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The Channel: There and back again

Sally Minty-Gravett has swum the English Channel in every decade of her life since she was a teenager. Her first swim was on 30 August 1975, at the age of 18. She then swam it again in 1985, 1992, 2005 and 2013. Based in Jersey, she is a swimming teacher and an inspiration to hundreds of local and not-so-local swimmers, she’s completed numerous other long distance swims and earlier this year was awarded an MBE for services to swimming. On 30 August this year, exactly 41 years after her first Channel swim, she completed an amazing English Channel double crossing in a time of 36 hours and 26 minutes. At 59, she’s the oldest person to ever do the two-way swim. Her time for the first leg of 15 hours and 3 minutes equalled that of her second crossing in 1985. It also seems that her total swimming time is the third longest marathon swim on record.

When we called for an interview she was just lying down for a much needed rest but (between yawns) she generously answered our questions.

Firstly, why, why, why?

I’ve been talking about doing the double for 20-years but for various reasons – timing, career, weather etc. – I haven’t been able to do it. It’s only now that everything has come together.

Back in 2003 I was head-hunted by Serco in Jersey and they agreed to sponsor a double crossing. However, my work and other commitments at the time didn’t allow me to do the training I needed to attempt the two-way. In 2005, I was booked for a single crossing and when I got to France the pilot (only half joking) asked me if I wanted to swim back. Unfortunately, I’d been ill for almost nine hours while swimming and decided, wisely I think, that it wasn’t my time. In 2013 I was booked for the double but just as I was about to turn in France a massive storm broke out. I had also been ill again while swimming and so I stopped after the single. It’s likely I would have been pulled out because of the storm anyway. Then I was booked for a double again in 2014, but didn’t even make it to Dover because of the weather, and also for 2015, when I did get to Dover but the swim was still blown out.

In January this year I changed to a new role in Serco that significantly improved my work-life balance. This meant I could train in the summer, rest properly and eat well. It made a huge difference to my swimming and I was more ready than ever to do the swim – but I’m certainly never going to do a double again!

Also, I just wanted to get it out of the way before I’m 60 as there are a lot of other things I want to do – such as a triathlon, climbing Kilimanjaro, some rowing etc. – that I can’t do if I’m training for a Channel double.

But you’ve got another (one-way) Channel swim booked for 2020. Why do you keep doing this?

I think you always need something to work towards, to keep you motivated.

When I first swam the Channel I never imagined I would do it again, let alone do it multiple times. But then my brother made two crossings so if I could do a second we could be the first brother and sister team to do two swims. I then wanted to swim from France to England and it just continued from there.

I want to continue my record of having a Channel swim in each decade of my life but as mentioned above, it’s not just about doing Channel swims. There are all sorts of physical challenges out there to work towards.

Classic Boat In The Background Shot

How have you changed as a swimmer since your first Channel crossing?

I’ve certainly picked up a lot of knowledge over the years and I’ve really come to believe that in many ways, less is more. Quality is more important than quantity and I’ve learned to appreciate the importance of rest and recovery.

Cross training is good. I hate being in the pool so, especially in the winter, I do weight training, spinning and running and this all helps with my cardio fitness and injury prevention. In fact, I’ve never had a shoulder injury.

After my first swim, as a teenager, my arms were aching for days. Now, the day after my two-way, they are perfectly fine so I guess I’m doing something right.

When I swim, I think about technique all the time, although mine hasn’t changed from what my father taught me. I maintain a stroke rate of between around 48 to 51 all day long and usually manage to increase my pace towards the end of a swim.

Did you ever think you wouldn’t make it?

No. I never doubted it. I’ve trained for this and my mental approach is second to none. I also knew this would probably be my last chance to do the double, so that was an added incentive.

The swim over to France was lovely. I paused on the beach to clean my teeth (a trick Marcy MacDonald told me) and to re-grease and got straight back in. The last six hours were really hard and I got confused about where we were. We were coming in past the Varne Lightship and I couldn’t work out why we were heading for Samphire Hoe. As we came over Varne Bank the water became quite choppy for a while and I could see all sorts of lights but had no idea what or where they were. I just kept on swimming.

How important were your team?

I had a fantastic team of very experienced people and they were there 200 percent for me. On the boat I had Cliff Golding, Graeme Lowe, Tracy Clark and Bianca Kempster and they were fantastic. I couldn’t have done it without Neil Streeter, the pilot on Suva, along with his crew Sam and Adrian. Back on land, my husband Charlie provided his brilliant emotional support as always and took charge of our land-based social media.

I usually like to control things but this time they persuaded me to let go and this actually really took the pressure off me.

Five weeks before my Channel swim I did two round-Jersey swims as part of my preparation – one on a Friday and the next two days later. For the first I had flat conditions and the second rough, so it was great practice. We also practised my feeding plan.

However, when it came to the Channel, certain things that we’d practised didn’t work out, particularly around the feeding. Luckily the crew were experienced enough, and knew me well enough, to adapt and I was happy to let them make the decisions.

They also did a fantastic job with social media. I’d been keeping my plan to do a double relatively quiet but once we were underway and things were looking good I was happy for them to post whatever they wanted and it worked really well. We had a fun time together.

Sally Minty-Gravett is raising funds for RNLI and Jersey Cheshire Home. Find out more: https://race-nation.com/sponsor/e/9207

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.