Interview with Ahelee about her Channel swim
Date of Channel swim: July 28, 2001. 11 Hours, 22 Minutes
Photo: Ahelee and Vijaya, Dover Harbour the night before Ahelee's crossing! July 27, 2001
1) What made you decide to swim the Channel?
I work with a very inspiring meditation teacher (Sri Chinmoy) who also loves sports. When he found out that I had been a competitive swimmer all of my life, he told me that I could swim The English Channel. I was mainly a sprint distance swimmer, but have done many triathlons and nine Ironman distance triathlons. He told me I could do it and for that reason I believed I could.
2) What training did you undertake beforehand?
I started preparing for my English Channel Swim about 1½ years before I finally swam. I regularly swim 5 or 6 times a week in an organized swim workout. 3,500 to 4,000 yards/meters.
In February of 2000, I swam my first very cold ocean swim. 15 minutes in 55 degree water. I only swam a few more short swims like that again that spring. The water is generally in the high 60 degree range during the summer here in San Diego. On January 1, 2001 I swam just over 2 miles in 56 degree water as a part of a New Year’s celebration. I was so cold and shivering, no one imagined I would be able to make the swim across the English Channel. But I kept building up my time in the cold water. When I left for England, my longest training swim was 5 ½ hours in 58-60 degree water. I had done several 3 ½ hour ocean swims after an earlier pool workout during that summer. In Dover I did two 6 hour swims in the harbor where we trained. This training I did, compared to most all channel type swimmers was, very, very minimal.
The key was element was in late February 2001, I began a concentrated effort to gain 40 pounds. My meditation teacher told me I would make the swim if I gained this weight. That was more important than most of the swim training. I’m 5 ft.-10 inches and about 135 pounds. I had to eat ice cream 3-4 times a day and sleep more hours each night. Sleeping was easier, because the cold water made my body very achy and tired almost as though I was getting sick. I slept easily! People laugh about the ice cream part, but normally I have a pretty healthy vegetarian diet. Although I do love sweets, it isn’t a major part of my regular eating habit!
3) How long did it take to swim the Channel?
11 hours and 22 minutes
4) What was going through your mind while you where swimming?
This is a great question and one I think makes the difference of success or failure for ultra distance athletes.
This swim was a spiritual experience for me. It was a challenge given to me by my spiritual teacher. There was something for me to learn out there and I was sure it wasn’t about speed. I have been a competitive athlete for more than 30 years. I’ve trained for speed and competition and had those experiences many times over. But could I keep my mind calm and quiet for all those hours of training and ultimately swimming across The English Channel? Peaceful enough to stay warm, cheerful, focused and moving?
I have studied meditation for such a short time really. I don’t know very much but I tried to use all I did know. I kept any negative thought away from my mind. I felt that these were the most peaceful hours of my life. I wanted my thoughts to be as clear and beautiful as the water seemed to be that day. Occasionally a jellyfish would come along and I would start to think. Then I utilized several inspirations that have been offered to me in these last few years:
- Repetition of a word – gratitude, light, love, or most often, Supreme (strength).
- Singing soulful inspiring songs.
- Re-living the kind and encouraging words of my friends and family, who sent me off to England.
- I realized the moment I was in – “this is actually, swimming across the English Channel”.
- I felt the prayers of my friends and family.
- Calm breathing and relaxation.
But most significantly, I envisioned my spiritual teacher meditating on my very soul to give me the strength to complete this vision of his. He told me three times I would do it and I knew I would make it to France that day. The gratitude I felt was all for him and his inspiration that put me there in The English Channel that day.
5) Which swimming strokes did you use?
I had previous coaching by Terry Laughlin at Total Immersion that really made a difference in my long distance swim stroke. I tried to maintain a long, front quadrant, rolling stroke as much as possible.
6} Would you consider swimming it again or attempting a double crossing?
In short, no. I had an amazing experience. Almost magical in that it was my first time doing a marathon open water swim and the weather and water were literally perfect. I was never injured in my training. I gained 40 pounds and lost it again quickly. It was a tremendous challenge and I feel accomplished in doing it. There are too many environment variables and it alters my healthy lifestyle so much with the extra weight. So I have to say no, I don’t believe I will swim there again.
7} Was there a point when you thought you might not complete the crossing. If so when?
I felt very calm and sure from the start that I would make the swim crossing that day. I had no idea how long it would take, but the finish seemed very certain.
8} What where the sea conditions like when you made the crossing?
The water was 62 degrees and quite salty! As I mentioned earlier, the weather was very favorable – bright and sunny with very little wind. There were various rough sections, and the big ships did stir up the choppy water. The surprising thing to me was how crystal clear the water appeared – greenish, but so clear.
9) What went through your mind when you had completed the swim?
As you can imagine, it was overwhelming and I was very delighted!
The sense of relief and “I’m really here in France” came about a mile off shore when I could see the boulders of the coast so close. I seemed to finally get the timing of my stroke and felt like I was swimming quite well then.
I had to climb very large boulder type rocks to bring myself above the water line before I was technically finished with my swim. It was here that I felt the sheer rush of gratitude for my meditation teacher who told me I could do this English Channel swim. I would never, in a million years, have attempted it without his suggestion. As we motored back to Dover that early evening from Calais, France I kept thinking to myself, “I can not believe that I just swam The English Channel”. It still doesn’t seem real to me. It is as though I watched someone else swim it.
10) What where the worst and best moments in preparing and partaking in the swim?
The second day I was in Dover I swam my longest swim, 6 hours. This was also a required prerequisite to start the English Channel swim. I had been told the distance is designated because officials believe if you can complete that swim you can make the crossing. I had such a great feeling of relief after I finished that swim. It meant I could officially start. I felt if I was able to start, I would be able to finish!
Partaking My friend Vasudha was the captain of my crew. At one point during my feeding time, she so excitedly yelled to me, “Sue, YOU are swimming so well… You have no idea!” She also told me that one of the officials told her I was on an extremely good pace. I never thought about my time on the swim, but she got me excited that I was swimming really well.
In April 2001, the company I worked for, Rodale Press, made the decision to close the magazine where I worked. I had planned this swim out completely. The previous year, I traveled to Europe for the Switzerland Ironman and took a 3-day side trip to England to make arrangements for the following summer. I was in the process of gaining what I knew would be 40 pounds. I was training in very, very cold ocean water. But without a job, how would I manage it all? I decided to stay with the plan and say my prayers. Somehow I had to make it work.
There are three officials on the support boat. The captain, the navigator, and the federation representative. It is the general rule not to give any information to the swimmer about the distance swum or estimated swim time remaining. I understand this. Often there are circumstances that can negatively alter the speed or finish time of the swimmer. This can a have devastating affect on the emotional well being and enthusiasm of the swimmer.
Looking back, I was having a terrific swim. My personal crew knew me very well and could see I was strong and swimming happily. We were on course and well within sight of our goal. When I asked about time or distance, my crew just kept cheering me on. I knew it was staged and that they wanted to tell me but couldn’t. I think if the officials understood my history with ultra-distance racing and training, they would have been more forthcoming with the information since I was swimming well. The only frustrating times I had that day were, not knowing an approximate time or distance ahead so I could pace myself. As it was, I swam very hard, at a much faster speed, toward the end of the swim feeling like I didn’t have to “pace” myself any longer!
Thankfully, at one point, Vasudha let a small squeak out about, making it to shore before a visible landmark point. I knew then where I was headed. I also knew if I missed that point I would be swimming another 2-3 hours! There was no way I was going to do that and I had plenty of energy left to make a hard charge in to the lighthouse point!
11) What advise would you give to someone who wanted to swim the Channel?
-Read everything – good books are Penny Dean’s Open Water Swimming and Dover Solo by Marcia Cleveland. The web is very useful too. Make web searches on Google.com and yahoo.com
-Early on talk to everyone you can find who has done marathon swimming or been on crew for a marathon swimmer. Of course most valuable are English Channel swimmers themselves! Then you will have time to experiment with different ideas and advice.
-Learn to super hydrate with the right mix of electrolytes. Being super hydrated helps keep you warm in the water. It also helps alleviate some of the muscle soreness when training.
-Find a suitable body weight to maintain warmth in the cold salt water. Gain weight if you need it. Loose weight if you’re carrying too much.
-Find the nutrition that works for your body.
I used a warm Cytomax drink and a carbohydrate gel called GU mixed in apple juice. In training I used water and Cytomax. In The Channel, I only drank Cytomax. I like to err on the strong side of concentration with the Cytomax, not everyone agrees. Also, be sure if your crew is mixing your drink on the boat, they are cooling a too hot drink with the same “Cytomax” and not diluting the concentration with cold water.
-Try out some warming herbs like licorice, ginger, and cayenne pepper. I used all of these in capsule form during my training and my Channel swim. I found the best results with cayenne pepper and licorice. Truly an amazing difference in tolerating the cold!
-Channel greasing doesn’t necessarily keep you warmer in the cold water. But use it if you like it. I only used it in the places that chafe. Neck, underarms, between legs – don’t get it on your hands!
-Train in minimal. Light suit, light cap, no grease, etc. Save the warm thick cap and grease for the big day
- Give the cell phone number from the boat to supporters on land or at home
- If you can manage a trip to Dover before your swim trip, it is well worth it. There will be no surprises when you actually arrive to swim and you can focus on the training and swim it self.
- Bring several pairs of goggles to Europe that all work well. Have more than one style on the boat in case you’re suffering. Be careful not to get sunscreen in your eyes before you start the swim.
- Bring the flag of your country to fly on the boat. Make signs your crew can hold up for motivation and cheer. Bring a large wipe off board so your crew can give you updates; stroke count, warming messages, feeding suggestions, etc.
- Most of all, swim as much as possible in the open cold water. Two months before I left for England, I stopped swimming in the pool and concentrated on the ocean training alone. It is great if you have a “crew person” to help with feedings every 45-60 minutes, but not absolutely necessary if you swim multiple short out and back distances. To keep up the speed and quality training swims it helps to train with another swimmer or group. Keep up aerobic fitness. Try not to get caught doing only long slow swimming.
12} Overall would you say it was a rewarding and enjoyable experience?
Absolutely! For a few reasons:
-It was an accomplishment I never thought I was capable of experiencing.
-The sacrifice was big but temporary. I like to say its’ like having a baby in a way. Gaining weight and all of the adjusting of normal life is just for part of a year. Then you come away with this bit of joy forever.
-I experienced a quiet that just is not possible in our day to day lives. This quiet I found in the training and on the day of my swim. Meditation is often difficult to achieve for long periods. This gave me a way to experience an expanded amount of time in that realm of quiet.
-I get a lot of joy when a person tells me, “I have never met a person who actually swam The English Channel!” It seems that everyone knows about swimming The English Channel. After my swim experience, I know many people who have made the swim, but it is a small little world. The English Channel is still one of those “out-there ideas”. Talking about the swim actually gives me the opportunity to help people see that they have potential to accomplish unimaginable goals.
13} What other sports do you partake in, and would you say by comparison the Channel swim was the biggest sporting challenge you have faced?
I have been a swimmer since I was 6, a triathlete for about 16 years and started running a few years earlier. As I mentioned, I have completed 9 Ironman triathlons. I hold the course record for the 35-39 women’s division at the Hawaiian Ironman.
The Kona, Hawaii race is incredibly difficult and challenges an athlete with heat, hills, and headwinds. For me, swimming The English Channel was more difficult simply because it was the same movement for 11 hours. My Ironman times have been spread over 10-13 hours similar to my Channel swim time. In the Ironman an athlete changes muscles every few hours. The terrain continually changes from the 2.4K, swim to the 180K, bike to the marathon run which helps alot. Mentally and physically, the triathlon is easier in my eyes.
14} Did you find the encouragement from your crew a big help?
I could not have started without my crew! Each of the four girls were very selfless that day. They seemed to be enjoying themselves and we had lots of food for them on the boat. No one was sick, which was a real blessing. Seeing all those things from the water, helped me stay cheerful too. They had a lot of different types of “support crew” experience but marathon swimming was new to them. They are all exceptional runners and spiritual students. They clearly understood the spiritual aspect of this swim. They did everything so easily and made necessary adjustments so quickly. It appeared to flow so well from where I was in the water! The day we were given was perfect for swimming and crewing! I know that if a swimmer is worrying about their crew’s well being, the swim can really be compromised. My crew only let on to a good picnic and a peaceful day out on the water!
15) Did you find the water cold and were you at all put off by the marine life e.g. Jelly fish?
The one fear I had about this swim was that I would suffer hypothermia and be pulled out of the water. I was sure I could get through the distance, but the no one can control the cold. Thats’ why I was so happy to gain the 40 pounds! But during the actual swim, I never felt shivering cold. The water simply felt cool. I never let a thought in my mind about “cold water”.
I am and always have been a real lover of the ocean and marine life. In fact I search for it when I swim and I’m thrilled to spot any animal! In my training in San Diego, nearly every day, I saw dolphins swimming. Many of those times they were immediately in front of, beside, or behind me. It was one of the very thrilling experiences of this swim challenge. It was also one of the reasons I always felt so safe in training off the coast, so many hours, by myself. They say, if dolphins are present, the sharks don’t come near!
In The English Channel, I never saw a single fish! But definitely there were the most beautiful jellyfish. All different colors too. I only saw them appear one at a time – never a swarm and never close enough to sting. So again I was fortunate, to see the jellyfish in the most beautiful way.
16} Are you currently training for another sporting event or challenge?
Since I have returned home this fall, I have begun running training again. I had to stop running last year because it kept me from gaining the weight I needed. I would like to run a marathon or two this year and return to triathlon training. Ultimately a return to the Hawaii Ironman is deep in my heart. Oh the warm tropical air, water, and flowers….