Jess’s diagnosis was also a big wake up call. After all, I was also a young mum to 3 little boys and had taken my good health for granted. After learning of Jess's illness, I started to see things differently. Through all her treatments and setbacks including the loss of 99% of her vision from a stroke after surgery, she somehow managed to remain so positive. Her message was always loud and clear. Live in the moment, don’t take life for granted, take action, start doing, just live. So that’s what I started to do. One of the things I dove into was my first ocean swim.
I had been thinking of trying this out for awhile now. Now I’m no Libby Trickett, I was never going to make the Olympics but I did train a lot growing up which meant my stroke was efficient and controlled. It was fitness and getting comfortable in the open water that I had to work on. Jess was really enthusiastic when I told her I was going to do this and that she was my inspiration to give it a go. So I registered for a Noosa ocean swim, trained in the pool and gave it a crack. My first ever ocean swim was in May 2015, 15 months prior to my channel attempt. It was 2km, nearly killed me but I quickly realised that I loved training for an event and then achieving that goal. Now I wanted another one, but I also decided that it had to be a much longer swim as I wanted to raise money for a charity of Jess’s choice.
He then put me in touch with Tara Diversi, an experienced cold water marathon nutritionist and 2 London based coaches from Red Top Swimming Squad- Tim and Matt who have crewed for over 50 channel swims and would head up my crew on the big day. I was in excellent hands.
Then under Trent's guidance I went and did a huge amount of training, in both the pool and the ocean. This involved travelling to Victoria to swim in ocean water for 4-6hrs at a time. Absolutely this was tough. I struggled with the cold water but I knew that this was something I had to mentally overcome. There was one thing I could do to make this a little easier. I had to gain weight, and quickly. Now this is something I have never ever intentionally set out to do, and it required a severe shift in mind-set.
When you are submerged in water far less than your core body temperature for a long period of time it is inevitable that this can result in hypothermia which can be fatal. Other than exposing yourself to the cold as much as possible in training, another way to prevent this is to have a certain level of body fat surrounding your vital organs. So around the torso. Tara my dietician wanted me to gain at least 5kgs-10kg in this region. Now this may seem like an easy task and perhaps even enjoyable, but when you are swimming 40kms a week and racing around after 3 active boys, it is not an easy thing to do. But you’ll be pleased to know that I got there in the end thanks to a very unhealthy daily consumption of coke and lollies.
A common saying in the Channel community is that a successful solo swim requires 20% physical strength and 80% mental strength. So with my fat gaining eating regime and hours and hours of training ahead of me I knew my body would be up for the challenge but the most important thing was to train my mind to prepare myself for what was about to happen. The hardest part to get your head around, is the fact there is no fixed finish line. No one can tell you just how long it will take. Trent had estimated it could take me anywhere from 11 to 14 hrs. It is just a matter of taking one stroke at a time and staying in the moment.
There are a lot of factors that combine to make the swim really hard. Tides running north and south of the channel make it impossible to swim in a straight line, unless you are Trent Grimsey who can swim faster than the tides. The wind and weather are an unknown quantity and can change very quickly. There are over 600 commercial ship movements a day in the shipping lanes in the channel and to swim to France you have to swim across the shipping lanes. It was my pilot’s job to stay out of the path of these vessels and keep me safe. The pilots often say, "it is like escorting a snail across the M25." Put these factors all together, including a high level of mental tension, noting that everything is “approximate” or “about” and that a swim can be stopped mid-way because of unfavourable weather. You have the worlds hardest swim- “The Everest of open water swimming.” The worldwide success rate each season is usually less than 50% for the solo swims.
So after saying my goodbyes and making my way down the ladder to the lower deck I plunged into the black, ocean and headed to the beach. I cleared the water and raised my hands like I was told to and waited for the horn. After a few nervous, deep breaths and whispering to myself something like “you’ve got this, you are going to do this” I committed myself 100% to the swim, I left all my doubts on that beach, there is nothing more powerful than the determined mind. The horn sounded and at 11.41pm I waded into the 16 degree black water under the moonlight and swum towards my boat that was lit up like a christmas tree. The adrenaline was pumping and I felt great in the water. Initially I experienced some dizziness from looking into the black water and then turning my head for a breath and looking straight into a spotlight. But after an hour or so this seemed to settle. My nutrition was spot on, every 30 minutes I would tread water and Tim or Matt would throw my warm liquid feeds to me in a bottle which was attached to a rope. The meticulously planned nutrition regime kept my energy stores up and helped to generate heat, keeping me warm. This was also the only time I got a break from turning my arms over, 30-60 seconds every 30 minutes.
I also got a real kick out of seeing the big ships cruise past me. I generally heard their engines underwater first and once they past me I had to deal with the wake, but it was certainly something I have not experienced before and most likely never will again. It was quite incredible. Luckily for me I encountered very little marine life the night/day I swam. I saw a few Jellyfish and a couple brushed past me but I don't recall getting stung or perhaps I was dealing with some joint/muscular pain at the time and didn't notice?
During my entire prep I was most nervous about how my body would cope with 10+hours of 16 degree water. Surprisingly the water did not bother me. I shivered momentarily about halfway and promptly requested the next feed to be warmer. Once the feeds were hotter, I felt much happier and comfortable in the water. My crew were always really positive with their verbal communication to me, well from what I could hear anyway. We also had a cardinal rule that I’m never told how far it really is, because we don’t know how far it is. What’s going to happen to you between this point and that point. What's going to happen with the weather and the tides. Towards the very end of the swim I did call out to my crew asking how much longer to go. Knowing all too well they wouldn't tell me.
Tim politely replied "We don't know, just keep swimming you are doing really well".
I replied with a smile "Yes you do, you're just not telling me".
My crew were amazing, always saying the right thing at the right time and at least one of them was always in clear view. It did get lonely at times, which sounds a bit odd because the boat was only metres from me. However, I was wearing ear plugs to help with the cold water so I found it really hard to hear my crew and my goggles were slightly foggy so I couldn't see them all that well. My mouth was also a little swollen from the salty water so I found it difficult to communicate clearly. I was alone with my thoughts and had to try and remain focused and positive. Being able to see my crew with each breath taken helped keep me focussed at the job at hand. I knew I just had to keep swimming until I ran out of water.
We were not getting any closer and the wind was picking up creating some messy chop. We were getting swept rapidly down the coast line from the strong tide. This was when I had my first mental wobble. This part of the swim is called the “Graveyard of dreams” which is terribly depressing but the truth is that most unsuccessful swims end within the final 3 miles off the coast, because it is so hard to break through the tide on the back-end of a very long swim. I knew I was not making much progress but I was prepared for this and I was confident that my trusted crew would get me there eventually. The tide on the French coast line is notoriously strong and at top speed can move along at 8k/hr. Once you miss the cap, the land on either side falls away and it can be a long/hard slog getting into shore, if you can get there at all. I knew that it was a matter of urgency that I try and make as much ground as possible at this stage. It is not fun seeing the coast line whizz past at a great rate of knots after swimming for 10hrs. But I had to stay calm and in control. It was extremely frustrating and I'm sure my crew could sense that I was beginning to get anxious and mentally fatigued. This was when the cheering and encouragement from my skipper and crew stepped up a gear, which got me back on track.
So here we go and I somehow, without a decision I went into thinking about this dream, and why and how, it wasn’t about the concrete “Can I do it?” I knew I could, that’s part of the discipline and the preparation and there is a pride in that. But I started to think, as I went along, about, Jess and how bravely she fought, she never stopped fighting and I wasn’t going to either, I was going to see this thing through. My abs were burning, my back was aching and my hips and elbows were in agony. My body was screaming at me to stop but my mind was winning the battle.
And now the shore is coming. This epic journey is about to be over.
So finally after 14hrs and 44mins and covering 64kms on a spring tide, I awkwardly shuffled my way towards the French beach of Wissant.
Lots of people have asked me how it felt when I made it and what did I do when I got to shore.
It is really difficult to describe. The overwhelming emotion was pure relief that I had actually made it and could finally stop swimming and take off those same goggles that I had put on almost 15hrs ago (my eye sockets were not happy with me). There was a french family on the beach cheering and clapping when I finally cleared the water. They approached me and started speaking to me in French and excitedly pointing to the boat, I nodded and told them that I had just swum the channel. They asked me how long. I slurred, "I'm not sure, 11 or so hours?" Matt then chirped in "Actually it was over 14hrs". I had lost all sense of time, and was in kid of a daze from exhaustion. I was shocked with the time, it didn't feel that long. I guess time flies when you are having fun.
Then I had to swim the painful 500m back to the boat......not a happy camper!
It has been 6 months since that swim, looking back now, was it worth all that training and putting my body and mind through almost 15hrs of torture?
Absolutely it was. Would I do a swim like that again? Absolutely not! I took around 53 040 strokes to swim from England to France and for every stroke I took we raised about $2.80.
So far the final tally that Jess and I have raised for Cure Brain Cancer Foundation is $150 066.
So my message is this. I am not an exceptional athlete, I have not represented my country or won gold medals. I am an ordinary person who likes a challenge and after being inspired by my beautiful, kind and quick-witted friend I decided to give ocean swimming a go.