Crossing the Channel at 21

05/10/2016

This year, I managed to fulfil my lifelong dream!

If someone had asked me six weeks ago whether I would manage it this year, I probably would have said no. That’s because I had come down with a heavy cold and anyone engaging in competitive sports knows that it’s no mean feat to deal with the exertions of daily training with a cold.

At that point, I was feeling pretty low. Once again, I had trained all year. And once again, I felt that my goal was out of reach because of health issues. I had sworn to myself never to attempt it again if I wasn’t 100% fit. Because I knew – thanks to my attempt the previous year – what it meant to push myself far too hard and I never wanted to find myself in that situation again. At that point, I was no longer in a position to be able to make a decision and my father had to be the one to decide to get me out of the water. I couldn’t even get back on board the boat and had to be dragged out of the water by my skipper and the crew. This happened about 5 kilometres off the French coast and by that point I had been in the water for 11 hours and 35 minutes. The three-hour return trip was the worst three hours of my life. I could barely breathe and had no idea what was happening to me. When we arrived in the port, my father and my trainer drove me straight to hospital, where they found out that my lung function was just over 35% and that I had water on the lungs. It was only then that I realised how serious the situation was. I stayed in hospital for two nights before I could go home with an oxygen mask. I will never forget that day. Shortly afterwards, I had a little wave tattooed on my left wrist, which serves as a reminder of this experience and will remind me of it, and my father, all my life.

However, I still wanted to complete the challenge and since that, I was even more determined than ever that I would be able to do it. I trained every aspect to ensure that I would be ready. I trained myself to drink from a bottle without the bottle being dragged underwater, even when exhausted, tried out different drinks in order to find one that I didn’t just bring straight back up again. I trained myself to urinate in cold water. I tried lots of things to avoid breathing in the exhaust fumes from the boat. I learned a completely new breathing technique so I wouldn’t swallow any saltwater. I trained in cold water and completed countless six-hour swims. I also went out swimming at night in the port of Dover in order to get used to the darkness. I tried to optimise all these things, and many more, within a year.

My slot for this year wasn’t until mid-September because I decided to make the attempt with a different skipper than originally planned. All over the world, more and more swimmers want to realise this same dream. However, the success rate among all those swimmers is only around 20% that then actually manage it.

I was ready – everything was ready! Before the cold, I felt better than ever. My achievements in training and my times also clearly reflected this. Now, I was faced with the decision of swimming or waiting another full year for another chance. Slots can only be postponed by a year, and not by several weeks, that’s how popular it is to make the attempt. Other factors, such as the water temperature, currents and tides, also have to be taken into account.

They say that if you’re a faster swimmer and can swim it in between 10 and 15 hours, then the spring tide is the better choice because it can help you to get away from the coast more quickly. However, if you’re too slow, the undertow is so strong that you will be forced back into the Channel at the French side. Slower swimmers start out at neap tide because the water levels are generally lower then. My skipper, Eddie Spelling, calculated my swim times and compared them with the changing currents. Because high tide and low tide change every six hours, you need to have reached a certain point in the Channel before the tides change.

The decision wasn’t an easy one – I consulted my doctor, my trainer and my father countless times. I knew I could do it.

I had just under three weeks to go. I decided to take a break for a week and then to resume training again afterwards to see how I felt. The first few days after that break felt anything but good. I trained but still couldn’t get the times that I wanted. I had more blood tests done to see how the illness was progressing.

Five days before the big day, I started to feel better and my energy levels finally started improving again every day. I made my decision three days beforehand: I wanted to make the attempt and discussed everything with my crew. If they noticed that I started to get slower within the first six hours, they were to break off the attempt.

Then I had another stroke of luck: the weather in the Channel was so bad that my slot was postponed by a further five days, so I had another five days to recuperate and build up my energy levels. I continued my training and was swimming the same number of kilometres that I normally swam. Usually, just before such a feat, you should swim fewer kilometres and rest a bit more.

It was finally time and I headed to Dover with my team. We flew over exactly one day beforehand. I didn’t want to hang around for too long. Eddie gave me the go-ahead for 21 September 2016, with a starting time of 2 a.m. I tried to eat properly for the last time at 3 p.m. – pasta, as usual! At 4 p.m., I went to lie down to try to sleep for a while before having to get up again at 11 p.m. It wasn’t easy to fall asleep because I was so nervous and I had so much going through my mind. I looked at my clock for the last time at 7 p.m. and then finally fell asleep for a few hours. Of course, I woke up before my alarm clock and got ready. I ate a few slices of dry toast so I had some energy in reserve and so that my energy drinks wouldn’t upset my stomach.

We packed our stuff in the car and drove to the port, where the crew of the boat were already waiting. Every swim is monitored by an official observer. I introduced myself to him briefly and I asked him a few questions. He went over the rules with me one more time, such as, for example, that I was not allowed to touch the boat at any time, or that I was only allowed to wear one swimming cap. I then took my seat on the boat with Adam. Since then, Adam has accompanied me on swims such as these. He himself is one of six people in the world who have managed to complete the Seven Oceans challenge. He told me a few things that have really helped me a lot. Shortly afterwards, I listened to my music and went through the upcoming swim in my mind.

I was ready and I felt good. I looked up at the stars in the sky and the moon – it was a beautiful moment and I took the chance to simply enjoy it. I got ready. My trainer applied the Vaseline, which helps to stop your swimming costume from chafing (which it still does anyway after about three hours). My father said a few words to me – ones that I often thought back on while swimming – and off I went!

There was no ladder on the boat, so I had to jump into the water from the railing. I jumped in and swam from the boat to the small beach, which was my starting point. So, I stood there ... in the middle of the night, alone on the beach, with the English Channel before me. It was a wonderful moment when the starting shot was fired. I ran into the water and started swimming.

I swam a long way ahead of the boat in order to avoid breathing in any fumes. My father had attached three red lights, which lit up the water so I wouldn’t lose my orientation. The first hour flew by and I had my first drink. It was all going well and I felt good. It was simply beautiful, swimming through the night. After two hours, the first container ship passed us. It was illuminated and I knew that I had reached the first shipping lane. I kept up a good pace all night and, after just under five hours in the darkness, it was great when the sun slowly came up and increased the 13 °C air temperature a little.

The sunrise was the most beautiful I had ever seen in my life. I felt amazing and enjoyed just swimming into the day. Shortly after sunrise, Adam came into the water for an hour to accompany me. In the Channel, it’s permitted for you to have a support swimmer join you in the water for an hour, once every three hours. So, Adam swam alongside me for an hour, which was my sixth hour. I was able to keep my orientation and the food and drink situation was fine. I had to tell myself every time to keep my bottle out of the water in order to avoid swallowing any saltwater. After a little while, I always enter a kind of trance and meditate a little while I swim in order to stay mentally fit.

Mental strength is a hugely significant factor when it comes to such extreme distances. The thing that helped most of all was seeing my father, who was watching me the whole time from the boat, motivating me in various ways.

I entered the separation zone, which is the zone between the two shipping lanes. I came across a few jellyfish, but thankfully they just sting a little in the Channel and aren’t actually poisonous. After about eight hours, I had a slight pain in my shoulders and the waves got a bit higher, which made it harder to progress.
I had to use a lot more energy in order to maintain the same pace.

The whole time, I was thinking about going ashore in France and kept imagining how great it would feel to have made it. It’s hard to describe the phases you go through when completing such a swim. They’re feelings that you can only know when you yourself have been pushed so close to your limits.

When I next took a drinks break, I just had to ask how it was going because, apart from the half-hourly drinks breaks, I had no other frame of reference for how long I had been swimming. Adam said that I was making good time and told me that lots of people were wishing me luck on Facebook. It was nice to hear that so many people were thinking of me and that spurred me on.

Two more hours passed and my father told me that we would be there in half an hour. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case as the current off the coast was very strong. I knew that the next few minutes would decide whether I would land at the cape, or whether I would miss it and thus have to swim a further three or four kilometres to Wissant. So I started putting my final efforts into a sprint. It was hard to increase the tempo again after ten hours. When I swam near the boat, Adam told me that I was nearly there. I just thought about arriving and just wanted to get there.

Increasing the tempo was incredibly hard but it was only by doing so that I would be able to reach the cape. I embarked upon the last half hour and Adam came into the water to accompany me to the finish. Since the big boat wasn’t able to sail to the finish, a smaller speedboat was started up and one of the crew headed over to me to accompany me to the finish. When the smaller boat was let down the side, I knew I was going to make it. I shed a few tears of exhaustion and joy inside my goggles – it was a moment that I had always dreamed of.

I finally saw rocks underneath me and Adam helped me to find a place where I would be able to step out of the water. It’s dangerous to stand up after spending such a long time horizontal. Because I could have easily fallen down with dizziness, he helped me. It was an incredible feeling when I could finally climb on the rocks.

I had made it! I could hardly believe it. And I was so unbelievably happy!

When I got back onto the big boat, I sat down outside and wrapped up warm because I had a slight chill. On the three-hour return journey, I just looked out to sea and watched the dolphins swimming merrily by our boat – it was just amazing. It made me so incredibly proud and happy that I had achieved it.

All the tough training paid off and showed me that you should never give up on your dreams – even if it doesn’t work out first time.

After a swimmer or a relay team has completed the challenge, there’s a pub in Dover where everyone can write their name and the time they swam on the wall. I was so proud to write my name there and I was also incredibly happy that I had also set a new German women’s record.

I would like to thank everyone who believed in me and sent me all their lovely messages. It made me very happy and I am so thankful that so many people supported me along the way.

Thank you for all the good wishes and congratulations! My special thanks goes to Adam: without you, I’m sure I would never have managed it so well. You gave me mental strength, which is exactly what I needed during the swim. Thank you for all the great tips that you continue to give me. I would also like to thank my trainer, Joshua, because I would never have got this far if I hadn’t trained properly and so hard every day. My special thanks also go to my physio. But, most of all, I want to thank my family for making it possible at all for me to achieve my dream. They support me in every way possible and never doubt my decisions, and have supported me right from the very start.

My father, in particular, has done a great deal for me to be able to achieve this. He is my biggest motivation!

Thank you to everyone. You are all amazing and it makes me very happy to feel so appreciated.
It’s been a wonderful year of sport for me, with lots of successes, and I am now looking forward to all the new challenges that await me.

Just keep swimming!
Next stop: Catalina Channel Los Angeles :)