Reflections on The Four Way

One year ago, from Sept 15th– 17th (the 14th-16th if you were in the US!), I swam the English Channel four times, without stopping. It seems so crazy to say that out loud. Sometimes, I hardly even believe it happened.

Goggle change from dark daytime to a clear nighttime pair.

I’ve stopped and started a post at least half a dozen times over the last few days, but the right words always seem to escape me. Yesterday, especially, I’ve been moved to tears re-reading all of the Facebook memories being shared during the 54 hours I spent swimming the English Channel. In some ways, that swim feels like yesterday. In other ways, it feels like an entire lifetime ago. If I’m being honest, I’m not sure I’ve even really processed the whole thing just yet. However, I don’t feel like I can let the one year anniversary pass without saying something.

When I booked this swim, in the spring of 2017, right after Lake Powell and before Champlain and Cancer, this English Channel swim was supposed to be a celebration swim. I viewed it as an exclamation point on my swim career. The epilogue to the book I hope to write someday. However, as we all know, life threw me a curveball. In-between booking this swim and actually getting the chance to start it, I was diagnosed, at age 35, with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Suddenly, Cancer was the beginning of my story and this English Channel swim wasn’t going to be as “easy” as I’d thought.

Chemo time. Spring 2018.

For non-Channel swimmers, the way this whole thing works:

  • You decide you want to swim The Channel.
  • You email boat captains.
  • The captains give you some options about dates/times/tides/slots and you pick the situation that works best for you. You pay a small deposit to the boat captain and submit the info to either the CSA or the CS&PF. (Those are the two ratifying organizations- each boat pilot is affiliated with one of those two groups.)
  • The time between when you email a boat captain and when you swim is typically 1.5-2.5 years apart.
  • A year out, you pay half of your deposit to the boat people.
  • You plan your 6 hour qualifying swim, get your medicals done, and complete all the paperwork. You book travel and housing. You train a lot.
  • THEN, you arrive in Dover and wait your turn to swim, all dependent on what slot you have and what the weather is doing. Some people “fondly” call this the “Dovercoaster.” It plays with your emotions. One day the weather will be great and all the boats go out, only for terrible weather conditions to arrive the next and then everyone sits and waits for another good window. It can be maddening. It takes a bit of luck to even be allowed to start your swim. And to add to the fun, you don’t even really know what day/time you will swim. Your boat captain sees a window that matches weather and tides, and he/she tells you that you swim. You don’t second guess that. If you don’t like it, you can say you’ll pass and they’ll go on to the next person (but you’re an idiot if you pass on an opportunity to swim).

When I booked my swim, I emailed only one boat pilot: Eddie Spelling. He’d taken me across the Channel in 2012 and I love him. I’ve done a lot of swims and one thing that is somewhat rare is to find a boat pilot who actually CARES if you make it or not. Yes, it’s a business for most of them, and I get that, but finding someone who seems to genuinely have your well-being and success at the top of their mind is invaluable. You want a boat person who is as committed to your success as you are. I actually think most of the English Channel boat captains fit this description, but I already KNEW that Eddie met this qualification. Also, he’s highly experienced, has a great crew, did a fabulous job for me in 2012, and he has one of the larger boats- more room for the team I’d need for 2+ days at sea. For me, it was a no brainer to go with Eddie again and I didn’t even ask anyone else.

Me and Anastasia, 2012.

Eddie and I are Facebook friends, so he’s been following my journey since 2012. He sent congratulations when I finished Lake Powell and Lake Champlain. When I asked him about a Four Way, he was immediately responsive that he was excited to take me and believed I could do it. He followed my cancer journey.

So, when I got the email from him in October 2018, just barely a month after finishing all of my cancer treatment, he was gentle. “I hate to ask you this, but are you still coming?” It was a gut punch, a moment of reality. I’d been talking about doing this swim to my doctors and friends for close to a year, during all of my treatments. More than one treatment/plan of care decision was based off this upcoming swim. Still. I had to pause. Do I still have it in me?

“Yes, I’m coming.” I said.

The actual email exchange with me and Eddie. “I’m coming.”

I had to work really, really freaking hard to get ready. My body was broken down to nearly nothing in October 2018. I was overweight- bloated from steroids from chemo. Soft from lack of exercise. I was weak from my mastectomy and reconstruction. I’d had a temporary implant (an expander) placed under my right pec muscle. It was rock hard and uncomfortable, but the surgery to replace it for a permanent implant that is softer and more workable would have meant being out of the water for 4-6 weeks and starting the rebuilding process over. So I opted to leave it until after the swim. My stamina was gone.  My pace in the pool was way off. Because of the expander, my shoulder mobility was limited. Swimming was painful. I was depressed.

I had a million excuses- really great, real excuses- to either cancel or postpone this swim. Everyone would have understood. It might have been more practical, reasonable, responsible to do so. But, I’d waited long enough; I had a year to train. I was all in.

The first task on the training agenda was to complete the Cook Strait, the waters between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. This was also a swim I’d booked prior to Cancer and didn’t want to cancel. Starting in October, my focus was on New Zealand, which was scheduled for March. My first baby step toward recovery.

My Cook Straight Training Plan. Starting from scratch.

The Cook Strait is a relatively short swim at 23km/14 miles and I anticipated a 9-10 hour swim. A perfect first swim back to shake the cobwebs out, see if I’d lost some of my cold water tolerance, and maybe see some dolphins along the way.

When we arrived in Wellington, the weather forecast was not great. Philip Rush wasn’t entirely optimistic we’d get a window to swim. But, with just a day or so left in the tide, we saw a brief break. The water was right around 60F/15C (colder in spots). The wind was ferocious. I swallowed a lot of water early on, which I paid for later. Despite a mesmerizing and beautiful pod of dolphins who came to swim for a while, I was fairly miserable the entire swim, asking myself “If this is so hard, do I have what it takes to swim the Channel four times in 6 months?” It was the closest I’ve come to quitting a swim in a while, but knowing it was crucial to the EC, I persevered. A younger version of myself might have quit, but all my experience combined to give me enough oomph to push through. Still, while I try not to count time, I couldn’t miss the sun starting to set. I remember thinking, “Well that’s 12 hours gone- I bet Phil will pull me any minute now.” But, he let me swim. We busted out the glow sticks and head lights we didn’t think we’d need. And I pushed on through some tough currents, swimming in place for close to an hour before they shifted direction and took me to shore. Until Philip yelled “500 meters to go!” I never believed I’d finish that swim. After 14 hours of swimming, I touched a rock in the dark of night to finish the swim. As Ryan and Phil hauled me back into the rib support boat, I was laughing, a little hysterically. “Well, that’s not what we expected to happen today, was it?”

Phil Rush and Ryan in a rough Cook Strait.

In retrospect, I think I needed that swim. It was hard. It was tough. I had to decide if I was mentally ready for the pain and suffering of training that was to come.

I went home, ready. Hungry for the work to come.  Last summer’s training was some of the hardest I’ve done. I matched my Champlain training plan and hit all my distance targets, but it was hard. I was lacking speed. My right arm ached every time I swam more than 4 hours. PT and massage didn’t seem to really help.

A month before the English Channel swim, I decided to attempt a 32 mile/51km double crossing of Colorado’s largest lake, Blue Mesa Reservoir. I told myself I wanted to hold 2 miles/hr (3.2 km/hr) for the entire swim. I wanted to push my stupid right arm to the max and to see what would happen. We set off at 4:30 in the morning and almost 15 hours and 36 minutes later, I finished, right were we’d started. Two miles an hour for 32 miles. Done. My arm hurt. I had to dig super deep to push through that pain, to ignore it and power through. And, miraculously, the next day, the arm wasn’t more sore/tired than my left. Mission accomplished. I was ready.

Blue Mesa Reservoir. August 2019.

When we arrived in England, the weather forecast wasn’t fabulous. We met with Eddie on a Wednesday and he said we should consider extending our stay. Then, just hours later, the forecast changed and he messaged to say we had a big enough window to try.

People ask me all the time: Did you believe all along you could make this swim?

My answer: I wouldn’t have started if I didn’t believe it was possible.

In a swim like this, the weather is the determining factor. Eddie said the weather was good. I knew I’d trained. Done. We were going to do this.

And we did. A huge, massive team effort to make it happen. I had five team members of my own: Elaine, Karl, Craig and my husband (Ryan) and mom (Becky). They’ve all crewed long swims for me before. Elaine, Karl and Craig are amazing marathon/ice swimmers in their own right- they’ve all three completed the Triple Crown and done Ice Miles, plus some extras. They were true heros- pace swimming with as much as was allowed during the long nights.

My boat crew- Eddie and his sons Mike and Rob- were amazing. I can’t imagine how tedious it is to watch someone swim for over 2 days, but their enthusiasm never wavered. Suzanne Martin and Kevin Murphy were my official observers from the CS&PF and they fit right in with the crew, making it all happen, too.

Ten people, all there to help one person achieve a goal. It’s really mind blowing that people like them exist in this world, solely to help others.

The team.

I know it sounds crazy, but even after swimming for 54 hours, it doesn’t seem like it took all that long. All my swims seem to go by in a flash, from my first 10k to my 105 mile swim in Champlain. Two hours or 72; it’s all the same in my head. And it’s interesting how I only seem to remember the highlights. Flashes of images in time, all smooshed together, to make up my swim memories.

Samphire Hoe. Go Time.

Some highlights: Lap 1, where I told my mom I had spaghetti in my teeth after I threw up dinner. Nailing a jelly fish in the face at the start of lap 2. Watching an amazing sunset mid-lap 2, right before everything went to crap. The voices of my crew, encouraging me, telling me I was ok as I threw up repeatedly for about 6 hours at the start of Lap 3. Warm oatmeal on turn three, as my body start shaking from exhaustion. The rush of adrenaline and sense of victory starting Lap 4. I remember confusion, not knowing where we were headed into shore for the finish. Frustration as to how long lap 4 was taking. Water rushing up my nose and down my throat for the last half-hour as I fought the current; too tired to breathe properly. And the overwhelming emotions of being greeted by people on shore, cheering, as I crawled out and sprawled on my back from exhaustion. The beauty of M&Ms and their life-saving properties.

Lap 2. Sunset.

I have images of my crew smashed into my brain, all on top of themselves, too. Elaine’s cheerful voice at the turns, mashed on top of watching her getting ready for yet another pace swim and realizing she was tired and cold, too. I remember Karl telling me it was ok during yet another puke fest and a silent “kick your feet and pick up the pace” hand signal leading into turn 3. Craig in fins, handing me new goggles, then a minute later (i.e. during the next night) telling me we had to sprint. My mom cheering herself to death, even though I couldn’t hear a word, while wrapped in my UCONN parka, probably freezing to death. Ryan, telling me to “Drink this and don’t throw it up” and never going far from my sight. My rock. Occasional glimpses of Eddie, Mike and Rob- the magicians making it all happen, wondering if they were tired of watching me swim yet. Kevin and Suzanne lingering in the background, watching it all unfold.

Snippets that make up 54 hours. There’s a lot of blank space there. Time I can’t account for in my memory.

For some reason, this swim brings up really mixed emotions for me. I can celebrate the accomplishment, but it also holds a certain weight that none of my previous swims have held. I don’t entirely know why that is. It’s happy, but for some reason, a little sad, too.

I think some of the reason for that is that this swim was never just about swimming. All my other swims have been simply swimming. They were a new goal. A new place to enjoy beautiful water. A new temperature challenge. A new distance to push past. A first. But, fundamentally, it was all about swimming, and just for me. A photo to put into a memory book. A t-shirt to wear around the house. A story to tell to disbelieving nurses when I’m old in the nursing home.

This English Channel swim wasn’t my longest by distance or time. It wasn’t my coldest. I’d already done the Channel once, so I knew I could swim in this water. So, it wasn’t about time or distance or cold or being somewhere new. It was supposed to be my victory lap until I got diagnosed with cancer. And suddenly, I felt like I was starting over. No longer was this swim just about swimming. It was about being a survivor and overcoming something that literally tried to kill me. I wasn’t swimming just for me anymore. I did it for others who had been through what I was going through, and for those who would go through it in the future. I got lucky with my cancer journey. I know that. Through my swimming, I really wanted to show others that there is hope, even when you don’t feel it at first.

©2019 Tom Nicholson. 17/09/2019. Dover, UK. Long distance swimmer Sarah Thomas arrives at St Margaret’s Beach near Dover, Kent, after swimming across the English Channel four times. Sarah Thomas set off from Dover on Saturday evening. Photo credit : Tom Nicholson / The Times

And so this swim became more, so much, much more than Just Swimming. It was proving to myself that I was whole. It was a kick in the pants to cancer and every person who didn’t believe in me or told me it was impossible. For the first time, I had something to prove to the world- not just to myself.

But also, this swim wasn’t just mine. I shared it with thousands of people who cheered and followed along. I shared it with my family. My friends. My doctors. Strangers and people I love, all mixed into one. I think I gave a piece of this swim to everyone who followed it and sent me warm well-wishes.

I can’t hoard this swim the same way I hoard my Lake Powell and Lake Champlain swims. Hundreds of swimmers have come to England, sat in Dover, and waited to try their hand at these waters. I may have spent 54 hours straight in the water, mostly on my own, but nonetheless, it was a shared, collective experience. So this swim is less mine, and more ours. I did it, but it wasn’t about me and what I could do. It was about what WE can do, as humans, to overcome odds, adversity, and pain… together.

We got this: Together

I’m not entirely good at processing the swims I’ve done. I train hard, do the swim, and then move on to the next one. I have this deep need to always be swimming, always pushing at a goal of some kind, but this whole COVID thing has been a little crazy, so I’ve had a little extra time to dwell on this really big thing I did. After the swim, I sorta thought/hoped my life might change in big ways, but in reality nothing has really changed at all. Same job, same dogs, same husband, same house, same friends, same routine. Some of those I’m glad are the same (hey Ryan!), but others I might have wished were moving forward a little more. More speaking. More coaching. Clinics. Long swim plans. It’s like the whole past year has been a great big pause in life. Trying to move forward, trying to feel normal, trying to beat anxiety, trying to set goals- when all along we’re just waiting. It feels like the world is waiting. Yeah sure, I snuck in a Tahoe swim. I’ve got an Anacapa swim coming up. But, it all feels like a placeholder. Waiting. We’re all still waiting.

So, I suppose now is just as good of a time to try and process that English Channel swim as any. Giving it space and time to really settle in a way you can’t do in the days and weeks following is important. I’ll probably still be thinking about this swim for years to come, gaining some new type of insight. Did I actually do that? Was it a dream? What did I learn? What can I share with others, in a more meaningful way?

There is magic in the English Channel. I always tell people: If you have the ability to swim The Channel, you should do it. It’s a special stretch of water. It will test you in ways you didn’t know could be possible. And when you cross her, you’ll become part of my history and the history of all the swimmers who have gone before and who will go in the future. It’s a special place to be, a special history to share.

My final track.

14 thoughts on “Reflections on The Four Way”

  1. What an amazing write up of your swim. I can’t obviously relate to the incredible feat that you accomplished in those couple of awe-inspiring days Sarah, but I can certainly relate to some aspects of what you wrote. You inspired me on me on my swim more than I can ever say & you continue to inspire. The whole swimming community is so proud of what you achieved. Happy 4-Way Channelversary Xx Jody

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Congrats again and again and again!!!
    Have you ever heard from Diana Nyad or Lynne Cox? I have enjoyed reading their books and I’m hoping to read yours someday!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That was an amazing read and I appreciate you sharing it with us all. In a world where daily news is so terrible…your human spirit story got me good. In a really good way. Thank you. And as beyond amazing and iconic finishing that swim was..i enjoyed hearing what it took to just get in the water almost as much.
    I actually have a big swim (for me) tomorrow and could not have read a more inspiring or timely post…thank you, I will take much of what you shared about what is possible with me. This blog is very inspiring, just like your swim accomplishments

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Waiting for my tide for the EC I was relucrant to click on this incase you fessed up some new horrors to add to the usual list. On my list of motivational statements my crew are writting on our whiteboard when it gets hard is “Sarah T did this 4 times, you can do 1”. Hats off to you. Superstar.x

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I teared up when you landed the last time after this accomplishment, and I just teared up again reading your memories and journey. Thank you for being so strong, determined, and humble.

    PS… it was fun seeing you on that game show earlier this year too!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. That is one of the best blogs I have ever read. What a life journey and what an outstanding achievement. Many congratulations, again, to you and your wonderful team . Your story is awesome. Someone should make a movie!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. i felt like i was with you again ‘watching’ your swim on tracker for 54 hours…it was exhilarating , frustrating, emotional from tears to screaming with joy……..all the way with you …from sitting on the rock for 10 minutes to your final crawl to shore 54 hours later…..i am so enthralled with your story , your strength , your mental fortitude and your true grit…….Eddie had you in the palm of his hands the whole way…..such blessings for him and your whole crew ….each one there for very special reasons….i can not wait for your book…loved reliving your anniversary…..even though it was abbreviated in time,
    it still evoked a lot of emotion for me!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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