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by Elaine K Howley

October 3, 2019

The Colorado swimmer made headlines around the world with her unprecedented swim

After 54 hours and 10 minutes in the 64-degree water of the English Channel, Sarah Thomas, a 37-year-old health care recruiter from greater Denver stumbled out of the surf and literally crawled onto a rocky beach in Dover, England. She’d just become the first person to cross the English Channel four times without stopping, and a small crowd of awed fans greeted her with cheers, champagne, and several packages of peanut M&Ms.

Stunned by the supreme physical effort and the emotional victory it represented, Thomas greeted the well-wishers and gamely took a swig of bubbly. Thomas doesn’t drink normally, and with her mouth and throat raw and swollen from more than two full days of submersion in salt water, the alcohol stung and burned. But the victory it represented was sweet.

Thomas is no stranger to ultramarathon swimming events, and her recent four-way English Channel crossing could be viewed as just another in a growing string of colossal and impressive swims. In August 2017, she set the world record for longest solo marathon swim with her 104.6-mile unassisted, current-neutral swim in Lake Champlain. That swim came on the heels of an 80-mile swim she completed in Lake Powell in October 2016. Prior to that, she had completed a 50-mile double crossing of Lake Memphremagog in Vermont and Canada and a 44-mile double crossing of high-altitude Lake Tahoe, both in 2013. She’d previously crossed the English Channel (just once!) in 2012.

While Thomas’s swimming achievements have seemed to only grow in impressiveness over the years, her four-way English Channel success was made only more so by the fact that she undertook the swim just over one year after completing active treatment for breast cancer. She had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of the disease just two months after her Lake Champlain swim and started treatment in November 2017. She endured 16 rounds of chemotherapy, 25 rounds of radiation treatment, and a mastectomy. She wasn’t sure during any of it that she’d ever be able to resume her ultramarathon swimming career.

“When your body goes through the rigors of cancer treatment, everything changes about you physically. Changes are both external—in the ways you can see and feel, like a stiff shoulder and a weaker core from surgery. But also internal—in ways that you can’t control, like more fatigue and changing hormones,” Thomas says.

Nevertheless, through all of her treatments, Thomas swam as much as she could, and credits swimming with helping her get through the difficult process. She had booked her slot to attempt an unprecedented English Channel four-way swim back in April 2017, some nine months before being diagnosed with cancer. (Prior to Thomas’s swim, only four people had completed a three-way English Channel swim, and no one had done a four-way.)

A stubborn and driven person, Thomas refused to let something as inconvenient as a cancer diagnosis persuade her to postpone or cancel her quadruple English Channel attempt. So she trained as best she could around her treatments. Two weeks after her last radiation session, she participated in the Horsetooth Reservoir 10K race, the same event that had hooked her on marathon swimming back in 2007. Though she was significantly slower than usual and tired for days afterward, Thomas finished the swim and felt herself returning to normal after an awful ordeal.

“A few friends told me I was crazy to attempt a 10K so soon after treatment, but I’d set my heart on the swim as a way to prove to myself that I was going to be OK,” Thomas says. “Walking out of the water after three hours in the lake signified the completion of treatment more emotionally to me than ringing the bell in the treatment room had.”

From there, she steadily clawed her way back into fighting shape. Her incredible focus and dedication to training saw her regain most of her pre-cancer speed, and she managed to build even more strength than she’d had before. Ready for anything, Thomas arrived in England in early September to wait on the weather.

Initially, the weather reports didn’t look that great. Swimmers who wish to swim the Channel typically have a week or two window in which to make an attempt. The pilot they book with checks conditions and makes a best guess as to which day would be the most advantageous option to support a crossing. Those calculations are made exponentially harder when four crossings are being contemplated rather than just one.

Thomas’s pilot Eddie Spelling carefully checked predictions and felt there would be a window just large enough for Thomas to sneak through beginning at around 11 p.m. on Saturday, September 14. Fine-tuned calculations saw Thomas leaving the beach at seven minutes past midnight on Sunday, September 15.

Thomas started out strong, but over the course of the first and second legs of the swim, she developed nausea and vomited repeatedly. Jellyfish stings added insult to queasiness. When she landed in England to make the second turn to start her third crossing, she expressed doubts about her ability to finish the swim. Her crew made some adjustments to her feed plan and talked her through the darkest hours. (Full disclosure, I was part of Thomas’s crew and was aboard the guide boat Anastasia piloted by Eddie Spelling. In addition to helping to feed and encourage Thomas from the boat with her husband, Ryan Willis, and her mom, Becky Baxter, I took turns with Karl Kingery and Craig Lenning to support swim with Thomas in accordance with the rules of English Channel swimming. Those rules were being enforced by swim observers Kevin Murphy and Suzanne Martin of the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation, one of two organizing bodies that documents and ratifies English Channel swims.)

By sunrise on the second morning—well into the third leg of the swim—Thomas was feeling better. By the time she landed in France for the second time in two days, she was fairly sure she’d be able to finish the swim, but the toughest hours still lay ahead. The tide changed sooner than predicted, about halfway across on that historic fourth lap, and Thomas had to fight for every inch to the finish. Her first three crossings took 11:26:50, 12:40:14, and 12:58:16. Her last lap took a whopping 17:04:40, and most of that excess time is thanks to misbehaving tides.

“I wasn’t immediately aware the tides were causing trouble,” she says, but around 3 a.m. when one of her crew got in to support swim for her, it was revealed she had at least another three hours to go. “I’d expected to be done by 3 a.m., so it was a stunning blow. However, we’d come that far already, and it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t swim until I had solid ground below my feet again,” Thomas recounts. She did indeed hang in there until she hit the rocky beach.

Thomas undertook the swim in the name of “all the survivors out there,” and in the process of making history, she inspired hope from people far and wide. Television stations, newspapers, radio programs, and magazines from around the globe clambered to snag an interview with the suddenly famous cancer survivor and extraordinary amateur athlete from Colorado. The iconic images of her landing at the finish even became fodder for Brexit-themed political cartoons in the UK tabloids, such was the nature of her impact on the national psyche in Britain.

In ratifying Sarah’s swim, the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation committee wrote, “Her swim has captured the imagination of a world far bigger than the niche environment of Channel swimming. It was an outstanding feat of endurance and triumph over adversity. In the history of our sport there can be no finer example of courage, determination and mental fortitude than Sarah’s swim. It is, quite simply, the English Channel swim of our age.”


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