Football: There's a Mad Fish at the bottom of the garden...

Have you ever tried swimming butterfly? I can swim breast-stroke for several miles in open water and I can crawl reasonably well. As for butterfly, if I really concentrate I can just about manage one stroke before the lifeguards start shifting uneasily in their seats.

But the other day I heard tell of a woman who has managed not one length of butterfly, or even two, but the English Channel. This is an achievement which has even the most accomplished long-distance swimmers gasping in admiration. Take Mike Read, for example. In his 64 years he's swum the Channel no fewer than 33 times - that's more than any other man, so he is officially known in these circles as King of the Channel.

But as he sits on his throne contemplating his 34th crossing ("I'd love to do it if someone'd sponsor me. It costs two thousand pounds."), even he can't get his head round the enormity of butterflying your way across: "It's utterly staggering - there is no other word for it. When I was younger and swimming really hard I made myself do one hour of butterfly non-stop because I knew that if I could do that I could do anything. She is simply phenomenal."

The King of the Channel is talking about Julie Bradshaw, a part-time lecturer at Loughborough University. Her nickname, for reasons that will already be abundantly clear, is Mad Fish. Mad Fish, 41 today, lives in a terraced house just off a main road into Loughborough. It's a small- ish house with a small-ish garden. But as I walk up the path the sound of splashing, groaning and cursing comes from out the back. Anyone walking past might speculate that some kind of specialist adult video production work is under way here, but I know better. To get her long hours of training in, Julie has had something called an endless pool installed. It's the swimming equivalent of a treadmill.

The splashing is Mad Fish butterflying; the groaning and cursing is the photographer trying to do the whole spectacle justice without drenching himself, or wrecking his camera.

Long-distance swimming first grabbed her when she was 13 on holiday in the Lake District: "I'd always been into swimming and I saw this sign advertising a race across Windermere and I just wanted to do it," she says matter-of-factly, as though nine out of 10 13-year-olds would have made exactly the same decision. By the time she was 14 she had set junior records for the 10-and-a-half miles of Lake Windermere and the 10 miles of Morecambe Bay. By 15 she'd swum the Channel, in 10 hours nine minutes, which remains the British Junior record.

From then on her teens seem to have been spent swimming incredibly long distances in very cold water all over the UK - Morecambe, Coniston, Ullswater, Loch Lomond. The cold's never bothered her. "You just get used to it," she shrugs. "Once when I was a kid the heating broke down at a pool in Blackpool. I was the only one in there. It just seems to suit me."

At 16 she was the first woman to swim three lengths of Windermere - that's 31 miles in 20 hours. Obviously dissatisfied with this she went back a year later to become the first woman to swim four lengths of Windermere - 42 miles in 21 hours.

Is this any way for a young girl to spend her formative years? "I still went out a lot, and had a boyfriend and things," she says, "the only thing I missed out on was discos. My mum and dad said that if I wanted to swim the channel I couldn't go to discos."

Her parents were always supportive but even they thought the Mad Fish was losing the plot when she said she wanted to swim the Channel butterfly. "My Dad said, `you're mad, you'll knacker your shoulders.' Up until now I'd been doing the crawl but even as a kid I was fascinated by the butterfly and when I heard that a Canadian woman called Vicki Keith had done it I knew I had to do it."

The butterfly is the hardest swimming stroke because your shoulders have to work so hard to get you up out of the water to breathe. So her already gruelling training schedule got much harder: "I just built it up until in the end I could spend all day in the pool, doing the 'fly, up and down, just building stamina." And back she went to the Lake District, butterflying her way across Windermere, Coniston and Ullswater.

In 2000 she was ready for the Channel but, after 10 hours, with France within her grasp - "I could have seen it if the fog wasn't so thick" - she aggravated an arm injury and had to stop: "It was a really good learning experience. A lot of people would say that if you don't succeed in something then that's failure but failure's too strong a word for me."

With a positive mental attitude like that a successful crossing was inevitable. It came in 2002 in a time of 14 hours and 18 minutes, more than nine hours faster than Vicki Keith, the only other person to make it. "It was fantastic. I can just remember touching the bottom. It was pitch dark, there was hardly anyone about. I just remember sitting on the beach, just sitting there. And then I got in the boat and came home."

The training was, and is, not so much gruelling as time-consuming. She swims more or less every day for up to an hour in her "treadmill" pool in the garden, then again in a normal pool at lunchtime. Once a week, she'll do a longer session. The morning after I met her she was in the pool at 7.30 in the morning and swam until 12.30. "You've just got to be focused and have a positive mental attitude. I never really get bored, I just think about things. I calculate how far I've gone and how fast I'm going - just little things to keep my mind occupied. I'll swim for an hour and it'll feel like five minutes."

This is sporting endeavour at its purest. There's no money in it, no fame or glory beyond a small band of enthusiasts. "It's just a challenge for me. Doing that swim in Windermere when I was 13 changed my whole life and I've never regretted anything."

Her next challenge is in July, butterflying the 28 miles around Manhattan Island. And after that? "Oh there'll be something, I'm sure."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves has defended fans use of the word 'Yid'
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West, performing in New York last week, has been the subject of controversy as rock's traditional headline slot at Glastonbury is lost once again
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

    £16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living