The Channel Swimmer

‘The Channel Swimmer’ is a title awarded to few people in this world and is earned only after spending hour after hour in pools and the sea, swimming kilometre after kilometre.

Maeve Carey, an IT technician from Ireland is one of these people. On the 30th of July 2016 when she embarked on a journey from a small beach in Folkestone near Dover to swim from there and arrive roughly 14 hours later at Cap Gris Nez, a beach in France.

“That January I had just wanted to set a goal, set a target, it was just a typical New Year’s resolution.

“People had been prodding me in the club to go for it. People used to see me swimming down in Waterford in togs and said that I should just go for it.”

Unlike the usual New Year’s resolutions we see plastered around social media, Maeve took an ‘all in’ approach which meant she had to jump in at the deep end and starting her training regime straight away. Time was already against her.

“People usually start training at least a year in advance.”

Maeve’s decision was a last minute one. She wanted a real challenge and had being a swimmer her whole life and now finally had the time and experience to devote to this huge undertaking. Maeve had gained a lot of necessary experience from her time with the Wexford Masters swimming club, which sees at least one relay team attempt the Channel swim each year.

The last team from the club that tried to cross the Channel had to pull out due to rough conditions, Maeve said. This is not unusual, like most outdoor endurance events, be it an accent of Mt. Everest or an ultra marathon across the Sahara desert, a change in the weather can literally mean life or death.

Despite the club sending a team over every year, this was to be her first crossing, which she chose to do without a team. “If I do something, it’s full on,” Maeve said. “I wanted to do it under my own control, I sign up on my own and it’s my name there.”

Her mind-set is not dissimilar to many great athletes, a dogged single minded determination to see through obstacles. Her approach to the subject was calculated and optimistic, as the coming year was going to be tough, with a chance she might not even be able to swim if weather conditions did not permit.

“There was one girl that got pulled half way through because the weather just turned, it started kicking up and she wasn’t going to complete it.”

Maeve’s training began very quickly after her decision to sign up for the ‘Everest’ of swims. She contacted Colm Breathnach who had also completed the challenge in 2013 and he became her unofficial coach. He started giving advice and setting her training sessions which she had to stick to. They set up a spreadsheet online to keep track of her progress. Colm checked in on her every now and again.

Maeve started out doing six kilometres a week, then ten kilometres, which quickly became thirty kilometres each week, which she maintained right up until the day of the swim. Maeve’s qualifiers for the event saw her spend six hours of continuous swimming in the sea, looked on by an independent observer and also her friend, Heike Coners, who paced the beach for six hours keeping an eye on her and also verify her qualification.

In that time Maeve swam a 1.25 kilometre length of Curracloe beach eleven times; this was akin to a warm up for the main event. Before the qualifier Maeve had already completed ten hours of swimming in the sea on Colm’s advice.

“Six hours is a doddle you still have glucose reserves and all, ten hours gives you a real indication of what it’s going to be like,” Meave said matter-of-factly.

All of Maeve’s training culminated with another savage ‘training session’: an eighteen kilometre swim in UCD’s 50-meter pool in one session. This had become a weekly trip to Dublin for Maeve where she would spend six hours training every Saturday.

Meave’s swim path over 15 hours.

The Crossing

Anyone attempting the crossing is given a set number of days to make the crossing attempt. This is to allow for any delays and to for the best possible chance at clear weather.

Maeve had hoped for a twelve hour crossing time, but it was not to be. Her swim week was in mid-July where Meave waited in the small town of Folkestone for her big day to come.

“Every day I spent a lot of time on wing guru [weather app]. That was the hardest part, an exercise of pure patience. All I could think about was the swim.”

During her agonising waiting period, an American swimmer who was scheduled to get out before her had to postpone because the weather had turned and she had to wait again. An unnerving realisation began to dawn on Meave that this attempt window was starting to pass and all of her work would have been for nothing.

On the last day possible for her to attempt the crossing she got the call to go. As part of the attempt, Maeve was only allowed to wear a standard swim suit, one swim cap, a pair of goggles and couldn’t touch the boat that would follow her swim. Even so much as holding onto the boat to steady yourself while eating is not allowed. On the boat was the attempt observer, Cathy Bates, who had the authority to pull Meave from the water and disqualify her swim if weather conditions became too dangerous or any rules were broken.

Maeve’s training had made the crossing a smooth experience for the most part. She had a flawless swim for the first seven hours, eating oats mixed with water and some chocolate protein powder every forty-five minutes.

It started to become really difficult when she was ten hours in. The coast was in sight but the current was so strong she felt like she wasn’t moving at all. It was dark at this stage and keeping her head down while swimming was now becoming a mental challenge.

“I could see the French coast ten hours in but I didn’t zone in on it until the last two hours. But the current was taking me and I was putting a lot of effort in but not getting anywhere.”

The relief came after nearly 15 hours at sea, when Meave arrived on French shores. Her landing wasn’t as glorious you would like to think. It was dark and Maeve was exhausted after 14.49 hours of swimming. That amounted to forty kilometres of continuous output.

There was no welcoming party other than her only team mate Heike, who could offered a deserved congratulations and a hot cup of tea.

Maeve went on to win the National Kettlebell Championship [2016] in Limerick and hopes to return to the pool to continue her swimming.

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