Swimming across the English Channel — the 21-mile-long body of water separating southern England from northern France — is no easy feat. In addition to the strong ocean currents, swimmers also have to endure temperatures that can range from a chilly 64 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius) to a near-freezing 42 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius). However, don't tell that to Sarah Thomas. The 37-year-old American recently became the first person ever to swim across the length of the treacherous stretch of water, which links the southern part of the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, not once, but four times non-stop!
"I just can't believe we did it,” Thomas told the BBC after the swim. "I'm really just pretty numb. 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."
What makes Thomas's achievement even more remarkable is that just a year ago, in 2018, she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The ultra-athlete, who dedicated her swim to all cancer survivors, said that fighting the strong currents, which kept pushing her off course, was hard. But even worse was "dealing with the saltwater... it really hurts your throat, your mouth and your tongue", she said, before adding. "I got stung in the face by a jellyfish. [The water] wasn't as cold as I thought it might be, but it was still chilly."
Thomas's record-breaking journey began just past midnight on Sunday, September 15, 2019, when she dove into the waters off the shore of Dover, England. Though the swim was initially meant to be about 80 miles, strong currents forced the athlete to change course several times, lengthening the total distance by about 50 miles. By the time the Colorado native emerged from the water at 6:30 a.m. local time on Tuesday, September 17, 2019, she had been in the water for 54 hours and 13 minutes and swum a total of 133 miles! Even more impressive, per the rules of the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation (CS&PF) that governs English Channel swimming, Thomas achieved the epic feat in a regular swimsuit, which was both sleeveless and legless. Her only aids were swim goggles, one cap, a nose clip, and earplugs.
An escort vessel, equipped with GPS and computers to monitor wind, tides, and currents, accompanied Thomas at all times to guide her through the water. The athlete's crew included her mother, husband, and several swimmers who joined her in the water for short distances along the way. The team kept a vigilant eye on the swimmer at all times and also fed her continuously during the strenuous trek. The boat's captain, Eddie Spelling, told reporters that Thomas took breaks every 30 to 60 minutes, and while still swimming, refueled with protein drinks and her favorite snack: M&Ms!
This is not the first time Thomas has swum across the English Channel. She has done it twice before, in 2012 and 2016. The ultra-endurance athlete told filmmaker Jon Washer, who is making a documentary about her swim, "As I was doing 20 mile swims, it occurred to me that I could do more and I wanted to see what that more was." The swimmer, who is being hailed "an absolute legend" by the CS&PF, has indeed shown the world what she is capable of. However, we have a feeling she is not done yet!
Congratulations, Sarah Thomas!