On Monday, 7 November, swimmer Jody Jones died from bowel cancer. Friend and swimmer, Mark Johansen honours his dear friend.
It would be easy to think of Jody Jones as quite an ordinary woman, living her life bounded by family, friends, work, and her interests. Yes, Jody was humble, but she was far from ordinary. Her family was precious to her. She was a loving wife to her husband Rich and a devoted mother of two beautiful daughters, Maddie and Elsa. Married to an officer in the army, she served Queen and country and was a singer with the North London Military Wives Choir, a role she cherished with women who had shared many of the same experiences she had, experiences perhaps beyond anything many of us could imagine.
Most readers will know Jody for her swimming achievements: her impressive list of marathon swims including countless 10km’s, the BLDSA Torbay 12km and the Thames Marathon 14km, which she did twice. In August 2016 she swam the length of Lake Windermere in horrendous conditions taking 7 hours and an annoying (her words not mine) 30 seconds. All these swims in a standard costume, cap, and goggles. A month before her Windermere swim, in July 2016, Jody had her first taste of the English Channel, completing a six- person relay in 13 hours 58 minutes with her ‘Missed the Ferry’ teammates Elizabeth Verth, Jodi Songhurst, Elaine Giles, Neil Richardson, and Charlotte Reisch. The relay was a step towards a greater goal for Jody to attempt a solo crossing in 2018, but fate played a cruel hand.
Just before Christmas 2017, because of increasing abdominal pain, Jody was admitted to hospital for an operation that revealed a shock diagnosis of incurable stage 4 bowel cancer, which had also spread to her liver. Emergency surgery to remove a 15cm tumour saved her life. She then had half her bowel removed ten days later followed by an intense six-month cycle of fortnightly chemotherapy. The diagnosis and treatment meant that Jody had to defer her Channel swim to 2019. Undeterred, just five weeks after her last op, mid chemo and with the permission of her doctors, Jody was back in the pool training and three weeks after her chemo finished, she completed a five-hour training swim in the sea, a huge mental boost for her.
The following year was a challenge for Jody. She was in and out of hospital for more surgeries, chemo sessions, and countless scans. As if this was not enough, her mum suddenly passed away leaving Jody to not only deal with her ongoing treatment, but cope with tremendous grief and the added burden of having to take over the running of her mums’ business. Yet Jody soldiered on. Jody was now on a cycle of fortnightly intravenous chemotherapy supplemented with daily chemo tablets somehow managing to juggle the intense training, work, and family life.
The stars aligned
Just weeks after her mum passed away, Paul Foreman, the pilot of her escort boat Optimist called asking her if she wanted to swim the next day. The stars aligned, the forecast looked good and there had been a sufficient gap since her last chemo session to make it feasible. I had the privilege of being part of her support crew along with Rich, Scott Baker, and Tracy Clark boarding Optimist the following morning joining pilot Paul, co-pilot Jason Parrott and observer Jason Kelvin.
Conditions were perfect as we headed for Samphire Hoe and helped Jody prepare. She was in good spirits, calm and focussed on the task ahead. She swam her heart out that day and did so with great humour and typical determination, dissolving any fears I had that it might have been too much to ask of her. Throughout the day we were overwhelmed not only by Jody’s courage, but by the hundreds and hundreds of messages we received willing Jody to France.
The final hours of the swim were difficult. It was cold, dark, and the wind had got up taking us off course adding extra distance, but Jody did everything we asked of her. In the dead of night, 18 hours and 14 mins after setting off, Jody fulfilled her dream exiting the sea at Wissant closely followed by Rich, Tracy, Scott, and myself. It was a moment that was celebrated by the swimming community around the globe and one I shall cherish forever, marking the end of what to me and countless others will be the greatest swimming achievement ever. Jody did not just become a Channel swimmer that night, she became THE Channel swimmer, encapsulating everything it takes join that club. Others have swum it more times, others faster but none facing as many adversities as Jody.
Jody suffered throughout her illness but never let it affect those closest to her and would not be defined by her cancer. Jody put the needs of others first and touched the hearts of so many. She was unconditional with her love and encouragement. My life is richer for having known Jody and I will forever be inspired by her bravery and humbled by her determination. I will miss my beautiful friend. I will miss her warmth, her generosity, her love, and her beaming smile that lit up any room.
Mark Johansen is currently training to swim the Catalina Channel in memory of Jody. You can read about his journey here. This is an extract from the December issue of Outdoor Swimmer.