvious: winds, waves, and fickle weather, but also hypothermia (a big risk for me due to sheer size), jellyfish stings, swelling/burning of the lips and throat due to salt water, chaffing, exhaustion, sea sickness, mental thoughts and the cruel illusion that is the French coast (visible at the halfway mark, only to appear the same distance way for 6 hours, no matter how hard you feel you are swimming).
But this challenge is much more than the swim itself, it is the mental tax of waiting day after day for weather that will cooperate for 12-16 hours. Bad weather, not good, is the norm in Dover. The decision is solely the captains. You live in 12-hour windows. No matter where you are you can get called and told you must be ready because you will be swimming the next night or day, which means you could swim the entire course in the dark if that’s all the weather provides you with. We (my dedicated family, coach and support swimmer) experienced this at its finest with 2-3 false starts. My official window was August 17-24, we arrived on the 12th, and the very last day of my window I finally got my chance. As the swimmer, I knew what my job entailed, but I can only imagine what my coach and parents had to go through…. Simply grueling.
Once we arrived to the dock in the morning I met my boat captain for the first time. Captain Oram was as I had expected: hardcore, opinionated and ready to do whatever it takes to make the crossing successful. My former Smith Swimming captain Emma Reim had also had Mike, and told me that”he is the best for a reason, you may not want to hear what he has to say at times, but know that your success is his success”. Thanks Emma ;)
Jumping out of the boat and swimming to Shakespeare beach (for the official start) was very surreal. Four years in the works and it was finally my time. While standing there and waiting for the captain to sound the alarm indicating the start of my journey between two countries, my heart was pounding, those are the moments you live for.
The first mile I was burning off total adrenaline. The channel has the reputation of giving you the early rounds, knowing that you’ll tire later in the match. There is absolutely no gimme here. My strategy was to take the swim in pieces rather than any thoughts of the entirety: swimming from the beach to the first shipping lane- 6miles, swimming through the first shipping lane-4 miles, through the transitional lane-1.5 miles, through the second shipping lane- 6miles, and finally to the French shore- 5miles. The English Channel shipping lanes are the busiest in the world. You have to contend with the supertanker and cargo liner’s enormous displacement of ocean and wake. This was every 25-30min. Captain Oram remained in constant communication with all vessels as well as the British and French coast guards.
My swim position was always on the wind-less side of the boat. Captain Oram did his best to keep both heavy wake and wind from affecting my forward progression. This was not possible at all times and I had to get used to the high swells at 3-4 meters, created by the passing ships wake.
The transitional zone between the Channels shipping lanes is known as “jelly fish alley.” Up until that point I thought I had maybe dodged this well-known nuisance. Then, the stings began. Their greeting was a light reminder, then followed by more potent assault on any exposed skin- face, chest, hands, legs. I counted a total of 48 seen, from the size of a baseball to a basketball. Because there is no shipping traffic, the jellies flourish here. I picked up the pace, as I was cattle-prodded through.
Into the second shipping lane (about hour 5-6) I found it more difficult to hold down my liquid nutrition on the 30-minute by 30-second feeding intervals, due to the roll and tumble of the waves. Seasickness had taken its grip. My hope was that I would be digesting whatever I could to prevent a dreaded “bonk” due to insufficient caloric intake. I was so nasceous. The liquid designed for me was a combination of high carbohydrate, some protein and some caffeine. Most importantly, the solution needed to be at a stomach osmolarity of 30 or less which allows for quick absorption. Occasionally I would try to devour and digest a Twix or Mars bar due to the high caloric value of both. The Brit’s seem to favor Mars bars.
I don’t recall ever doubting my ability to finish the swim, however the tides, water temperature, winds and physical capacity would determine that fate. I just needed to move forward trying to remain in a thought process of success. Communicating with my support crew became more vital as the hours went by. Human connection and positivity were so key into the later rounds of this challenge, and that was my support crew’s specialty. Coach Bierwert definitely gets the best supporting role as he stood dutifully along the boats rail for the full 12 hours and 55 minutes I swam (the channel official said, “how can one go so long without using the restroom?”). He was incredible.
At hour ten, the sun began to set as I felt whatever warmth it provided begin to dissipate- it was like the channels last chance to break me, the dreaded hypothermia challenge. There was no denying it; I was beginning to get cold. I was well aware of Susan Taylor’s 2013 Channel attempt and resultant death at this very point in her swim, hallmarked by initially by her decreasing stroke rate, and eventual collapse in the water resulting in her death. I fought those thoughts back as much as I could. My dad and I talked about how this may feel, as the body goes into a survival mode; blood drains away from the extremities and the brain, you become incoherent, confused and then motor weakness to loss. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t frightened at this point. The support team continued to raise the temperature of my drinks, but the effect was short lived. I did not want an astute observer or Captain Oram to suspect a chance of hypothermia and stop my attempt, which by right they could and will do at anytime. At this point in the swim, the challenge is all above the shoulders. I told myself that I just needed to pound this out and reached for the last bit of energy I had, “not much longer, not much further, I am strong and I can do this.” I remembered the repetitions of positive affirmations one of my Channel godmothers, Ika Kovacikova had done at this point. It picked me up in a way that was indescribable.
At hour 11 my support swimmer Mackenzie Bradley (Smith College ’13) was called in to swim alongside, but never ahead of me (your support swimmer is crucial at a time like this). The rules are very specific, she is not allowed to lead the way, so she remained two feet behind but still making eye contact. Mackenzie deserves a badge of honor for not only entering the dangerous waters of the Channel again, but for also being a constant source of positivity throughout. I will be eternally grateful for her generosity and dedication. From his cockpit, Captain Oram began to snap the whip, I knew I was closing in on Wissiant beach, further south than Calais, France, due to the end of a Neap tide raising its ugly head once again- thus the serpentine swim pattern typical of a crossing. Captain Oram knew that picking up the pace would allow a soft sand finish, but any longer could cause me to drift further south onto the large, sharp rocks of Cap Gris Nez, France. With a voice that could be heard all the way back to Dover, Captain Oram yelled, “1800 yards, get your a** in gear.” I knew I was on the homestretch when the boat stopped moving forward, as that is as far in as they can go without striking bottom.
Like an opponent accepting defeat, the beach waves of Wissiant pushed from behind at the last 50 yards as I felt my knees strike sand. I stumbled to my feet and cleared the water, onto dry beach, turned and faced the boat and signaled with both arms up that my bout with the channel was over. I was emotionally and physically exhausted as the boat blew the triumphant horn, done for only successful crossings. As I looked back at the boat, I could see the silhouettes of my coach, my family, my observer and the boat captain with their arms waving. This swim was truly one part Paige; three parts the support of my team. The flurry of thoughts and feelings were just overwhelming as I stood there is France realizing I had beaten the Channel. I was one of less than 350 women who have actually done this,…. No WE did this.