05 August 2007

The Final Chapter

At 4:15 a.m. my crew (Alice, Heather and my dad Jon) boarded the Viking Princess at Folkstone Harbor. After Reg (pilot) and Ray (co-pilot and CSA observer) helped us load our equipment on board and did the final preparations for the boat, we headed out of the harbor and toward Shakespeare beach. The sun was barely just rising and the light on the white cliffs, the clouds, the water and the horizon was spectacular.

I was full of nervous excitement and couldn’t wait to just get in the water and swim! At 5:00 a.m. I jumped in the water to swim into the beach for the start. I was so happy that the day I had been waiting for was finally here: The day I was to swim the English Channel.

It was light already and over the next few hours I watched when I breathed to the left as the sun continued to rise above me. I knew it would be on the other side of the sky by the time I reached France. The water was a little bit choppy, but I felt smooth, strong and rested.

At two and a half hours, my right shoulder started to hurt in a way that I knew wasn’t good. The pain continued to increase and at 3 hours I asked my crew for painkillers to be added to my feedings. The pain didn’t concern me. There was no way a sore shoulder was going to get in my way of getting to France. The time went by quickly and I made an effort not to look towards England during my feedings, as I had been told that you could see the White Cliffs for almost 5 hours of swimming.

We entered the first shipping lane (West bound traffic) and I knew I made significant progress. Ray told me to stay close to the boat. I had spent the last week watching the vessel traffic from our house in St. Margaret’s Bay and I knew what I was heading into now that I would be swimming in the shipping lane. I paid little attention to all of the activity around me, as I knew Reg was safely guiding us through the ships and onward to France.

The closest encounter had Reg take me in a complete circle to avoid the path of a large tanker. I knew exactly what he was doing and laughed to myself at the fact that we were momentarily heading back to England.

At 6 ½ hours I swam through a large swarm of jellyfish. They were blue, purple and yellow and of all different sizes. They were on the surface of the water and as deep as about 5 feet. The water was clear by now and all that I could see was jellyfish in every direction. This lasted for about 30-45 minutes. My crew carefully pointed out the path I should follow. Sometimes the space between two jellies was too close for me to swim and I would make my body as narrow as possible and skull and kick as I made my way through. I swam with my head up and my eyes at the surface of the water. I picked up my head enough to loudly should expletives at the jellies. Something worked because I managed to make my way through hundreds of jellyfish without getting stung. I had gotten a small sting earlier, but nothing during that time. For the next several hours I watched as my dad diligently studied the water making sure I didn’t swim into any more jellies. I imagined that they seagulls were above were watching out for me too.

The water was rough (5-8 foot swells with scattered white caps) for all but about two hours early in the swim. I watched as the boat just bobbed up and down and side-to-side. The water conditions weren’t challenging for me, but I was sure glad I wasn’t on the boat.

At 8 hours my right shoulder throbbed in pain and I alerted my crew that I hadn’t been able to urinate in two hours. At the time I thought it just meant that I was dehydrated. I didn’t realize until much later that it meant not only was I dehydrated, but also I hadn’t absorbed any of my feedings after hour six.

I noticed the ships changed directions and I was overjoyed. I had reached the East bound shipping lane and was in French water! I was an incredible amount of pain and felt increasingly weak. I acknowledged the pain and then just let it go. This was the English Channel and nothing was going to keep me from getting to France. At 10 hours I could see France. I had almost swum to a new land! And it wasn’t just the cliffs above the coast; I could see the color of the trees and the details of the landscape. I started breathing more frequently to the left to get a better glimpse of France to remind me that I was getting there.

My crew told me to pick it up and I did despite the intense pain in my right shoulder. I had heard so many stories of how this is where a channel swim starts – after 10 hours of swimming and you had to sprint to make it to the point of Cap Gris Nez before the tide swept you right past. I continued to try and move my arms faster and pull as much water with each stroke. Alice later told me that my stroke rate never fell below 64 stokes a minute.

At my 11 ½ hour feeding I vomited up everything that had been just sitting in my stomach since hour 6. The canned peaches I ate at hour 7 came up just the way they had gone down. I thought to myself “This is a Channel swim and you just keep swimming”. And so I did. I popped my head up momentarily a few stokes later to vomit again without even breaking stroke.

France was so close and I never felt like I had been further from my goal. At 13 hours Alice told me what was going to happen next. “I am going to get in with you and you must keep up with me. You can make the point, but you must go faster now.” She got in and I poured every last ounce of energy into each stroke. I reminded myself that I never had to swim again. All I had to do was pick up my stroke and get to France! It wasn’t working, Alice and France were getting further and further away. Within a few strokes, Alice was ahead of me. I was giving it everything I had, and I was too weak to keep on pace.

I essentially had not fed since hour 6, which was over 7 hours ago. I was tired and running on less than empty. Alice got out at 13:40 and I continued to push on. With every stroke I was more and more committed to making it to France. I never thought I wouldn’t make it and I never stopped believing in myself.

At 14 hours my crew lined up along the side of the boat and told me that I had been a mile and a half from France and now I was 3 miles from shore. I looked up and saw the point and it seemed so close. I didn’t know that I had been on the other side of it and been had been swept right past it by the current. They told me it would take 6-11 hours to make landfall and then it wasn’t even certain. I told them I couldn’t swim for 6 more hours.

At 14 hours of swimming and getting as close as a mile and a half from France, I was pulled. My crew did absolutely everything to get me to keep down my feedings and to keep me on pace. Alice and Heather cheered for 14 hours. I’m talking red pom-poms, purple glitter top hats and motivating communication via the white board. At the end, I was too sick, too undernourished and too weak to make it to France. I had been swimming at 68 stokes per minute for the last hour and I couldn’t even lift my arms up to the ladder of the boat. Reg pulled me on board and Alice and Heather began the recovery effort. They quickly took my suit off and put me in warm clothes. I started to shiver violently and continued to vomit for the next hour. My eyes were almost swollen shut and my breathing was labored. I didn’t know at the time, but my dad was mentally planning on how we would get me airlifted out of the boat and to the hospital if things got any worse.

I was wheezing and I asked Alice “Why am I breathing like this?” She was concerned and asked Reg where the nearest hospital was and if we could get an ambulance to meet us at Folkstone harbor. He said he had never had to do that and that all of the swimmers are in bad shape at the end. He wasn’t close enough to me to see how difficult it was for me to breathe. I didn’t know at the time, but I had aspirated seawater or my feedings and bacteria were already infected my lungs. It was a long ride home. It took over 3 hours in the boat going full speed in a straight line to cover the distance I had covered swimming the reverse S-shaped curve typical of a Channel swim.

Reg let us off at Folkstone harbor. Alice and Heather unloaded the boat and my dad went to get the car. I needed help out of the boat, up the stairs, to get into the car and even to get my seatbelt on. Once back at the house, my condition continued to decline and I was short of breath and needed to rest after just walking across the room. I tried to sleep but couldn’t. My wheezing was getting worse. At 2 a.m. my parents took me to the emergency room in Ashford. I was admitted to the hospital after the doctors reviewed my “rather impressive” (direct quote) chest x-ray. Immediately after seeing the x-ray, I was put on interventions antibiotics and oxygen. They kept me for three days, carefully monitoring my progress and continuing to administer antibiotics intravenously three times a day for 48 hours.

The hospital staff was interested in my story and amazed by my perseverance. I continued to be in a tremendous amount of pain and had difficulty doing anything but lying in bed. The pain from my right shoulder radiated up into my neck and down into my hand. Every part of my body was sore to the touch. Sitting up, turning over, adjusting my position in the bed required a huge effort and help from the nursing staff.

My parents and friends visited my daily. Both Michelle and Julian came to see me the day after their swims. Alice printed out e-mails and comments on my blog. I truly felt the love and support of everyone who had supported me in my journey.

After I got out of the hospital, I met Reg at a bar in Folkstone. The first thing he said was "You look a lot better, Love". I told him the story of being hospitalized and the aspiration pneumonia. He told me that I am enormously brave and a great swimmer and not to give up on long distance swimming. He had charted my course for me even though I didn't touch France. I covered 30 miles. I gave him a hug good-bye, thanked him for everything and told him that I would be sending a friend over (Amber Rhett)to swim the Channel in a month and a half.

I gave it all in my training and during the swim. I don’t have any regrets. I couldn’t have done more to prepare to swim the English Channel. My focus for the past two years has been to get to France. I also had the intention to have the strength to endure and the courage to embrace the struggle. I found the strength to endure and I certainly embraced the struggle, but in the end facing a huge calorie deficit, a growing infection in my lungs, an injured shoulder and possibly 11 hours to go, there was no choice but to be pulled. I had a courageous swim on a day with very bad luck.

Many people have offered support, guidance, inspiration, encouragement and mentorship. I thank all of you.

THANK YOU to my crew of Alice Wong and Heather Catchpole for being as committed to the swim as I was and for believing in me throughout the journey.

THANK YOU to my parents for accompanying me to Dover and for being supportive of my swimming for 21 years.

THANK YOU to my training partners, coaches and mentors at South End Rowing Club, the Dolphin Club and Burlingame Aquatic Club.

THANK YOU to my colleagues and students at Aragon High School for their enthusiasm, patience and support.

THANK YOU to everyone who has “followed me to France” and been a part of my journey.

Onward to…the next chapter of my life!


"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt