‘If I don’t end up in intensive care, it’s a bonus’: the beauty and pain of being the world’s best endurance swimmer | Swimming

We’re not off to a good begin. I’m fumbling with my cap, the rubber clinging to my head lopsidedly, my hair straggling out. I take it off to start out once more and the girl who has swum the fickle English Channel extra instances than every other human, the “Queen of the Channel”, instructs me in the best way to appropriately apply a swimming cap.

Chloë McCardel and I are going for an ocean swim at Bondi. She dives into the foamy sea forward of me – extra slender mermaid than broad-shouldered Amazonian. Knee deep, I really feel the present suck at my flesh. It’s not one of Bondi’s higher days. Chest deep, I realise I’m being dragged out and my very newbie ocean-swimming skills are not any match for this surf. Panic rises. McCardel is an impatient white-cap in the distance. What was I considering, suggesting a swim with superwoman?

By any goal measure, Chloë McCardel can also be a loopy girl, her dedication to placing herself by means of demented ranges of bodily and psychological torture nearly inexplicable. “I personal loopy, I put on it as a badge of satisfaction,” she tells me later.

Stephanie Wood prepares to swim out into the Bondi surf with Chloë McCardel
Stephanie Wooden prepares to swim out into the Bondi surf with Chloë McCardel. {Photograph}: Carly Earl/The Guardian

On 13 October, the 36-year-old Melbourne-born, Sydney-based ultra-marathon swimmer set a new world report, finishing her forty fourth crossing of the English Channel in 10 hours and one minute. She left the water, stood on a French rock at Pointe de la Courte Dune and raised her lanolin-smeared arms in victory. McCardel’s 44 crossings of the world’s busiest transport freeway embody three continuous doubles (to France and again) and one triple continuous (to France, again to England, then to France once more). The “King of the Channel”, Englishman Kevin Murphy, has achieved solely 34 crossings.


McCardel has conquered different waters too: in 2014 she set a world report for the world’s longest continuous ocean swim – 124.4km from Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas to the capital Nassau, a 41-hour, 21-minute journey.

McCardel finishing her record-breaking swim across the English Channel in October
McCardel ending her record-breaking English Channel swim. {Photograph}: Gareth Fuller/PA

However the naked numbers and information hardly inform McCardel’s story. There are good instances when the sea is as clean as a pane of glass, the water readability is extraordinary, dolphins bounce round and she feels her method is beautiful. However issues can go unhealthy rapidly. In 2013 she jumped into the sea in Havana, Cuba, to aim to be the first particular person to swim the 166km to the Florida Keys with out a shark cage.

After about 10 hours of heavenly swimming, with 40 or 50 hours forward of her, and nightfall setting in, McCardel began seeing translucent shapes many metres beneath her. “I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s attention-grabbing,’ and then actually like 10 minutes later, it was like a blanket beneath me simply rising up and I’m like, ‘Oh this isn’t going to end up properly.’” She was stung dozens of instances by what’s believed to have been a jellyfish just like a field or irukandji.

Virtually instantly, her proper arm was paralysed and she may now not use it to stroke. She known as to her help workforce to get her out however they didn’t realise the extent of the drawback and shouted affirmations – preserve going, you are able to do it. In a marathon swim you by no means get out. The jellyfish had been nonetheless rising. McCardel curled into a ball to scale back the floor space of her physique. “As soon as my head went below the water, they had been like: ‘We have to get her out.’”

Twenty minutes or so after the first sting, she was hauled out of the water on to the boat. “I was whimpering, I was making a dying animal noise and they had been selecting the jellyfish stings off me. One particular person even pulled one out of my mouth like a bit of spaghetti. I simply needed to die – the pain was horrific.”

So many different tales: the first time she tried the Channel in 2009, she signed up for a double crossing and the captain of the help boat misplaced her for a time throughout a darkish and stormy night time when she was two-thirds of the approach again to English shores. “They drifted away and I was screaming out ‘Don’t depart me behind’ – I was terrified.” She was battling two-metre waves and felt the ghostly presence of hulking ships which take a kilometre to come back to a cease.

McCardel looks out over the surf at Bondi
McCardel appears to be like out over Bondi. In cooler water swims, she has been advised, she had been on the edge of loss of life.
{Photograph}: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Throughout her first try to triple-cross the Channel in 2011, the climate turned. She was floundering, barely stroking with one arm and resisted her help crew’s makes an attempt to get her out. “My mind was not functioning.” When she was pulled out she couldn’t stroll, was delirious and mumbling and dangerously hypothermic. In intensive care at Canterbury Hospital, a physician advised her that 30 extra minutes in the water and she would have been lifeless.

There are clues in McCardel’s childhood to the girl she would turn into. Her function fashions – three older and sporty siblings – advised her she may solely play with them if she stored up. “I needed to be higher at no matter recreation they had been enjoying or I needed to be like them and so I would push myself.” When she was about seven, she insisted on peddling along with her 14-year-old brother on his paper spherical. He advised her she couldn’t as a result of she wouldn’t preserve up. “I’m like, ‘No, I will preserve up, I’m coming.’”

Her dad and mom had been removed from pushy and when she began to swim competitively as a teenager, they refused to take her to swim coaching at 5am (they agreed to select her up afterwards). On weekdays, a good friend’s mom took her and on weekends she set her alarm for 3.15am and rode her bike 9km. She remembers the day her mom got here exterior in a pink nightie and, unsuccessfully, tried to cease her peddling off in the darkish. McCardel feared she’d be in bother when she bought dwelling. “As an alternative, my Dad’s like, ‘Proper, we’re going to purchase you some lights.’”

However McCardel’s instances weren’t quick sufficient to get her into the nationwide championships in the open class and her dad and mom inspired her to stop swimming to focus on her remaining two years of examine. After college, she went to Monash College to do an arts diploma.

McCardel at Bondi
‘I had this stunning reference to the water,’ says McCardel. {Photograph}: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Sooner or later, although, she had determined she needed to be “the best in the world at one thing”. She tried triathlon however failed to achieve an elite degree. She did properly in the Melbourne marathon and began to assume that distance is likely to be the place she may very well be the best. In 2007, she did a marathon swim, 11.3km between Frankston and Mornington. “It was so wild and free … I had this stunning reference to the water.” About halfway by means of the swim she was smashing the discipline – the first girl, with just one man forward of her. “I simply knew at that second that I may very well be the best in the world at marathon swimming.” She got here second, after the male swimmer.

Chloë McCardel’s swimming profession has not made her cash. Most of her earnings comes from teaching others to swim the Channel and motivational talking. (As a survivor of home violence, she additionally advocates for the criminalisation of coercive management.) Forward of each swim, she runs fundraisers. However the objective is the factor that pulls her ahead: “I set scary targets and then I’m so petrified I get out of mattress in the morning.”


She has set herself one other scary objective: in 2022 she needs to be the first particular person in historical past to swim the 92km from England to Belgium by means of the stormy, frigid waters of the North Sea. “The thought is to get to the different end earlier than I die. And if I don’t end up in intensive care, it’s a bonus.”

The Bondi surf that’s making me panicky is like a soak in a tub for McCardel. She strokes again in direction of me and, with no small quantity of embarrassment, I inform her that I assume we should always seize a espresso as a substitute. No dramas, she says as we attain the sand. As we towel off, she provides: “I don’t even like waves.”

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