Grace, tell us what inspired you to swim across the English Channel over to France?
I was in-charge of swimming at Wellington College when a teacher from a school in New Zealand asked whether we would like to get a team of students together to do a race across the English Channel. Soon I had a team of committed students together, who spent most weekends training in Dover Harbour with other swimmers who hoped to get across the English Channel that summer. Over the weeks, I became increasingly inspired by the swimmers attempting the solo swim, and decided that in the summer I would also try to complete the solo swim myself.
What fears did you have before and during the swim and how did you overcome them?
Before the swim, I was scared of failing, which to me meant not been able to complete the swim. But the moment I was in the water, and for the 16 hours after, I was really relaxed and happy. The only explanation I have for this is that life at that moment was really simple, there was only one thing to think about, which was swimming!!
'The salt water also makes you tongue swell and the waves made me sick. During the swim, it was a challenge to see the cliffs and beaches in France '
When did it take place and how many hours did it take you?
The stretch of water is 25 miles, however, the tides increase the distance of the swim. The swim took 16 hours in total.
How long did it take you to train and feel confident you where fit enough to do this amazing challenge?
As the rules state that you are not allowed to swim in a wetsuit, the main challenge for me was increasing my tolerance to the cold water (and the feeling of never being able to get even slightly warm!). I have always enjoyed swimming and particularly enjoy endurance events. The 6 hour non-stop training sessions in Dover Harbour were really important for me in increasing my tolerance to the cold water.
What was a typical day fro you in training? did you have any coaching or training?
It was important to complete long swims, so the majority of my training happened at the weekends. I was coached by a team of very committed volunteers who run CS&PF (channel swimming and piloting federation). The coaching was very good and they kept it simple: they would tell me how long to swim for and provide a piece of chocolate every hour on the beach to help keep me warm.
Did you have to follow a special diet, add on or eliminate certain foods?
No I didn’t (see importance of chocolate above!)
Can you tell us what did you learn from your experience?
Don’t let yourself be limited by other people’s opinions of your ability.
What challenges did you find throughout the training journey and the swim on the day?
I definitely experienced more challenges during the training than on the day of the swim. During the training I found it difficult to acclimatise to the cold, and on some days just wanted to quit and get out of the water. The salt water also makes you tongue swell and the waves made me sick. During the swim, it was a challenge to see the cliffs and beaches in France and have no idea how many more hours of swimming you had ahead of you. This was made worse by the tides that sweep you of your course.
When you were swimming was there someone looking out for you for safety?
Matt was my boyfriend at the time (he is now my husband), and he was the only person on the boat with the pilot. He would provide some energy drink every hour, and this had to be done by a cup that was lowered down towards the water (this is because if anyone touches the swimmer during the crossing they will be disqualified and the swim will stop). He provided a constant source of support, and although I had no idea what the messages said that he wrote on a whiteboard(!), his quiet believe in me was enough to get me across.
Where there many of you on that day swimming across?
During the swim you are alone in the water and I did not see any other swimmers (only tankers that can be a mile long)!
How did you feel when you finally reached France?
It was the middle of the night, and to complete the swim you have to climb up the rocks so that you are completely out of the water. It was a surreal feeling.
You must have felt emotional and exhausted with a great sense of achievement at the end of the race, what was the first thing you did and did it take you long to recover?
The first thing I did when back on the boat was hung Matt and get wrapped up in a duvet, the boat then took us back to Dover…in 2 hours!
Do you think this experience changed your outlook on life?
I always thought that you would need a certain amount of aggression and drive to make the swim, instead a found acceptance brought a great source of peace and happiness.
What advice would you give to any woman thinking of doing a similar challenge?
Try it, even if you think you won’t be able to do it, just try it! And find someone you trust to offer advice along the way.
Would you do it again?
I would definitely love to attempt other long-distance swims!