London, An American cancer survivor has become the first person to swim across the English Channel four times non-stop.Sarah Thomas, an open water marathon swimmer from Colorado, completed the record-breaking feat at around 6.30am Tuesday morning, more than 54 hours after she set off from the British port of Dover.
After landing at Shakespeare Beach on the south coast of the UK, Thomas, 37, said she felt “a little sick,” but had been encouraged to continue by her husband and team, according to the UK’s Press Association.
She was pictured celebrating her achievement with chocolates and champagne on the beach. “I was really just pretty numb, there were a lot of people to meet me and wish me well, and that was really nice of them, but I feel just mostly stunned right now; I just can’t believe that we did it,” she said in a video clip from a forthcoming documentary posted on the BBC website.
American Sarah Thomas is on the verge of achieving the seemingly impossible: swimming the English Channel four times, non-stop.
The Denver, Colorado athlete is midway through the fourth leg of her epic swim — a feat that is itself a record — having been in the waters between England and northern France since midnight Saturday. By the time she hits the shores of Kent, England late on Monday, it’s expected that Thomas will have swum non-stop for around 50 hours.
“It’s just incredible,” says swim expert Jonathan Cowie from Outdoor Swimmer magazine. “It’s just an epic, epic swim.” (To track her progress, click here.)
More remarkable still, Thomas, 37, is a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in November 2017.
Throughout her treatment — which included chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation — she used the goal of becoming the first person to complete the 84-mile English Channel quadruple as inspiration.
“I’ve been waiting for this swim for over 2 years now and have fought so hard to get here,” Thomas posted on Facebook ahead of her swim.
Last week Sarah Thomas got up at 5am and drove the 25 miles from her home to the swimming pool in Lakewood, Colorado, as she does most mornings. There she completed her 6,000-yard workout before heading to work as a healthcare recruiter. She was untroubled by autograph hunters; no TV crews stopped her to seek an interview.
And yet Thomas is, according to Steven Munatones, founder of the World Open Water Swimming Association, “an outlier, a once-in-a-generation athlete, and a motivator who is showing others how far they can push themselves”. In August she completed what must rank as one of 2017’s greatest achievements in endurance sport, swimming further than anyone — man or woman — has swum before without the assistance of currents: a scarcely believable 104 miles, nonstop, in three days and nights in the water.
“The record wasn’t really the big incentive for me,” Thomas tells me from her home in Denver. “It was about finding and pushing my personal limits.” What could be a weary trope coming from many athletes rings true from Thomas. She swims without sponsorship — fitting her training around her full-time job. Her achievements have received little media attention; her record-breaking swim has not, to date, even been mentioned in a national newspaper.
“Sarah herself doesn’t seek out publicity,” Ken Classen, her coach and training partner, tells me. “If it wasn’t for her friends and mother-in-law she’d probably have no publicity and quite frankly I don’t think she’d care either way.”
Last year Thomas swam a record 82 miles nonstop in Lake Powell but felt she could go further — the 100-mile barrier beckoned. In choosing the current-free Lake Champlain for her swim, Thomas was attempting something no one of either gender had previously done. “A few people have swum over 100 miles before,” explains Evan Morrison, co-founder of the Marathon Swimming Federation, that adjudicated Thomas’ swim, but only with the assistance of strong, predictable currents.
These include a 139.8-mile effort by the late Croatian swimmer, Veljko Rogosic, in the Adriatic. “His swim was very impressive, but it belongs in a separate category,” explains Morrison. According to his records, only three athletes active today have finished “current-neutral” swims of 63 miles or more — all three of them women.
Beat Knechtle, a Swiss doctor and endurance athlete who has studied female performance in open-water swimming, offers two possible explanations for this dominance. “Women have an advantage due to their higher body fat, which provides insulation against the cold and better buoyancy.” As wetsuits may not be worn for official open-water swims, this could be an important advantage. Then there is the mental side. “In open-water swimming women have learnt that they are able to beat men and therefore expect to compete at a higher level,” says Knechtle.
Thomas agrees. “Women have a long history of swimming: it’s been socially acceptable for us to be athletes in the pool and open water for much longer than in other sports. I think having that strong foundation has really helped women to compete and train at a high level.”
Sarah Thomas was born to swim. She picked up the sport at age seven and has been swimming pretty much ever since. This past July, she broke her own world record, swimming 104 miles in Lake Champlain, from Rouses Point, New York, to Vermont and back again. Her solo swim was unassisted, non-wetsuit, and current neutral. The water was also full of lampreys. I wasn’t sure what a lamprey was, so I looked them up. Yeah, they are the stuff of nightmares. I recently wrote about my fears of swimming in open water without a wetsuit because of the perils of lake or ocean creatures; Sarah clearly does not have those same concerns.
As I was swimming laps this morning, I was mentally tracking how long I would have to be in the pool to cover 104 miles. The answer? A really long time. It took Sarah 67 hours, 16 minutes, and 12 seconds. Five hours faster than she expected. Three nights, two sunrises. Not only was this a phenomenal physical feat, it was also a mental one. While Sarah has a crew on her long, nay, mammoth swim challenges, she is swimming alone. The mental resilience needed to conquer the mind games that occur is mighty.
Her epic 104 mile swim sits on the shoulders of the many other awe-inspiring open water marathon swim challenges she has completed over her thirty-five years. After her first marathon open water swim in Horsetooth Reservoir (a 10K), her swimming world expanded. She met some Catalina Channel swimmers and decided she would give that race a try in 2010. Catalina is an island off the coast of Los Angeles and the channel from the island to the mainland is about 21 miles. Although she finished the swim, she reflected on what a tough experience it was for her. The swim began around midnight, and she hadn’t done a good job of prepping, and then executing, her nutrition plan leading to her ‘crashing’ in the last four hours. There was a significant cross wind and she just couldn’t find her rhythm. Sarah finished the race in just over nine hours, which is still a pretty fast pace. She described to me the aftermath with a chuckle. It included an inability to lift her arms over her head for a week, a swollen tongue from all the salt water, and chafing in places she didn’t even know you could chafe. And so she decreed: “This is it, I’m done.” Famous last words.
For any non-endurance athletes reading this, what usually happens is we routinely declare that we are one and done on these mammoth athletic exploits. And then the amnesia sets in. Sometimes it takes a few days, or perhaps a couple of weeks. But before long, the narrative changes and the race that was so horrific morphs into something not so bad. This softening of our feelings towards an endurance event inevitably leads us to sign up for another one. And that is what Sarah did. She signed up to swim across the English Channel.
In preparation for her English Channel swim, Sarah completed a 28.5 mile swim around Manhattan Island (2nd woman/5th overall) and the Tampa Bay Marathon swim (she won this race, although swimmers were pulled early because of a storm). Then, on a clear, sunny day in 2012, Sarah swam from England to France in just over 11 hours. “I swam with joy the entire way,” she said. When she got to the shore in France, the clientele from a local restaurant had come to the beach to cheer her on. The restaurateur handed her a glass of champagne as she walked from the water. It was a “magical moment” she reminisces. On finishing the English Channel swim, Sarah was now a proud member of the Triple Crown club — swimmers who’ve successfully completed the English Channel, Catalina Channel, and Manhattan Island swims.
Sarah’s other open water accomplishments include swimming the length of Loch Ness in Scotland (no monster sightings, I am afraid), an out and back across Lake Tahoe (she was the first swimmer and woman to do this) and swimming across Lake Memphremagog in Newport, VT. Originally, this was a 25 mile race but the race director called her to see if she wanted to do 50 miles–an out and back. “I’m never one to back down from a challenge” she declared confidently. This was her first 50 mile swim, and a tough one mentally: “I had to really dig deep.” And, her resilience paid off; she was the first ever swimmer to complete the 50 mile swim. Sarah has accrued an impressive litany of firsts. And her next challenge, because yes, you can top a 104 mile world record breaking swim, could be another. In September 2019, she will attempt to swim the English Channel crossing four times—England-France-England-France-England. Swimmers have tried, but no one yet has been triumphant.
Sarah Thomas is a formidable force in open water marathon swimming and one of the top competitors in the country from right here in land-locked Colorado. One of the insights she shared, and one that has stuck with me since we met, is that in every race, experience, or adventure, there is always something to learn. So often we close our minds, and doom ourselves to repeat the same missteps over and over. We have to allow for those moments to teach us. Humility is how we become better at what we do.
If you’d like to learn more, you can follow Sarah’s swimming adventures and progress on her official Facebook page.