In September 2019 Sarah Thomas, american marathon swimmer, was the first to swim the English Channel four times non-stop. It took 54 hours and 10 minutes and the total distance was 144 miles. Just a year before this Sarah completed treatment for breast cancer. She dedicated her swim to all cancer survivors. Alexander Baznov, X-WATERS founder, asked this incredible woman about her legendary swims, motivation and everyday routine.
Watch the broadcast or read the transcript below!
The first question is why do you do what you do? What is the reason to challenge your limits again and again?
I love swimming! I love being in the water since I was a little girl. And as I get older and older I just want to see the limits of a human body and what my body could do. I started to swim In my childhood. My mum signed me over swimming lessons when I was 1 year old. I joined a summer swim team when I was 7 years old. I have always been a fish for my whole life
Could you share your most exciting swimming experience?
I have been in really beautiful and amazing situations because of swimming. I saw many things that other people can’t see, it is very special. My most favorite lake that I’ve swum in was Lake Powell in Arizona. I did an 80 mile swim there, and it was really beautiful.The water was clear, the sky was clear and over the night I saw so many stars and shooting stars. it was really calm and beautiful. The lake Powell is just above the Glen Canyon so it used to be a river and then they flooded it so that it became a lake but it still has this really high like red canyons that you would see if you were looking at the grand canyon in Arizona so it’s just this beautiful windy perfect lake, and i just loved being able to swim there.
The other extraordinary place is the Cook strait between North and South Islands in New Zealand. It was probably one of the hardest swims I`ve ever done because the currents were crazy and it was choppy and I was swallowing salt water which made me sick. But then in the middle of it when I was feeling like really terrible a huge spot of dolphins came and swam all around and they were above me and below me and around me and they hung out for I don’t know maybe half an hour 45 minutes when I was feeling pretty sick and so that swim could have been probably one of my most terrible swims.
What was your hardest swim?
The hardest swim was the Catalina channel. It was my very first marathon swim and as you know it’s one of the triple crown swims but compared to the hundred miles swims i’ve done it’s really short. It took about nine hours but I think my nutrition was off and I didn’t pace it right and so the last 4 hours were harder than any over swims. I couldn`t raise my arms for a week. This swim destroyed me. I didn’t want to swim anymore. When I finished I said that I was done and I would never touch the water again.
How did you overcome this feeling?
I like the training process, I meet amazing people, I really enjoy the build-up and the experience of it. After weeks the memories changed, my recovery was fast and I saw the whole picture of this challenge and enjoyed it a lot.
Who is your team? Who supports you during your swims?
Permanent teammate is my husband. He comes on almost all of my swims, so he knows everything. Since 2011 he’s been on about a every single swim i’ve ever done, so he’s always there and I would never go in a long swim without him. My crew contains 5 people: my mom and my husband and then three swimmers and they were like the best crew that you could possibly have because they know how to swim they’ve been in the English channel on their own they’ve crewed for me a few times before so really special to have those types of people who are able to come and want to be part of your goals and dreams.
You are not just a swimmer — you are a winner! What is your superpower?
My superpower is that I am really stubborn. Wherever you tell me that I can’t do something or I shouldn’t do something, it makes me want to do it. And even if things are really hard and tough then it’s my goal to just keep going as I am very deeply stubborn.
It is really hard to swim so long without stopping. Does it happen that you want to give up?
Yes, I think almost on almost every swim I`ve ever done I wanted to give up at some point. But there was always a reason why you want to keep going : don’t want to disappoint my teammates or I sacrifice a lot to be there, sometimes I think about the swim`s cost and I don’t want to waste the money or the time that I spent training.
What do you think about during the long distances? What do you concentrate on?
So many things! Sometimes I think about my stroke, my technique, other times I talk to people or I am completely calm in my mind and can`t think about anything but swimming and breathing.
How do you check your progress in long distances? How do you understand where you exactly are?
I don`t. When I swim I don’t wear a watch at all. When I’m just like training i just have a regular boring stopwatch basically but when I’m in a big swim I don’t ask how far it is, I don’t ask how far I’ve gone. Sometimes i’ll ask what time it is just to have an understanding of how long I’ve been in the water because I tend to lose track pretty easily .I think that’s really valuable because if you’re so focused on distance and how fast you’re swimming and how long it’s been and how much longer you lose track of the swim you know it’s not about the finish it’s about the journey and if you’re so focused on what’s happening in the future you’re not appreciating and enjoying what’s happening in the moment. You can’t do your best in the moment if you’re worried about what’s going to happen in a few hours. So my advice to people is whether you’re doing a 5k or 10k or 100k just keep your head down and don’t look up and just keep going until your crew tells you that you’re there.
You are not a professional athlete. What regular job do you have?
I am a recruiter. I actually just started a new job last week. I recruit for the veterinarians — people who work in a hospital and take care of animals.
How do you combine your work and your training? Would you like to be only a swimmer?
Balancing and juggling. A have a pretty strict calendar — at the beginning of every week I usually sit down and plan. Sometimes I swim before work and after work, sometimes I swim on the weekends. I`d like to make swimming my only job, but I have to pay bills and have health insurance.
Do you prepare for the swims with a coach? Can you share your usual training program?
I just prepare myself. I am an experienced swimmer and I know the routine so I just push myself. I swim a lot. Pretty much everyday. When I am really training I swim about 6 times a week. I believe in one day off because I think your body and mind need one day of rest every week. Otherwise if i design my training plan around my work schedule and really make sure that i stick to the plan as much as possible. I usually start small and build my way up and every week and every month go a little further to reach my target distance.
If you just jump into the water right now how far can you swim?
Well two weeks ago I swam 26 miles in 12 hours and 40 minutes so that was just a couple weeks ago. I was not super tired and I probably could have gone quite a bit longer so i don’t know I could probably go 30 40 miles right now if i really wanted to.
How many hours and where do you swim every training?
In winter when everything is frozen it is only a pool. But in the summer it is both. I am focusing on a distance. But my usual training session is about 6 hours — 2 hours in the morning and 4 hours in the evening.
What do you eat? Do you have some special menu?
In my normal life I just eat regular food. I am not a vegetarian. Food makes me feel strong.
You said that during your legendary swim across the English Channel you just drank but not ate anything.
I had a water bottle and in a water bottle we put water and electrolytes and some carbohydrate powder and a little bit of protein. Sometimes on the really long distances that lasts more than 24 hours I add solid food, for example on the English Channel I ate a lot of m&ms. Sometimes i like things with rice or oatmeal. If the swim is longer than 24 hours we moved to some solid foods just to put something hard in my stomach to make me feel better
How can you swim for 54 hours without sleeping?
You asked me earlier what is my superpower. My other superpower is apparently I don’t need to sleep so just in my day-to-day life I don’t sleep a lot and I don’t drink a ton of caffeine. When I’m on a big long swim as long as i’m rested ahead of time I don’t feel it and you’re busy because if you go to sleep you’ll drown so there’s pretty good motivation to stay awake. And then I found just when I get drowsy and maybe start to feel a little sleepy just a tiny bit of caffeine really perks me up for a while. After about 36 hours I start adding in a little bit of caffeine just to give me an extra boost to stay awake. But I’m just apparently really good at not sleeping.
What was the hardest aspect of swimming the English Channel?
It was hard, obviously. But I was so determined when I went into it. You know I was a year out of all of my cancer treatments and I had something to prove. I had between like 24 and 30 hours. I threw up a lot so for like six hours I was throwing up in the dark. I`’m starting my third lap and that was hard to push through. There was definitely a lot of me complaining to my crew and saying that I was not tough enough didn’t want to do that. But they just threw encouragement back at me. So that piece of the English Channel was really really hard. But the rest of it wasn’t even a question. There was just nothing that was going to stop me as long as the weather cooperated and didn’t go crazy. I knew that I could do it.
Do you have some specific mental meditation exercises or tricks for swimming at night in deep water?
I can usually do okay for one night: I focus on all the things around me and above me. I put my focus on the crew or the stars or the sky and not think about what’s below. But that gets a lot harder when you get into two or three nights and that’s where having someone else in the water makes me feel a little bit more confident and comfortable. In the English Channel when i wasn’t feeling very well I did have a mantra that I repeated in my mind. I just told myself over and over “I will swim through this night”. So I just repeated that over and over and that’s kind of where my focus was.
A couple of weeks ago in Hawaii there was a possibility to meet a shark. I`ve never seen them in waters and all night long i just kept telling myself “I am the predator, i am the predator”. So I was hopefully putting out good strong vibes into the ocean so that a shark wouldn’t be as tempted to eat me. But it is scary. And if you don’t at least acknowledge the risks , you’re being stupid. So when you go into the swim, know what the risks are, know what your limit is, know what the plan is.
During the English Channel swim you met jelly fishes, didn’t you?
The temperature was comfortable. But each time when I was coming to France there were plenty of jelly fishes. I tried to swim them around trying not to touch them. I was really lucky that I only hit one, it was on the top of my head. Then it hit my nose and then really landed on my chin, so my chin was like throbbing and sore for a solid 12 hours but i didn’t feel it by the time i finished the swim
Do you think you have a limit?
Of course I have. One swim took me 67 hours to finish. So 67 hours without sleeping like 104 miles — that was about the end of my limit I think. I probably only had a couple more miles left in that swim and I don’t think Icould have gone much longer than that. I was probably awake for about 72 hours. That took a really hard toll on my body and I don’t anticipate that I would want to try another 104 mile lake swim again. I might want to do that in the ocean but for fresh water that’s probably my stopping point. I don’t think i’ll do that again.
Can you give a couple of advice for our swimmers? For those who want to win and for those who want to be happy in swimming?
When you’re a person who just loves swimming and wants to be happy, you have to focus on yourself. That’s really important that you don’t compare yourself to anyone else and just focus on your own personal gains and your own personal goals. If you do want to take it to the next level and be better you just have to put your passion into it. I’m passionate about it. I make time and sacrifices because that’s what I want to do and I think that applies to anything even outside of swimming. You know what you are passionate about, what makes you happy, what brings you joy and you putting your time and your energy into that. So I think both of those go hand in hand. I think it’s perfectly fine just to be the swimmer who loves the water and enjoys a good challenge whether it’s 5k 10k or 100k.
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