UPDATED Monday, Aug. 25—Twelve hours and five minutes after leaving England Sunday, Aug. 24, Paige Christie ’15 reached land in France, completing her solo swim of the English Channel. Christie is the sixth Smith student to successfully swim the English Channel.
There’s something about Smith that makes you want to … swim the English Channel?
That’s certainly true if you’re Paige Christie ’15, who in August will become the sixth Smithie to attempt the Channel swim. She follows the legacy of Margaret Broenniman ’85 and Maura FitzPatrick Sklarz ’85 (who completed a joint swim in 1984), Maureen Travers M.S. ’91 (who completed a solo swim that same year), and Mackenzie Bradley ’13 and Emma Reim ’13 (who completed a joint swim in 2011).
You can follow Christie’s mid-August attempt with a GPS tracker app, available on the day of her swim. Follow Smith College on Twitter and Facebook for updated information on her swim date.
Christie was inspired to take on the Channel four years ago when she visited Smith as a prospective student the summer after her junior year in high school. “When I saw the plaque by Dalton Pool,” she said, listing the Smithies who had completed the swim and with room for more names to be added, “I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do it.”
Reim and Bradley were training for their upcoming 21-mile Channel swim during Christie’s visit, and the high school student quickly began to imagine taking on the same goal. Christie told swim coach Kim Bierwert, “If I get accepted to Smith, I’m going to do this.”
An outstanding student academically and athletically, Christie was recruited by schools across the United States, but when she received her acceptance from Smith, her decision was easy.
And now, it’s Channel time.
There’s a reason that swimming the English Channel is widely perceived as the ultimate long-distance swim: It’s tough. Several hundred people attempt to swim the Channel every year; annually, some 20 or 30 succeed. Of the 3,000 people who have successfully completed the swim, about 1,000 are women.
“The Channel is a pretty tough cookie,” says Christie. “We like to say that she’s a fickle lady. Some days she can appear as smooth as glass, and then all of a sudden you’re looking at rolling waves. I’m a big planner, so the unpredictability factor is something I’ve had to learn to roll with.”
To swim the Channel, you must reserve a boat and a start date a year in advance. On the day you’re scheduled to swim, you get into the water at Dover, England, and conclude the swim some 14 hours later at Cap Gris Nez, France.
During the swim, you’re followed by a boat carrying a few friends and an assigned observer who makes sure you follow all the official rules: You can’t leave the water, you can’t touch the boat, and no one is allowed to touch you. Other variables to contend with include the weather and water temperatures that average around 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
You’re swimming in open water, not a swimming pool, so there’s lots of “chop”—along with large transport ships (the Channel is a major shipping area), debris, and stinging jellyfish. In addition, the long swim can mess with your mind: Twelve hours on your own in demanding physical conditions can make you question yourself, coaches say.
But Christie is upbeat about the mental demands. “I’m a philosophy major,” she laughs, “So thinking is what I do!” A self-described planner, she’s developed a schedule of what to focus on for each half-hour increment of the swim: her stroke for the first 30 minutes, favorite songs later on.
“You have to prepare for the hardships that will come in the middle of the swim,” she says, “but why let that drag you down?”
Christie says she’s been preparing “24 hours a day” since swim season ended in March. This summer, she’s spent one or two hours a day in the weight room and between two and four hours each day in the pool.
Even when she’s not working out, Christie is still readying herself for the swim—making sure that she gets eight hours of sleep each day and monitoring her diet to ensure that she’s taking in enough calories to build insulation while still staying fit. “I also practice meditation and yoga every day because it helps me stretch out and clear my head,” she says.
NCAA regulations prevent Christie from meeting with Coach Bierwert during the off-season, but she’s working closely with “the bible” he gave her in March. Although he’s never swum the Channel himself, Bierwert has a great track record: all five of the Smithies he’s worked with on previous attempts have successfully completed the swim.
Bierwert will be on Christie’s boat during the swim, along with her parents, her brother and an official observer. Mackenzie Bradley ’13 will be on the boat too, serving as Christie’s support swimmer. (After three hours, Bradley can get in the water to swim for an hour with Christie, then she must return to the boat for three hours. That schedule continues until the swim is over.)
Christie says that her former teammate’s support is invaluable: “We were great competitors, but we’re even better friends.”
Christie’s other teammates have provided support and encouragement too, working out with her, serving as “coach for a day,” and cheering her on. “That’s something that I think is unique to Smith,” says Christie. “When someone here sets a goal, everyone else really encourages them to go for it.”
Christie’s Channel attempt is scheduled for sometime between August 17 and 24, depending on weather and the schedule of swimmers who have starting times before hers. Christie will travel to England August 12 to adjust to the time change and will spend some time training in the harbor. Leading up to her swim, she’s been blogging at theenglishchannelgrind.wordpress.com.
And after the swim?
Christie, a pre-law major (philosophy, with a minor in exercise and sport studies), is honored to have been elected co-captain of Smith’s swim team for her senior year and to be serving another term as president of the Smith Republicans. She hopes to attend law school after graduation—and she’s scheduled time during the long Channel swim to think about her personal statement.
“I know that to achieve any goal, it takes maturity and sustained commitment,” Christie says. “I hope that swimming the Channel will help me prepare for many things that come next.”