The only three things that matter in channel swimming

I truly believe that a Channel Swim – performed under traditional rules – is among the greatest athletic feats that a human can achieve.

We are terrestrial animals, adapted to surviving on land with the assistance of clothing and shelter. We are capable of great efficiency of movement – on solid ground.

A Channel Swim turns all this on its head. Without shelter… naked but for a porous, skimpy textile garment… we step offshore into an environment we are terribly adapted to, and terribly inefficient at moving through. As the ocean floor drops beneath our ability to stand, and the cold begins its creeping march from the extremities to the core – there are really only two options: Swim to the other shore… or get on the boat.

I have another belief, which might seem to contradict or undermine my first belief (that a Channel Swim is one of the greatest athletic feats a human can achieve). And that is:

Almost any able-bodied human can accomplish a Channel Swim.

You don’t need to be athletic, or coordinated, or physically strong. You don’t even need to be a particularly skilled swimmer. By which I mean: the level of swimming skill necessary for a Channel Swim can be learned by almost anybody, even as an adult.

Some of the most famous and accomplished Channel Swimmers, you would not be able to pick out from the average noodler at your local lap pool. The distinguishing characteristic of the Channel Swimmer – the ability/motivation/inclination to keep swimming (and swimming, and swimming…) – is something that cannot be observed in a thin slice of behavior.

On the basis of these two beliefs, I propose that only three things truly matter in Channel Swimming:

1. Health

Sure, OK. If you are gravely ill or injured, perhaps a Channel Swim isn’t in the cards.

2. Will

a.k.a., persistence, stubbornness, tenacity.

Don’t know how to swim? You can learn, well enough (if you want it).

Not ready for the distance? You can build up to it (if you want it).

Not ready for the cold? You can acclimate. Find some cold water. Go swim in it. Do it again, and again, and again. That’s why it’s called “acclimation” – your body will adapt (if you want it to).

3. Money


Channel Swimming is such a first world problem. Boats cost money. Sanction fees cost money. Travel costs money. The opportunity costs (training when you could have been working) cost money.

Whether the funds come from your rich uncle, from a sponsor (because you’re gifted – either athletically or self-promotionally), or out of your own pocket, there’s no way around it: Channel Swimming is a huge money drain.

If you don’t have it, or you’re too shy to solicit it, then, well — too bad. Life isn’t fair, and Channel Swimming ain’t a meritocracy. You may be a better swimmer than 90% of the English Channel soloists in a given year, but if you don’t have the money and time to get to Dover, then — too bad!

Does this undermine my belief that Channel Swimming is “one of the greatest athletic feats a human can achieve”? Maybe a little bit. Channel Swimmers may have to overcome a lot during their swimbut most of them probably don’t have much to “overcome” otherwise. When Channel Swimmers return to the harbor, most of them are going home to affluent situations.

Sometimes, when I read tales of seemingly-heroic Channel Swims in newspapers and blogs, it occurs to me that the real story is not how amazing the swim was, but rather, how fortunate the swimmer was to be able to attempt it in the first place.

I write these words as someone who has been very fortunate to have some incredible channel/marathon swimming experiences these past few years.

I am one of the lucky ones.

So you did a Channel Swim – congratulations. Any Channel Swim is, in my view, a heroic feat (for reasons described above).

But before you get too caught up in how awesome you are, remember how lucky you are – to even have the opportunity to put your toe in the water.

[This post benefited from (and was inspired by) conversations with Cathy – who, it should be emphasized, doesn’t necessarily agree with everything I wrote here.]

4 thoughts on “The only three things that matter in channel swimming”

  1. Wow! Well put. I’m a relative novice to swimming. I began swimming with a masters club about two years ago. My goal two years ago at age 50 was to swim Alcatraz. I sucessfully completeed the swim which was sponsered by the South End Rowing Club; and was hooked on open water swimming. Since then I’ve completed several open water swims, my longest 5 miles. I’m planning on swimming the first leg of the SCAR challenge this year. My ultimate goal one day is to channel swim but like you so accurately recorded the expences are overwhelming. If I get the chance to swim a channel I will remember your words, every stroke. Thanks for being so insppiring.

    1. Thank you, Chris! The South End Alcatraz swim is a great one, and congratulations on reaching your goal! I hope that you do have the chance to swim a channel someday. Good luck in your training.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post Evan.

    In addition to the money, these undertakings also require considerable time and sacrifices of other people–usually friends or loved ones, or others in the swim community.  When asking myself whether a swim is worth it or not, that can weigh more heavily on me than the monetary outlays. (But yes, that’s still very much a first-world problem).

    1. Thank you, Janet! You make a really valuable point. What is it they say? “No man/woman is an island?” That is certainly true for me, too.

      I would think almost all marathon swimmers are deeply indebted to their support networks in some form. Though, if I were really determined to maintain my “only three things matter” argument, I would say that if a swimmer had enough money, (s)he could pay people for support! (Mostly kidding.)

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