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American Woman Becomes First Person to Swim English Channel Four Times, Nonstop

Sarah Thomas took 54 hours to cross from England to France and back again twice, just a year after battling cancer

(Sarah Thomas' Official Facebook)
smithsonian.com

American open water marathon swimmer Sarah Thomas just became the first person to swim across the English Channel four times, nonstop.

According to the BBC, the 37 year old began her epic feat early on Sunday morning, finishing 54 hours later on the shores of Dover. Strong tides stretched the four crossings from what was originally planned to be an 84-mile swim into a 130-mile-long slog. Previously, four other swimmers have made triple crossings of the channel, but Thomas is the first to swim the Channel four times.

While in the water, Thomas was not allowed to rest. Every 30 minutes, her support crew would throw her a bottle filled with a protein recovery drink infused with electrolytes to keep her going.

Though the swim itself was difficult, just getting to the starting point was a challenge. Thomas, a veteran Colorado-based swimmer who has crossed the Channel twice before and even swam 104.6 miles of Lake Champlain in 2017, had begun planning her swim two years ago. But in November of 2017, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer according to Jonathan Cowie of Outdoor Swimmer. Throughout her treatment process, which included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, she kept on swimming with her eye on the epic Channel crossing.

Before her swim, she reflected about her journey on Facebook: “I’ve been waiting for this swim for over 2 years now and have fought so hard to get here. Am I 100%? No. But I’m the best that I can be right now, with what I've been through, with more fire and fight than ever.”

Thomas also noted that she was dedicating her attempt to other cancer survivors. “This is for those of us who have prayed for our lives, who have wondered with despair about what comes next, and have battled through pain and fear to overcome. This is for those of you just starting your cancer journey and those of you who are thriving with cancer kicked firmly into the past, and for everyone in between.”

Despite being stung on the face by a jellyfish, the swimmer faced relatively good conditions for the first three legs of the journey. But when she took the last turn toward England, things suddenly got dark, windy and choppy. The end was the most harrowing of all. “In the last 400 meters into the beach, she was caught in the tide and was just not going anywhere. And so we had to do some screaming and yelling and get her to dig deep and she found it after all that time. I’m pretty proud of her,” Thomas’s mother, Becky Baxter, told BBC Radio, reports The Guardian.

At 6:30 A.M. on Tuesday, Thomas set foot on Dover’s Shakespeare Beach, celebrating with M&M’s and champagne.

“I just can't believe we did it. I'm really just pretty numb,” she told the BBC upon her arrival. “There was a lot of people on the beach to meet me and wish me well and it was really nice of them, but I feel just mostly stunned.” She also announced that she planned to sleep for the rest of the day.

“She is a freak of nature. She really had to dig deep to finish this,” Baxter says. “She could have quit many, many times. There were several obstacles, but she never quits.”

Other marathon swimmers congratulated Thomas on the extraordinary feat. “Extraordinary, amazing, super-human!!!,” Lewis Pugh, an endurance swimmer who was the first to swim the Arctic Ocean in 2007 and the first to complete long-distance swims in the world’s five oceans, wrote on Twitter. “Just when we think we’ve reached the limit of human endurance, someone shatters the records.”

According to the Channel Swimming Association, the body that tracks Channel swims, the first person to cross the 21-mile strait between England and France was Englishman Matthew Webb, who completed the feat in 21 hours, 45 minutes in 1875. Since then, there have been 2,483 successful crossings, including 1645 solo swims and 838 by relay teams.

In 1926, American competition swimmer Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the channel. While Thomas’s feat is incredible and will be hard to beat, it still does not earn her the title Queen of the Channel. That honor is currently held by British swimmer Alison Streeter, who has crossed the Channel at least 43 times since 1982.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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