“If I don’t end up in intensive care, that’s a bonus”: the beauty and pain of being the world’s best endurance swimmer | To swim

We are not getting off on the right foot. I fumble with my cap, the rubber hanging askew on my head, my hair disheveled. I take it off to start over and the woman who has swam the Wayward Channel more times than any other human, the “Queen of the Channel” teaches me how to properly apply a swim cap.

Chloë McCardel and I are going for a swim in the ocean at Bondi. She plunges into the foamy sea in front of me – more slender siren than Amazonian with broad shoulders. On my knees, I feel the current sucking my flesh. It’s not one of Bondi’s best days. With a deep chest, I realize that I am being dragged along and my very amateur sea swimming skills are no match for this surf. Panic is mounting. McCardel is an impatient white beanie off. What was I thinking when suggesting a swim with Superwoman?

By any objective measure, Chloë McCardel is also a mad woman, her commitment to submitting to demented levels of physical and mental torture almost inexplicable. “I own the madness, I wear it as a badge of pride,” she would tell me later.

Stephanie Wood prepares to swim in Bondi waves with Chloë McCardel. Photograph: Carly Earl / The Guardian

On October 13, the Melbourne-born, 36-year-old Sydney ultra-marathon swimmer set a new world record, completing her 44th Channel crossing in 10 hours and one minute. She left the water, stood on a French rock at the Pointe de la Courte Dune, and raised her lanolin-coated arms in victory. McCardel’s 44 crossings on the world’s busiest sea highway include three non-stop doubles (to France and back) and one non-stop triple (to France, back to England, then to France again) . The “King of the Channel”, the Englishman Kevin Murphy, made only 34 crossings.

McCardel has conquered other waters, too: in 2014, she set a world record for the longest non-stop ocean swim – 124.4 km from Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas to the capital Nassau, a journey of 41 hours and 21 minutes.

McCardel completed his record-breaking swim across the English Channel in October
McCardel completes his English Channel swimming record. Photograph: Gareth Fuller / PA

But the numbers and bare facts barely tell McCardel’s story. There are good times when the sea is as smooth as a window glass, the clarity of the water is extraordinary, the dolphins bounce and she feels that her technique is exquisite. But things can quickly go wrong. In 2013, she jumped into the sea in Havana, Cuba, in an attempt to be the first person to swim the 166 km to the Florida Keys without a shark cage.

After about 10 hours of heavenly swimming, 40 or 50 hours ahead of her, and dusk setting in, McCardel began to see translucent shapes several feet below her. “I’m like, ‘Oh, this is interesting’ and then literally 10 minutes later it was like a blanket under me that lifted up and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s not going to be alright.'” She said. been stung dozens of times by what would have been a box-like or irukandji-like jellyfish.

Almost immediately, her right arm was paralyzed and she could no longer use it to stroke. She called her support team to get her out, but they didn’t realize the extent of the problem and shouted out affirmations – keep going, you can do it. In a swim marathon, you never go out. The jellyfish were still rising. McCardel curled up to reduce the surface area of ​​his body. “After my head went under the water, they said, ‘We have to get it out. “

About twenty minutes after the first bite, she was hoisted out of the water onto the boat. “I whimpered, made a dying animal sound and they picked up the jellyfish stings.” One person even took one out of my mouth like spaghetti. I just wanted to die – the pain was horrible.

So many more stories: the first time she tried the English Channel in 2009, she signed up for a double crossing and the captain of the support boat lost her for a while during a dark and dark night. stormy when it was two-thirds of the way home. towards the English coast. “They walked away and I screamed ‘Don’t leave me behind’ – I was terrified.” She struggled against two-meter waves and felt the ghostly presence of towering ships that take a mile to stop.

McCardel watches the waves at Bondi
McCardel looks at Bondi. In colder waters, she was told, she had been on the verge of death.
Photograph: Carly Earl / The Guardian

On her first attempt to triple the Channel in 2011, the weather changed. She was floundering, barely stroking with one arm, and resisted attempts by her support team to get her out. “My brain was not working.” When she was removed, she could no longer walk, was delirious, mumbling, and was dangerously hypothermic. In intensive care at Canterbury Hospital, a doctor told her that 30 more minutes in the water and that she would be dead.

There are clues in McCardel’s childhood about the woman she was to become. Her role models – three older, athletic siblings – told her she could only play with them if she kept pace. “I wanted to be better at whatever game they were playing or wanted to be like them and so I would push myself.” When she was around seven, she insisted on peddling with her 14-year-old brother on her paper tour. He told her that she couldn’t because she didn’t want to follow. “I’m like ‘No, I’m going to continue, I’m coming.'”

Her parents were far from arrogant and when she started swimming competitively as a teenager they refused to take her to swim training at 5 a.m. (they agreed to pick her up after). On weekdays a friend’s mother took her and on weekends she set her alarm clock for 3.15am and cycled 9 km. She remembers the day her mother stepped out in a pink nightie and, without success, tried to stop her from peddling in the dark. McCardel feared she would be in trouble when she got home. “Instead, my dad said to me, ‘Okay, we’ll buy you some lights.'”

But McCardel’s times weren’t fast enough to take her to the national championships in the open category, and her parents encouraged her to stop swimming to focus on her last two years of study. After school, she went to Monash University to get an arts degree.

McCardel to Bondi
“I had this beautiful connection with the water,” says McCardel. Photograph: Carly Earl / The Guardian

At one point, however, she had decided that she wanted to be “the best in the world at something.” She tried triathlon but failed to reach an elite level. She did well in the Melbourne Marathon and started to think the distance might be where she could be best. In 2007, she did a 11.3 km swim marathon between Frankston and Mornington. “It was so wild and free… I had this beautiful connection with the water.” Halfway through the swim, she crushed the ground – the first woman, with only one man in front of her. “I knew just then that I could be the best in the world at the marathon swim.” She came second, after the swimmer.

Chloë McCardel’s swimming career has brought her no money. Most of his income comes from coaching others to swim the Channel and giving motivational speeches. (As a survivor of domestic violence, she also advocates for the criminalization of coercive control.) Before each swim, she organizes fundraisers. But the goal is what pushes her forward: “I set scary goals for myself and then I’m so petrified that I get out of bed in the morning.”

She has set another frightening goal for herself: by 2022, she wants to be the first person in history to swim the 92 km from England to Belgium through the tumultuous and frigid waters of the North Sea. “The idea is to go to the other end before you die. And if I don’t end up in intensive care, that’s a bonus.

The Bondi surf that freaks me out is like a bath for McCardel. She comes back to me and, without any embarrassment, I tell her that I think we should have some coffee instead. No drama, she says as we reach the sand. As we dry off, she adds, “I don’t even like waves.

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