Before committing to her goal to swim the English Channel (a not insignificant 34km), the furthest 42-year-old Karlie Price had swum in open water was 2.5km. With no real distance swimming background, she trained for two years, working up to swimming 10-15km before first negotiating the English Channel crossing.
Here, Karlie shares the highs and agonising lows of her mission to tick ‘Swim the English Channel’ off her bucket list, all the while demonstrating how incredibly focused and determined she is.
I hate the cold and my biggest fear is being eaten by a shark, so why then would I want to swim for up to 12-hours in the sea? I have also spent most of my adult life trying to stay very lean and fit, therefore the idea of gaining 10kgs was totally unappealing. But, around 2004, I had an idea that one day I wanted to swim the English Channel. Not for anything or anyone, just to challenge myself, as a bucket-list goal. I hid the idea at the back of my head without verbalising it to anyone.
The English Channel is 34kms in a straight line, although most people who swim across it end up swimming 40-45kms due to strong tides. The Channel is also the busiest shipping lane in the world. The water temperature is around 15-17 degrees Celsius, which is cold enough for you to become hypothermic within an hour of exposure if not properly trained for. In order to survive in the water for between 12-16 hours, you have to have a certain amount of body fat to protect your internal organs from inevitable death.
The first attempt
By 2012, I was a busy architect, married with four children (the youngest was 2 years-old). I mentioned my dream to a friend one day who decided he’d also like to swim the English Channel. The next day I had a boat booked, and a swim date for 2014. For two years I worked my butt off, swimming in very cold temperatures, putting on much needed insulation on my small frame (my starting weight was 54kgs, and I purposely gained 10kgs for the swim), and training at least 30kms of swimming a week.
In August 2014 I travelled from Australia to Dover with my husband, Ben, to swim the Channel. You have a week on your booked tide in order to swim, and when the weather window is favourable the boat pilot gives you a call to get to the harbour. By day 5 on my week, the weather was still too windy and unsettled due to unseasonably warm weather. On day 6, the boat pilot had arranged to meet me at 6am for a possible swim start. I met him at the harbour and he informed me that the weather wasn’t great but might settle as the day went on. I was faced with the choice of having a go, or alternatively not getting to swim at all after 2 years of training and a 24-hour flight to get to the starting line. I had left 4 kids in the care of family back in Australia – I couldn’t face going home without giving it a shot. As we were heading out of the harbour to the starting point, a German relay team of 6 came back in shaking their heads and saying ‘It’s too rough out there, we can’t go’. That gave me added fire in the belly. I can do this. I am stronger than 6 relay swimmers. I am invincible.
The swim started out normally and although it was quite windy, I felt comfortable swimming in the conditions. As the day went on, the wind picked up and got increasingly worse. The stress on my shoulders from swimming through waves started to produce pain from 4 hours into the swim. I managed to think of everything else except the pain, and kept hoping maybe the conditions would improve as we got closer to France. There were six other boats out there attempting solos and relays, but by the 6th hour all except myself and one other had turned back due to the bad conditions.
By the time it got dark, I had been swimming for about 10 hours. I could see the lights on the French shore, and that kept me turning my arms which were now in excruciating pain. The wind was blowing gusts at around 30 knots and at times when I was in the trough of a wave, I couldn’t see the boat. Although I had a flashing light on my goggles, the crew on the boat were also losing sight of me between the huge swell. After 11 hours and 10 minutes, the boat pilot called me to the side of the boat and informed me my swim was over; it was too dangerous to continue. I was only 3 miles from France.
The next day I woke with bruising all down my shoulder. I couldn’t move my left arm at all, and my right one hurt past 90 degrees. By the time I landed in Australia, I had drafted an email to my boat pilot asking him to book me in for another attempt in 2016. I had to go back and finish what I had started. Two days later I had shoulder surgery, followed by 4 months of rehab and then straight back into training – this time with even more vengeance and determination. Although I’d not quit in the Channel, and the weather had been out of my hands, to me it still felt like failure and that was very hard to deal with.
English Channel Swim Round Two
I went back to training with my coach Trent Grimsey (who holds the world record for the fastest ever crossing of the English Channel, in an unimaginable time of 6 hours 55 minutes), and I was well and truly ready to face my demons out there in the Channel. I had the fortune of training with some amazing people, including new swimming friends Jane and Anna who were also attempting the Channel in 2016. My shoulder was stronger than ever, and I knew nothing could stop me this time. I was prepared to die out there, and I selfishly felt that this time I would not be getting out for any weather, shoulder pain, possible hypothermia, jellyfish sting, or seasickness. This time I was swimming until I walked onto a French beach.
We travelled to Dover in August 2016, this time taking my husband, four kids and mother-in-law (to mind the kids while I was swimming). We also had a group of friends travel with us who were doing a relay that my husband had arranged for after my swim (he said if we were going all the way back to Dover, he wanted to have a swim too, albeit a 6-person relay).
The first day of my tide, my boat pilot Andy called to say the next morning was looking good for a splash. It was D-day. We met him at the harbour in the dark at 4am, and he said, ‘Let’s get out there and finish this Karlie!’ I was pumped. Andy hoisted the Australian Flag at the back of the little fishing boat, Andy’s co-pilot (his son, James) sounded the horn on the boat, and I dove into the dark, frigid waters.
The first few hours flew by as the adrenaline pumped through my body. Every half hour I would stop briefly to tread water while Ben threw me a water bottle filled with electrolytes and water. My friend Lucy was on the boat, and wrote me messages of support on a whiteboard that family and friends were relaying to her via Facebook. And my other mate, Paul, was on board mixing feeds, keeping my mind focused and shouting at me to keep ‘long and strong’. The water was nowhere near still, but it was a breeze compared to my last swim; I knew I would get to France.
At around hour 10, I’d lost track of how many hours I had been swimming. It felt like eternity, and I was sure I had been swept off course, my mind playing tricks as I could see France but it wasn’t getting any closer, no matter how hard I swam towards it. I was told I had to sprint for half an hour because the tide was turning again and I had to break out of it to get into French inshore waters. It was literally the hardest I have ever swum, and I was puffing as if I was racing Michael Phelps. I’m sure I wasn’t moving very fast after continually swimming for 10 hours but I have never tried so hard in my life. Eventually France crept up in front of me and I felt sand under my feet. I ran up the beach and put my arms in the air to signal to the boat I had cleared the water. The horn sounded again and I felt a wave of relief and happiness wash over me. I picked up several rocks from the shore as a memento (it’s a Channel tradition to collect a rock from France upon landing). It took me 12 hours and 5 minutes of continuous swimming but I did it.
When the boat returned to Dover harbour, I could hear the cheers from my children and friends standing at the docks. They were all so supportive and equally as excited that I had finally conquered The English Channel. I could not have achieved it without their support, or that of my amazing support team on the boat and captains to guide me to France.
Channel swimming is a very unglamorous sport, and there are no sponsorships, accolades or medals. But in my experience the personal rewards are worth more than gold. The lessons the English Channel journey have taught me are invaluable. I have become more confident in all areas of my life, I know I can achieve anything if I really want it. I can also deal with failure and disappointments, and I know that hard work pays off. I know that I have inspired my children to follow their dreams, to dream big, to never give up and to stay humble and thankful to those around them. I am slowly adjusting to life after the Channel, and in the back of my mind there might just be one or two new bucket-list items swimming around…
You can follow Karlie and keep up to date with her next bucket list challenge via her Instagram feed at www.instagram.com/swimmingthechannel