That time I swam the English Channel

The first time I uttered the words “I’m going to swim the English Channel,” I believe I was a little bit tipsy and in a pub. I was a low-paid single mum and I think a lot of people thought I had pretty much blown any chances I had of living a half decent life when I got pregnant. Friends decided not to be my friends anymore and the other mums at the school gates saw me as a young mum who could only get a job stacking shelves at the local store. So when I blurted out that I was going to swim the Channel, yes, everybody laughed at me. And quite rightly so.

To everyone who knew me only as a young mum, I was not the type of person who they thought would have the discipline or the talent to deliver on something like this. Not only this, but the day I drunkenly announced to the world that I was going to attempt this mammoth undertaking was only ten months before I actually stood on the beach at Dover, ready to start my epic challenge.

Now, I did come from a swimming background, having been a competitive swimmer as a kid, but I had not done any swimming for years and the first training session I did before the event was very short and very painful. To tell you the truth, during that first session I almost thought about giving up there and then. I swam for an hour and a half, about 10% of the total distance of the channel.

Still, undeterred and determined not to let the people who had laughed at me prove their point, I plodded on and within two months of training, I was up to four and a half hours of swimming. Feeling more confident after this, I signed a contract with a boat pilot and I was officially going to do a Channel attempt.

Since having my son, Noah, in 2005, I have suffered from anxiety and I have suffered with unhealthy eating habits on and off, all the way through my early twenties. The aim of the game in Channel swimming is to gain as much weight as you can and keep it on despite the intense workouts. I remember going to my local bakery and tentatively approaching the pastries for the first time. I could feel my palms sweating and the overwhelming feeling that I was letting go of the one thing I had control over during all those years of things going wrong. But then again, as most people who have struggles with eating will probably understand, that first bite of a huge greasy Cornish pasty was heavenly. . . and then vile. It took months to get used to putting away the calories needed to reach this goal and not feeling guilty about it.

I watched countless videos on YouTube of other girls who had swum the channel and I closely observed their physiques. Gradually, I came to realize that the stick-thin models (who graced the covers of magazine) was unrealistic. The strong and inspirational women I saw in these videos were the people I wanted to emulate. And with each week the passed, I stood on the scale and was incredibly proud to see my weight creeping up.

Eventually, the early summer rolled around and it was time to get into the open water and start getting acclimatized to the cold. As I slipped into the cold water and began turning my arms, I realized that my new body could withstand the cold and my confidence bloomed. This body that once would have made me ashamed; that I considered a little bit fat and lumpy, could potentially carry me across a vast expanse of water. I began to realize that I might just be able to achieve this and do something truly amazing. After all, fewer people have swum the Channel than have climbed Mount Everest.

Finally, after endless hours of swimming and training, the day came when I was due to make my attempt. I arrived at the Marina at 2am on August 8, 2012 and climbed aboard the boat ready to be taken to Samphire Hoe–where the swim was due to start. I swam ashore in the pitch black and stood on English soil for the last time before officially calling myself a Channel swimmer.

That first moment is like very few others I have ever experienced in life. It is a moment filled with fear, anticipation, excitement, and absolute dread. Until you set foot in the water and start putting one arm in front of the other, you have no idea what to expect. Nevertheless, the hours tick by and your demons slowly start to get you. For somebody who suffers from anxiety, these demons are difficult to conquer but I was determined not to let them beat me on this particular occasion. If ever I was going to beat them, that day was the day.

So I kept my head down and battled through the elements. While I swam, I thought about my son Noah, I thought about the support of my family, and I thought about the fortitude I had shown throughout the last seven or eight years of my life. I think I realized somewhere in the French shipping lane that actually I was quite a bit stronger than I had ever given myself credit for and as my right hand brushed through French sand, and I finally became a Channel swimmer, I also finally gave myself a break. I cried as I stumbled up that beach to be greeted by a few French people who were randomly walking along that Wednesday evening. They were complete strangers and did not speak a word of English, but they understood what I had just achieved and they hugged me tightly as I cleared the water.

As those strangers embraced me, I realized I was a worthwhile human being. That no matter what old school friends and well-paid parents said, I was someone pretty great. I had achieved something pretty cool and raised a lot of cash for charity in the process. I had overcome so many issues and hopefully I’ve become a good role model to my son in the process.

The moral of my story is that it is very easy to write yourself off because of a few bad decisions, but on the flip side, it’s not that hard to do something amazing. All it takes is a bit of hard work and discipline and you can set the world alight.

Rachel Hessom is a writer from the UK who finds almost all her inspiration from what most people would describe as long and boring swims in cold and murky waters. She first swam the English Channel in 2012 and since then has become hooked on long-distance sports. If you can’t find her in a pool, lake or ocean you can probably find her running a long way through the countryside.

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