When distance swimmer Duke Dahlin swam the English Channel, he achieved a longtime goal, making up for a failed attempt two years earlier. The 55-year-old ocean swimmer made the France-to-England aquatic feat on August 8, 2003, joining thousands of others. Dahlin was the first openly gay male swimmer to do it.
Why did he undertake such a daunting feat? "Everything I've ever done, I try hard," Dahlin says.
Now, with his encouragement, an out lesbian distance swimmer is taking up the channel challenge this August. Ali Hall, 43, born and raised in Los Angeles, started swimming in her parents' backyard pool before she could walk, and began competing in the sport at age 6.
"There weren't a lot of sports available for girls then," says Hall. She did play tennis, field hockey, and water polo on a boys' team. Hall says that one of her idols was Penny Dean, a famous channel swimmer. Her admiration for Dean led to her long-term goal of swimming the channel.
Although she competed in running and swimming events in Division III at Occidental College, Hall declined athletic scholarships "because I just didn't want to be owned by swimming," she says.
Hall says she experienced no problems for being relatively out as a lesbian in the sport. She kept swimming recreationally in law school, but "after years and years of (having swum) too many yards, having ulcers as a kid from competition, [and enduring] parental pressure, I was worn out."
Hall has learned from Dahlin's advice and previous experience. Dahlin had a small crew of friends and professionals for support, including a coach. A fishing boat and pilot were hired, and onboard were a crewmember, an official observer, and Dahlin's partner, Joel Smart.
Yet despite the close proximity of his crew, "No one's allowed to touch you," Dahlin says. For hydration, "somebody would pass me a bottle tied to a rope. They pass Goo (a nutritional supplement in gel form) with a stick. It's like being a fish." In total, Dahlin's "feed times" came to 13 minutes. It took Dahlin 14 hours and 37 minutes to complete the daunting swim. "You just have to trust the people in the boat," he says. "These guys did a fantastic job. I never had to worry."
Swimming the English Channel has long been a goal for only the hardiest of swimmers, with the first recorded swim in 1875, by Capt. Matthew Webb, whose woolen swimwear weighed about 3 kg (l0 lbs.). Webb swam the channel in 23 hours. In those days, the swimmer was also greased with lanolin.
Since Webb's triumph, there have been 6,200 known attempts to swim the English Channel. More than 470 people were successful more than 600 times, including a 12-year-old boy in 1979 and a 65-year-old man in 1983. Gertrude Caroline Ederle was the first woman to successfully swim across the channel in 1926, in 14 hours and 39 minutes.
The distance is 18.2 nautical miles (21 land miles). Most swims start from Shakespeare Beach in Dover. The Channel Swim Association was formed to regulate the oft-attempted task. Dahlin's California spin-off group calls itself the Channel Island and Swimming Federation.
Both accomplished Masters swimmers, Hall and Dahlin wanted to expand their swimming experience beyond their years of pool competition.
Dahlin's first channel attempt in 2001 resulted in his nearly making it, but after 11 hours, he needed to stop. "I didn''t have the confidence," he says. "So I licked my wounds, went to Sicily, and swam along the coast of the Straits of Messina for over 15 miles."
Hall swam the channel as part of a seven-person relay team in July 2004, which was unsuccessful. "We were in the water nine hours and 22 minutes, and the conditions were so awful that more than half of us voted to come back," she says. Hall, who swam for an hour, wanted to keep going, and booked a solo swim for this year, set to occur sometime between Aug. 27 and Sept. 4.
How will she keep warmed up for it? "It's a waiting game," she says. The time is filled by "swimming loose" in the nearby harbor's shallow water, awaiting the OK from the boat pilot regarding weather and tidal conditions.
The toughest part of cold-water swimming, Dahlin says, is after the first two hours when "your body reaches a state of euphoria," putting a distance swimmer into "an emotional state that you cannot imagine. You cannot zone out. That's the last thing you want. That's a symptom of hypothermia. You always want to be aware of where and who you are."
Although admitting she doesn't handle cold water very well, Hall says it's one challenge she's ready to face. "A perfect swim with great conditions would last 10 hours," she says. "Seventeen hours would be a really miserable day."
Until August, Hall, who has swum the famous Alcatraz distance event in the San Francisco Bay several times, will take part in local cold-water swims until August.
With support from the Dolphin Club and the South End Running Club, which both organize open-water swimming trainings, Hall and Dahlin also take part in predawn swims organized by a smaller group of swimmers called the Sunrisers. Hall cites such training as good for her channel swim "because I might be out there in the dark."
And although a channel swim is a solitary act, Hall credits dozens of people for guiding her and helping her train for her goal.
"There are times I've been so cold I didn't know where I was," she says. "I''m working on my distress tolerance skills gaining a meditative quality, a sense of self-transcendence. It's about overcoming every limitation you thought you had."
Jim Provenzano is the author of the novels PINS and Monkey Suits. He can be reached at email@example.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 3 April 8, 2005