The English Channel: Courage

“If you have the courage to begin, you have the courage to succeed.”

– David Viscott –


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I’m doing this, I thought as I sat on the back of the Seafarer II ready to jump into the English Channel to begin my swim.  It was just before 11 am on August 31st, 2014.

I am actually doing this!

And when Mike Oram gave me the okay to swim to shore, I jumped into the water with a final, “Here we go!”

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“Here we go!”

I swam to shore and clambered up on Shakespeare Beach to see Judy’s beaming face awaiting me.  I wanted to throw my arms around her and ask if she could believe it!  This is happening!  But I was gross and greasy in my layers of bag balm and focused on the boat and starting the swim.  I know I looked around, but I don’t remember absorbing the details of much of anything.

I was just so excited.  So nervous.  Hoping… just hoping…

I raised my hand over my head, quivering with readiness and anticipation.  There was no quiet reflection, no pause.  I was all forward motion, all readiness and its accompanying passion.  This is what I came here to do.  And I know that I can do it.  And I will.  My crew and the boat crew counted down from 5.  The boat horn blew.  I waved goodbye to Judy, and I jumped into the waters of the English Channel to begin my swim to France.

When I put my face in the water to start the swim, I entered an onslaught of nervous dark thoughts, fears, and concerns.  I was so surprised to not be my normal happy go lucky self.

Why are you doing this?  You’re never going to make it all the way, you know that.  Why are you even trying?  You totally set yourself up for failure…

Dover Harbour in the background

I was second guessing my decision to go as soon as possible.  I had absolutely jumped at the first opportunity to swim.  That’s what you do in marathon swimming – if the weather is good to go, you go.  Mike Oram had tried to fill his Sunday late morning slot on the Sea Farer II with a swimmer and I was the only one willing.  The weather was gorgeous and what wind there was currently would die down at night, leaving me with a calm, smooth sea.  However, it meant I would swim most of the day and finish in the night.  It looked like the weather would be good for days and in my mind I would have preferred to start the swim at night and swim into the day.  I was nervous about the night portion of the swim because I’m a little bit afraid of the dark sometimes.  No matter what, though, I was going to be swimming in the English Channel at night.  And I would much rather wrestle with my mind than unknown weather a few days away.  This is what all my training told me to do – swim at the first opportunity.

But in those first few hours, man, did I ever wrestle with myself about it. I was nervous about failing.  I was nervous about succeeding.  I was afraid of the unknown.

What is on the other side…?

Honestly, I was mostly nervous about my crew being on a small boat for so long.

This is what you came here to do. I reminded myself, sternly.  If you’re really ready, you don’t need the perfect opportunity, you just need an opportunity. You make your day.

I checked in with myself – I was feeling good, but it felt like I had had such a long taper.  I wondered if my shoulders would hold up.  I was quite comfortable with the water temperature, but felt an everpresent, inescapable chill in my extremities.  I worried about the cold…

You can do this, Bethany. I told myself.

As a subconscious answer to all of my doubts, I found myself singing a catchy pop song I like that often comes up on my favorite Pandora station:

If she wants to rock, she rocks.  If she wants to roll, she rolls.  She can roll with the punches as long as she feels like she’s in control.  If she wants to stay, she stays.  If she wants to go, she goes.  She don’t care how she gets there as long as she feels like she’s in control.  Na na na, na na na…

I don’t know if those are exactly the right words, but they certainly helped me along.

My choice was made on shore.

I made my mind wander outside of my nervous self and to friends and family back home.  It was the perfect time for everyone to watch me swim – a Sunday – and our 11 am start was 6 am in Vermont.  They could watch me all day!  I thought about my nephew, Malachi.  Maybe when I’m done with this, I can spend more time with him.  I thought about my church, Beth Towb, and all of the amazing people there whose support was just incredible over the past few years to get here.  My heart filled with such gratitude and awe that I had to choose not to cry.

I thought about the kids I met from the Rutland Swim Team.  I thought about all the kids in Rutland, VT that I haven’t met.  I thought about how much Rutland could use a good story to tell.  I thought about how important my success could be to my city.  I thought about how badly I wanted to build an aquatic center in Rutland… how much I wanted my life to make a difference.  I could use this experience.  I wanted to give it back to my community.  I wanted to be able to let them have some ownership in something so incredible.  Something so special.

God, Bethany!  You are swimming the English Channel!!!

Whoever would have thought… ?!

I could see the pristine and incredible white cliffs of Dover when I stopped for a feeding.  They were positively breathtaking rising out of the sea against a perfect blue sky.  It felt such a privilege to swim with such an exquisite backdrop.  The water, attesting to its ever present motion and churning, was a milky, grumpy gray.  The surface of the water followed the tones of the sun and clouds – now silver, now jade, now navy… I was captivated by how one scene – sky on sea – could always look just a little bit different every time I turned to look at it.

All I am is a body adrift in water, salt and sky so… Swim!  Until you can’t see land… Swim!

I don’t think she ever left my side.

Most of the day was pretty steady and  smooth swimming.  There was some wind and that made for some waves and chop and a bit of a good ole washing machine affect, but goodness, it wasn’t like Swim Across the Sound or Tampa Bay.  The sun would pop out from behind large fluffy clouds and warm me.  I would look up at the boat and drink in the sight of my crew.  Miss Catherine always looked so stunning.  I captured a moment in my mind where Apostle Jim was standing on the seat at the back of the boat, a silhouette against a mid-afternoon sun.  I always looked for Natalie’s smile.  I searched for David and the reassurance that he always gives me when I am swimming.  I knew, come dark, I wouldn’t be able to see them at all.


Creepy Penguin Bell: not the worst crew in the world.

I was in a bit of a mental battle during those daylight hours, just with so many thoughts and feelings and concerns and worries and voices from the past…

I need peace of mind, I thought to myself, recalling Apostle Jim’s words about the subject.  Identify truth.  Hold onto truth.  Execute purpose.  The truth is I can do this.  I just have to hold onto that and I will get across this body of water. Every time you have a doubt, you just have to fight it with the truth.

Water. Salt. Wind. Sky. Sun.

When we stopped for a feed at some point, Catherine told me that this was my BYY (our ladies group) mile.  I tried to think back for a moment to see if I could remember what mile that actually was, but I decided not to torture myself with that.  I didn’t want to know when I got anywhere.  I kind of knew in the back of my head where I probably was, and I would probably make a decent time for the first half of the swim and be only a few miles from France forever.  I knew that.  I didn’t know just how much going a bit earlier than my scheduled neap tide would effect that as far as the tidal push, but I just decided I was in for a long haul and that was okay.

But when she said that it was my BYY mile, I was comforted thinking about all of the amazing women I know back home.  Dana, Connie, Angela, Emily, Tara… the list went on and on.  I thought about all the fun things we have done together – the retreats in Florida, in Stowe, the 5k.  I thought about all the Florida friends I have.  The words of the drama we performed drifted through my mind like a salve.

We faced the bitter winter winds…  To whip your face and chap your hands… Marks of mettle for so hard you worked to keep warm, to keep life, to stay from slumber when the gray skies swallowed and the clouds raced… Even then, you were, for I dreamt of you…   I dreamt of you in your season.  In your season, you are all that I dream.

Swimming is such a song… a surreal romance of the vulnerability of human strength.

The words, like a song, stayed playing in my head.  Here I was.  In my season… I was so inspired.  And then I felt kind of funny that I was so inspired by something I wrote.  But it turned out that I quoted myself to me a lot.

I can do this.  I am strong.  I am safe.  Hold onto truth. From time to time a movie of the past four years went playing through my mind with snapshots of people I love, swimmers who have taught me, training swims I’ve done, events, swim buddies, laughter, tears, words spoken, things I promised or learned or earned…  Each one carried me on into the next mile.

Feed Stop!

At one point we stopped for a feeding and Apostle shouted down to me, “Hey! Do you know what’s in France?”

Stumped, I replied.  “Rocks?”

“Your husband.”

I laughed.  Right in the middle of that English Channel.  “Yes!  I am getting married after this!”

I swam on.  All I had to do was get across and finish this well.  Then I could move on to other things.  Good things.  Other phases of life.  I could see movies with friends again.  I could do fun stuff.  I could start Masters classes.  Volunteer.  I could spend more time with family.  Start one of my own…

If you’ve done all of this in thirty years… just imagine what’s next!

Somewhere in the middle I began to see jellyfish from time to time. Every time I did, as if on cue – although it was entirely accidental on her part – Natalie would hold a sign over the side of the boat with an encouraging message written on it. I was so excited about the boat signs, I kept from worrying about the jellies too much.  I was stung once and that was that.

Boat Signs from Natalie!

As the sun began to set, I found myself pleasantly comfortable with the idea, even excited.  It was the moment I’d been waiting for.  I had to be closer than halfway, now.  I had to.  I could count how many hours I was into my swim by how many times they gave me Advil.  At 8 hours, knowing how able I was to manage the water temperature and how able I was to keep my stroke rate high, I felt myself more and more certain that I was going to make it.

No more doubts.  No more fears.  No more worries.  I was going to make it.  I just had to go through the night.

Here it comes, I thought.  Here comes the hard part.

10 thoughts on “The English Channel: Courage

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