Swimming the Channel

Well it’s not every Monday morning that you sit at your desk and reflect on swimming the English Channel over the weekend. But today…. I am. And my reflections are coupled with the physical reminders of what my awesome little team and I achieved last week. In short, I’m in pain. All over! I feel like I’ve gone several rounds in the ring but I can confidently say it was all worth it. It was worth it on several levels and I’d like to try and explain why.

Signing up to crazy challenges has been something I’ve been doing for several years now, thanks largely to finding “The Sisterhood”, a rather epic and eclectic group of women with a shared passion to push our physical and psychological boundaries whilst raising money for charity. Everything I’ve done with this group of amazing people has brought nothing but positivity, and has given me the perfect platform from which to explore all the things I believe help us stay psychological fit and gritty individuals. Both vital aspects of our general wellbeing.


But why did this particular challenge hit the right note for me? Why has it given me permission to feel immensely proud of our awesome team? A kick-ass team comprising a barrister (Chesca Lord, whose competitiveness and dedication is off the scale) and three business owners (Emma Sayle, Claire Worman and myself who have 8 kids between us). I need to stress at this point that Claire only learnt to swim last October (yes, you read that correctly – she’s only been swimming for nine months so she thought she’d swim the channel. Obviously!) This sums up The Sisterhood mentality.

Achieving stretched goals:

Research tells us that setting ourselves stretched goals and goals that we are passionate about are vital for us to not only build our grit and perseverance, but also experience achievement. Well this certainly fell into that category. We started out as an eight-woman team, willing and eager to dominate this 21 mile stretch of (not so nice) water. A few months ago the team dropped to six, but seeing the positive (“Oh well, that just makes it even more of a challenge”), we decided to crack on and not replace the other two team members. The six of us trained together in open water, squeezed in sessions around our ever-hectic lives, and just over a week ago we had our first potential window. Bags packed, protein bars at the ready, excited butterflies fuelling our collective fires, only to be stood down at the last minute. Turns out this is England, and nobody mentioned our plans to June who decided to kick up a bit of a stink.

Flexibility in mind:

And so…. we waited. And waited. Anxiously hoping for the right weather and tide combination which didn’t seem likely to emerge until our designated slot was over. The amount of mental flexibility we needed to use made me contemplate that if we had stayed rigid in our thought pattern of how things were MEANT to go, we would all have come crashing down and admitted defeat. Because it wasn’t until the last possible moment that we got the call up. We were on. And then we lost another two team members which took us down to four.


This now felt like a goal that had been stretched to breaking point! And possibly in other circumstances with a different group of people we would have admitted defeat. We hadn’t trained for 21 miles to be split four ways, bearing in mind that one of our heroic number had only learnt to swim nine months ago, but the positive mindset and camaraderie resulted in the same response; “Ok, now that makes it even more of a challenge. Let’s do this!”

And after another weather-related false start on Friday lunchtime, we finally began our watery odyssey at 1am on Saturday morning, in the pitch-black chop of La Manche. Not sure why muggins here decided to put herself forward for the first leg, but the thrill and excitement of starting and the intense team focus and passion over-rode all the nerves and ridiculousness of what we were doing. So, one by one, we took to the water and nailed it over several gruelling hours.



We nailed it because we had passion, combined with various personal and collective reasons, that drove us to keep going. We had the most amazing support network both in terms of each other on the boat, and all the people that were rooting for and supporting us. Having a support network is one of the most effective ways of keeping a positive mindset and we had that in spades. We were kind, compassionate and supportive when a team member needed it.

This helped calm our nerves by not letting our threat system take over and potentially fuel a panic attack when faced with the prospect of jumping in the cold, dark murky water in the middle of the night. We used breathing techniques to calm our threat system when there was possibility that we might not be able to physically carry on. All these things were vital to achieving our goal.


What does success look like?

And perhaps most importantly there was the concept of what success meant to us. We didn’t quite touch French soil because when we were a few km out, and could clearly see the beach we were aiming for, the weather and tide made it too dangerous and impossible to make the final dash and clamber up on to the beach. Perhaps a few years ago we would have seen that as a failure, but this was not how we defined success in this instance. We had swum over 28 miles (due to the zig-zag nature of the route) with half the team missing. We had completed our challenge in spite of the odds, in spite of the changes, the hurdles, the unknowns and the bloody June weather! We did it together. We achieved because of our dogged grit, our passion, and our commitment to each other and to our chosen charity “The Sick Children’s Trust”. To us that was the biggest example of success and achievement, and ultimately the only thing that mattered.

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Until the next challenge…thank you team Sisterhood.

Blog written by Dr Vanessa Lewis and originally appeared here.



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