Some of you may already know Emily Epp, one of our student interns. But do you know Emily’s story?
Read on to learn about her story including training for and completing swimming across the English Channel.
HOW IT BEGAN
When I was 10, I told my parents that I wanted to swim the English Channel. To be honest, I do not remember if I was joking at the time, or if I legitimately had the Channel in my sights. Everyone around me thought it I was being a cute kid spewing out unrealistic goals and they found it funny. Around 3 years later Brent Hobbs (who swam the English Channel in 2012) approached me and asked if I still wanted to do the swim. At that point I had developed a love for open water swimming and agreed to try and see if I liked it. That summer I attempted my first lake swim of 4 hours, barely. The water during that swim was 18 degrees C and I was freezing. From looking back at my journal, at about “ half way through the first hour I was so cold my hands and arms were frozen and my goggles were too tight.” I was in a bad mood. We had a long way to go if I planned on swimming the Channel.
From that point on training became more serious. I was already a very active and competitive swimmer in the pool training nine-two hour practices a week with the Kelowna Aquajets Swim Club. But training to swim in the cold water (under 15 degrees C) for many hours was something that had to be done in the lake. We started with 2 hour swims on the weekends in the lake continuing into the fall until the water was under 10 degrees C. Winter would pass and I would start my weekend lake swims in March gradually building up my cold water endurance to 6 hours (in addition to my KAJ swim practices). With the water being very cold at the start of spring and the end of fall, sometimes I would put on a wetsuit just so that I could swim longer; however, for the Channel a wetsuit would not be allowed. Once I turned 16, Channel training was my primary focus. With this came preparing for any challenges that may occur. The English Channel is a shipping water way located between England and France and at its narrowest point is around 32 km in width (I swam 47 km). The water does not get much above 17 C and can be as cold as 12 C. With that, weather can be unpredictable leading to massive winds and water swells. Training in Okanagan Lake did not do justice to anything I would face while swimming the Channel.
The English Channel Association requires all applicants to complete a legal 6 hr qualifying swim. Without the qualifying swim an applicant would not even be looked at for a potential attempt. To make this swim legal it must be swam in less than 15 C water, you cannot stand on the bottom of the lake or touch/ hold a boat. You can only wear a swimsuit (no wetsuit), and a single cap and goggles. I completed this goal in the fall of 2016 officially qualifying me for the channel.
That winter passed and my channel swim window was scheduled for July 14-21. Every Channel swimmer is scheduled a week of possible dates to do their swim based on the weather. Because I spent all of my training in a lake we wanted to do a swim in the ocean. We decided that I would attempt to circumnavigate Bowen Island in Vancouver (~ 30 km).
Bowen Island was the first swim that came anywhere close to the extremes of the Channel. Although the weather was lovely, I experienced some new challenges. These included currents, ocean waves and swells. There was one point in my swim at the last turn of the island where my smooth swimming came near to a stop. The waves picked up and the current became strong enough to almost prevent me from moving a meter. During this time the biggest and most important struggle started to appear. . . nausea! During Bowen Island we thought I was only malnourished and my body was feeling sick from lack of nutrition and fluids. For the remaining hours I forced myself to drink my liquid nutrition drink no matter how crappy I felt. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, I never vomited during Bowen Island. After finishing the circumnavigation we had a good idea of what we needed to prepare for the channel and from there we started “tapering.”
For one of my last lake swims before I would fly to England, Brent and Phred (two swimmers who supported and coached me through the entire process) decided to join me for one last 5 hour swim. The catch was that this swim would be done in the dark. We started around 11 pm and finished around 4 am. Ironically, this was probably the most fun of any previous swims. I have always enjoyed swimming in the dark. I think it is peaceful and relaxing. When you can’t see anything there is nothing but you in your own thoughts. During this swim we decided to make it fun by using glow lights and fun coloured diving lights to help “ brighten up” the swim.
SWIMMING THE ENGLISH CHANNEL
July came very quickly and we found ourselves on a plane to England, along with my coach Brent. We arrived on the 11th and after meeting with Andy (my escort boat driver) and crew, we found out I would swim on the very first day of my window, July 14th at 3 am. This was a surprise because most swimmers wait their entire window before they get a chance. My mom was still at home and had not planned on flying in until the 15th. Telling her over the phone she would miss my swim was hard since I wanted her there just as much as she wanted to be there. However,after pulling some strings she got an earlier flight and would just make it. Sadly, around 12 pm we got a call that the winds had picked up and the swim wouldn’t go. It was frustrating because of all the uncertainty. Big questions such as “ will I get to swim?” and “would I complete it if I do?”. The next morning we got a call that I would start my swim at 3 pm. My Channel swim day started lovely in the way that it was sunny; however it was a little windy turning the water into small swells. Around 2 hours in, the winds picked up more causing 2 m swells. This was also when I began to get nauseous just like I had during the Bowen Island swim. We realized that I was not sick from being malnourished, but sea sick. This time I did throw up and continued to do so every 20 min for 5 hours. The pattern went as follows:
- Chug a half water bottle of liquid food (tastes like hot chocolate)
- Throw up 30 seconds later
- Swim like a new human for 10 min
- Count the Jellyfish (P.S: there are 421 that I counted)
- Start feeling sick
- Chug a half bottle of food
Once the 5 hours of horror past, it got dark and suddenly I began to feel better again and the vomiting stopped (likely due to the inability to see the horizon bobbing up and down). Normal Channel swims finish with the swimmer standing on the dry rocks of the French shores. They collect a rock and take a photo before their 2 min on shore is over (2 min since technically swimmers never cross the border). My swim ended more abruptly. I finished on a cliff face, or more specifically the Cape Gris Nez Cliffs. I was slammed onto the cliff face ripping my swim suit and leaving several bruises. I happened to be terrified of waves. Something about swimming with them always freaked me out a bit. Because I finished my swim in the dark, I could not actually see the waves that threw me into the rocks, we estimate they were between 4 and 5 ft tall. Andy (my boat driver) clocked my swim at 2:57 am making my swim just under 12 hours long.
Although my swim ended successfully, I had many failures along the way. I stopped short of my goal time in many cold water swims, cranky, and tired. My successful 6 hour qualifier was not the first time I had attempted it. I had tried the previous fall and just made it past 5 hours before I was too cold to continue and in tears from frustration. Most swims were miserable and I spent a good chunk of time on some feeling sorry for myself. I have always found ways to blame myself for my “failures” in any sport. I beat myself up and wonder why I didn’t just push myself a little harder. My team and I also failed together several times. We failed to read my body properly leading to moderate hypothermia. However, as swims went on we got better and learned the signs my body gave us when it needed help.
I had decided early on that I would do my swim as a fundraiser for Canuck Place Children’s Hospice (end of life and care home for children) and was able to raise $120,000. My sister, Elan, has been involved with Canuck Place for years and they truly changed her life. I thought that I could give back by donating through my swim. This was the center of my motivation. It is much harder to disappoint someone else, than it is yourself. I did the swim for them and knowing they were all looking at me and cheering me on. Doing the swim as a fundraiser for such a special group of people made me want to succeed even more than my own desire to complete my dream. At the end of the day it was the people around me that helped me get through it. Obviously I swam the Channel and went through the physical struggles by myself, but I did not go through the process alone.
This is the part that people don’t talk about. Channel swimmers and everyone around them always prioritize the swim itself. They talk about how they trained for it, how they swam it, what challenges they faced during the swim, how happy and relieved they are that it is over, but rarely do they talk about what happens months after the swim when all the hype and excitement is over. Once all the excitement fades, there are some identity struggles. This “what do I do now” question kicks off the beginning of the Channel depression phenomenon. I still struggle with this today, almost 4 years later. Because I swam the Channel at 17, I swam the summer between grade 11 and grade 12. I had been a competitive swimmer with the Kelowna Aquajets since I was 9 and speed swimming was very important to me. While training for the Channel I was under the impression that I could train for the Channel (marathon training) and speed swim train to high levels at the same time. Anyone who has done any sort of marathon or competitive sports that race short distances know that this is not possible. I could not sustain my speed in the pool while getting stronger in the lake. Although I struggled with “ getting slower” and the inability to swim best times at competitions, I always had my Channel training to fall back on and cover for me. If someone in my club asked me why I wasn’t swimming my best I could always say “ oh I did a long swim the other day and am a bit tired from that.” It was true. How could I swim my fastest when I was swimming 10 hours or more extra a week. Once my Channel swim ended, I did not have that excuse anymore. I only saw a plateau in my speed swimming. During my grade 12 year I slowly lost the motivation to swim and because I am a stubborn girl who only saw herself as a swimmer, I beat myself up for missing the practices I couldn’t even get myself to go to. Then I would beat myself up more for not having the motivation to go to practice. Over the process of 10 months I slowly dropped swimming altogether. School was also a struggle. Because of the many internal conflicts my grades started dropping and I was joining clubs I never would have tried before to fill my time up. I tried out for basketball. . . and I did not make the team (I was awful so do not blame the coach). I also tried out for a play and surprisingly did get a part as Susan in Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Although most people would think I had no reason to be sad, I was. I felt like the one thing I knew, swimming, was over and I had no other identity. In mt first year of college I joined the Kelowna Paddle Centre to do a sport that was not swimming. It was this sport that became a new passion and gave me new goals. From there I joined Okanagan Peak Performance Inc. to help my paddling performance. I have been at OPP for a year and a half now training in the sport of powerlifting and interning to be a strength and conditioning coach. This has helped me redefine myself and make new goals. Although I do sometimes look back at my swimming days and shed a tear thinking back to all the different emotions that go with it (even while writing this blog), I am happy I experienced it because without that pain I may not have found a new sport I love or have the chance to tell others my story.