Image: Freda Streeter with Roger Allsopp (at the time, the oldest person to swim the English Channel)
First published in H2Open April/May 2014
As open water swimmers we surely all associate the town of Dover with English Channel swimming as much as its castle or as the gateway to Europe. But, unless you are or want to be a Channel swimmer it’s quite likely your experience of the town is limited to passing through on the way to the ferry terminal. If, instead, you took a stroll along the promenade on a Saturday or Sunday between May and September you’d see prospective Channel swimmers milling around on the beach or swimming between the harbour walls putting in the hundreds of hours' training necessary for a successful crossing.
Those swimmers come and go with the seasons but one thing that hasn’t changed in over 30 years is the person overseeing it all, the indomitable Freda Streeter, sometimes known as the Channel General. Now 74 years old (it’s OK, she said I could reveal that) you’ll usually find her seated in a canvas beach chair surrounded by the paraphernalia of a typical Dover training day: Vaseline, energy drinks, flasks, snacks and bags of warm clothes.
If you pause for a while you may witness several swimmers withering under the force of a stinging rebuke from Streeter, for which she’s notorious, for various misdemeanours ranging from getting out of the sea too early, missing a feed, straying outside the designated area or for actually not seeming to have done anything wrong at all.
“Just keeping him on his toes,” will be Streeter’s justification. “He must have done something wrong, I just didn’t spot it!”
Freda Streeter, the mother of Queen of The Channel, Alison Streeter MBE, has been omnipresent on a small stretch of Dover beach since 1982 advising, coaching, cajoling and directing aspiring Channel and long distance swimmers. Part coach, part psychologist and part friend with a shoulder to lean on and cry on, Streeter has seen it all. Through rain and shine she has presided over her terrain (lest anyone doubts it, Freda ‘owns’ that 30-metre stretch of beach!). Several hundred successful solo Channel swimmers, myself included, and countless relay teams owe Streeter a huge debt of gratitude for helping us achieve our dreams. Add to that figure the numerous parents, partners and siblings of swimmers who have come within her orbit and it’s easy to see why she is revered by so many.
Streeter has been a swimming coach since she was 16. As a young woman she helped set up a scheme called Beaver swimming club in Reigate and was a member of another club called Spartan Kingston. The express aim of these clubs was to teach disabled children to swim. “Back then,” says Freda, “disabled people were to be seen and not heard. I wanted to change that perception. The greatest joy was to see the smile of achievement from a physically or mentally disabled child or adult swimming a width or length for the first time.”
A measure of Streeter’s compassion and rapport with the people society found difficult is that she later worked in referral and special schools where challenging students were sent when mainstream education had failed them. It takes a special kind of teacher and mentor to work with these kids although Streeter would probably say that they presented less of a challenge than Channel swimmers.
The transition from pool swimming teacher to Channel swimming coach came about by accident. In 1982 her daughter Alison completed her first solo Channel swim and in 1983 her first two-way. After that swim her coach emigrated to Australia. Finding that no one else really knew how to train Channel swimmers at the time, Streeter senior picked up from what she had observed and fell naturally into the void. In that first year she had three swimmers – Alison and two others. Go down to Dover at the start of May now and you will find upwards of a hundred solo aspirants and 20 or more relay teams.
By 1991 Alison had completed 14 Channel swims (she later went on to swim the Channel a remarkable 43 times including three two-ways and a three-way). That was around the time I decided I wanted to change my running shoes for a pair of Speedos and with just a bronze swimming certificate to my name (if anyone drops a rubber brick in a swimming pool and needs someone in striped pyjamas to rescue it, I am your man) I contacted Streeter and she agreed to coach me and help me achieve my dream.
One of my first questions for her was: had she swum the Channel herself? It’s a question she’s often asked and her response is always instant and derisory: “Do I look that stupid? That’s why they invented planes, boats and trains. Why would I ever want to swim it?”
But she understands that other people want to and her dedication to Channel swimming over the years has been immense. She lives in Surrey. The beach in Dover is 71 miles (114km) from her front door, 142 miles there and back. A rough estimate is that, in 32 years, Freda has driven in excess of 150,000 miles to Dover and back with the sole aim of helping swimmers. Laden with tubs of carbohydrate drink powder, fruit juice, tubs of Vaseline, bananas, chocolate treats, Jelly Babies and industrial sized pump flasks, she sets up camp on her beach and awaits the onslaught.
Streeter admits she has changed somewhat over the years.
“I don’t run up and down the beach like I used to,” she says. “But I am lucky to have the Dover Beach Crew to help me. Barry and Irene Wakeham are a crucial part of the success of Dover training as are all the other friends and families of swimmers who help out each weekend.”
This selfless dedication was rewarded last year when the Dover Beach Crew was awarded the Service to Marathon Swimming Award by the online Marathon Swimmers Forum.
Yet ask Streeter how many swimmers she has helped to swim the Channel solo or as part of a relay team and she says: “I have no idea.”
I pressed her a little more and she guessed it was probably a thousand or more.
So I had to ask her why. Come rain or shine she is on that beach every Saturday and Sunday through the whole summer. She’s also been on every one of her daughter’s swims bar two and countless others over the years and she shows no signs of stopping.
“Well,” she replies. “I just always wanted to help people achieve their dreams. It’s as simple as that. With Alison’s successes came other swimmers. I wouldn’t have dreamed of turning them away and it just grew from there. And now that I have one hip replaced with the other one about to be done, two cataracts removed and an operation to straighten my hand out, I shall be around for a lot longer yet. When they did my cataracts it was like having net curtains pulled back and it meant I could see even better what those crafty swimmers were up to in the harbour.”
English Channel swimming has changed hugely during Streeter’s reign.
“GPS navigation, pilots becoming more knowledgeable, improved weather prediction, nutrition and the internet,” she says, listing what’s different since she started. Some of these changes have been for the better but she has mixed feelings about the internet.
“The internet and the ability to instantly seek out information or watch YouTube clips of swims or coaching techniques is incredible,” she says. “But swimmers get caught up in it all and worry about things they shouldn’t. Swimmers complicate things too much. I don’t look at things scientifically. I just know what works. Swimmers should get in and keep it simple. They should break it down and just swim and not worry about what they can’t change. Swim, swim, swim. That’s all it boils down to.”
With that simple logic we can all hope that Freda Streeter stays in command of a small piece of Dover beach for many years to come.
What Freda Streeter and the Dover Beach Crew go through on a typical Dover beach day:
- Vaseline – 3 large tubs
- Maxim (energy drink) – 1 large tub
- Bananas – a dozen plus
- Milky Ways - 40
- Jelly babies – 4 packets
Strange but true: Freda Streeter holds a valid motorbike licence and used to ride a Tiger Cub and NSU Quickly moped.