Swimming: Assault on swimming's Everest

James Parrack represented Britain as a swimmer for eight years, appearing at one Olympics and winning a Commonwealth silver medal. But one of his greatest experiences was helping Eva Mortensen to swim the Channel
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When Eva stepped out of the cold water she was bright red and perfectly calm. This was not at all what I had expected. She slowly dressed herself on the banks of the deserted Yorkshire reservoir and we made our way to the car. She said she felt "OK", but she still had not started shivering. Right then I knew we were in very serious trouble. I calculated that the nearest hospital was half an hour away .

"I feel strange," she said. "My head hurts." She had lost all colour from her face. Immediately, I stopped the car and dragged her out. "Start walking," I said urgently. "Quickly, we have to walk."

We had been told that if the warning signs are ignored, hypothermia can be fatal. Fortunately, within two or three minutes, Eva's body was shaking uncontrollably and then she started bitching like hell about the cold. "Thank God" I thought, as this was the first indication that she would return to normal and that the crisis was over, but it would take her 10 days to overcome her fear and return to the cold water.

A week earlier, in May 1996, I had accompanied Eva Mortensen, my Danish girlfriend and fellow Olympic swimmer, to Dover, to begin her four-month preparation to swim the Channel. Known around the world as the ultimate open water challenge, Eva had been fascinated with it since the age of seven. A Danish citizen who grew up in the United States, Eva and I had been living and training in Leeds as full-time swimmers for the last two years. Neither of us was selected for the Atlanta Games and in April last year, aged 26, she decided to train for the Channel. The most fascinating chapter of my swimming life was about to begin.

For someone who had averaged 60 kilometres (37 miles) a week as an international swimmer for the last 10 years, the 21 miles was not going to be the problem. For a slim competitive athlete with little body fat, the real problem during a swim likely to last more than 10 hours was going to be the cold. "The best insulation is a layer of fat. Another good insulator is the mind, but you have to be incredibly strong," Alison Streeter told us in Dover. Alison has made the swim a staggering 35 times and is in Dover every weekend from May helping hopeful Channel swimmers acclimatise. But, living in Leeds, it was just not possible to join them regularly. On the exposed moorland north of Bradford, we found a windsurfing reservoir, and this is where Eva trained.

After her initial shock, the painfully cold trips lasted just six or seven minutes. It was odd that she could only stay in for such a short time when her first dip at Dover lasted 14 minutes. By mid-June, she could still only manage 15 minutes: it was a demoralising month.

With no sign of progress, going to the reservoir became harder and harder. It was distressing, too, when a paltry half hour would wipe her out for most of the evening. Half an hour is so effortless in a pool that clearly here was a completely new swimming experience for both of us.

As the time to go came round, I found myself in a difficult situation. She would try to talk me out of taking her and it was tempting not to. It was hard for me to see her keep getting beaten by the elements and to keep picking herself up to go back for more. She needed someone to help her through, but I could not tell her to do something we both knew I was not prepared to do myself. It was a constant struggle for which the years of a determined competitive swimming career had prepared her well.

At the end of June she entered the National 25km race in Ullswater and lasted just over an hour in the 57- degree water. It was depressing to think that one hour in June had to become, possibly, 12 hours by August. That kind of suffering didn't bear thinking about.

In early July, we returned to Dover and made a crucial discovery: we realised that the reservoirs up north had been colder than the sea, which explained why she could only manage the shorter sessions. With the sea at 59 degrees, Eva swam for four and a half hours in the filthy water of Dover harbour. She emerged with her face blackened from garbage spewed out by the ferries, bored and miserably cold, but began to believe for the first time that the cold water swims in Yorkshire were finally beginning to pay off. We spent the rest of the day playing tourist and, pointing at France, I said unhelpful things like, "Look! It's only over there."

The next week, Eva left England to take entrance exams to medical school in the United States. She was gone a month and trained at an open water club in San Francisco. The sea temperature there is 60 degrees, and this is where she completed her timed six-hour cold water qualification swim which is required by the Channel Swimming Association before they will let anyone attempt the Channel. She arrived back on 20 August ready to go.

Apart from the problem of the distance and the cold, the Channel is about waiting for the right time - the neap tides. Swimmers cross during these neap tide windows because there is too much water flowing through the Channel during a spring tide to make a swim possible. If the frustrating English weather fails to co-operate, swimmers wait 10 days for the next one. Our neap tide window was 16 to 26 August.

Eva was set to go on 22 August and we arrived in Dover the day before to swim and relax. The weather had been calm for two days and we were both very excited. But when we checked in with our boat pilot, Mike Oram, at 7pm the weather had changed and he said that there was no chance of going tomorrow. Or the next day. Or, by the looks of things, all week. Eva was returning home to the States on the 28th and it was easy to get angry with Mike, as if it was his fault the weather had turned. We blamed him for ruining all the preparation and for taking Eva's dreams away with a simple "Sorry, no". We returned to friends in Tunbridge Wells devastated.

Each day we watched the weather forecasts and each day at 7 o'clock we phoned Mike to see if there was any chance. Others had come from across the world and were never given the chance. The furthest we had travelled that week was from the other side of Kent.

Then, miraculously, at 7 o'clock on Monday 26 August, 38 hours before her flight home, Mike said, "If she wants to go, we can go tomorrow!"

Panic! We packed. We measured out the food and drink. We carefully checked we had everything, went to bed and then got up to check it all over again. Of course she was nervous, but I had confidence in her. Having made six hours, I knew she could make eight or 10. We arrived in Dover at 9am and met Mike at his 30ft cabin cruiser, the Sea Satin. We were accompanied by his wife, Angela, the official Channel observer, and their son, Lance.

The pilot sets your start time according to how long the swim is expected to take. The tide takes you in an 'S' shape and for a 10-hour swim (our expectation) our start time was set for 10.30am. All being well, the tides would wash Eva on to one of the long beaches that sweep north from Cap Griz Nez. The pilot's navigation of the tides is crucial. It is not unknown to come within a quarter of a mile of land and have to stop because the tide just will not let you in.

The 20-minute boat trip to the starting point is intense. It seems awfully rough to me. The official log describes the sea as "its usual lollopy swell." "Flat," Mike calls it and after only 15 minutes I'm feeling queasy.

I try to help Eva grease up, which is necessary to protect against chafing from the swimsuit and the cold. But the rocking of the boat as it hits another swell is constantly throwing us off balance. She's stressing out and I'm doing a hopeless job of putting the grease on. "This is not good enough, James," she scowls, but it is all I can do not to barf. At 10.25 she swims to the shore, clears the water on the English side and takes her first few strokes towards France.

Up on the deck, the boat is now filthy. The only hope of cleaning grease off someone is with neat washing-up liquid, which has leaked out of my bag and all over the floor. There is lanolin grease everywhere and poor Lance spends the first half hour of the swim wiping it all off. I watch helplessly, too ill to move. It crosses my mind that I've got another 14 hours of this.

The sun is shining in a clear blue sky and, slowly, I start to calm down.

Feeding in the Channel is very important. Food science has come a long way from the steak and chips of old, and modern carbohydrates can be taken in a simple, drinkable form. When the Sea Satin blares her noisy siren, Eva will approach for the first of many feeds.

The half hourly feeds are taking around 20 seconds and after an hour she settles into a comfortable 1.7 knots (1.95mph) at 72 strokes per minute. The first ferry passes us 400 metres to port. It is a frightening sight, but after several hours I get used to how close they come and start to enjoy the company. Eva is oblivious to it all.

At only two and a half hours we hit problems. Eva starts throwing up. This is a very bad sign. She needs the drinks to stay inside, to fuel the muscles and, more importantly, to have any chance of fighting the cold. Without the fuel she is going to have a really hard time at around six hours - the "bad patch" - when your body starts accessing its fat stores and weird things start happening mentally and physically. For those in this position for the first time, it can be a frightening trip. Mike is pretty sure hers is going to be a "really bad patch". I give her some water and it comes straight up again.

She could be sick because the Maxim drink is too concentrated and is being rejected; she is swallowing seawater; or she has taken the same seasickness pills I did and they patently aren't working. Mike advises me to lay off the Maxim and at the three-hour feed she has a coffee. And carries on being sick. In 1994 she competed in a 10-hour race in Canada where she was sick for an hour and a half. My concern here is the cold. The water temperature in Canada was 72 degrees and today it is 61.

She manages to hold down a very weak blackcurrant juice sweetened with a teaspoon of fructose. At four hours she takes some aspirin for a headache and at four hours and five minutes I watch helplessly as she empties it into the Channel again. "I can't keep anything down," she says, obviously in distress. Eva has dropped to 1.4 knots and Mike says we could be looking at a 12 to 14 hour swim. I want to do anything to spare her the enormous feeling of grief that failure will bring.

The white cliffs of Dover are still looking awfully large. They say you should never look backwards because the white cliffs are so big you don't ever feel like you're getting anywhere. You can see them all the way across. The cliffs on the French side are much smaller and take forever to come to you. I can see what they mean. We are inching across.

The next two feeds are encouraging. She holds down a cup of warm blackcurrant and I add a teaspoon of fructose to the next. She has recovered a steady rhythm and after five hours she passes an orange buoy marking the mid- point of the channel. I'm preparing to go in and swim with her. The rules of Channel swimming say you can swim with someone for up to an hour, then you cannot go back in again for at least another hour, repeating this pattern as often as you like. Watching from the boat, it is easy to get lulled into a false sense of security.

The sun is shining, she looks comfortable and my mind wanders. I watch one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world as we pass through, and over the CB, listen in to the conversations the captains have with the coastguard. My imagination drifts to the crew and the cargo and their destination ports all over the world. I think how more people have been in space than swum the Channel; how more have sat on top of Everest. One in three Channel swims ends in failure and there are two others attempting to become the 501st person to swim across. One of them is less than half a mile away from us and his name is Igor. I speculate idly about his life and where he's from with a name like Igor. He's Brazilian as it turns out.

Then I leap into the Channel and feel first hand the biting cold which takes my breath away and the panic of not being able to breathe. I can barely see a yard in front of me, the roar of the water is constantly in my ears and a mouthful of seawater makes me retch. The seaweed scares me with the threat of jellyfish, and quickly I begin to experience some of the feelings of total isolation in the dark world of Channel swimming. I wonder in disbelief how the hell she has been managing to deal with all this for five hours already. I last 20 minutes and get out, freezing to death.

As she approaches six hours she starts to say she is feeling tired, then complains of being cold. Her bad patch has started. Either the cold will slow her right down and she will eventually need to be dragged out, or she'll come out the other side and be OK. Everything is hurting her and she has dropped to 1.2 knots. She keeps asking how far she has left and I wonder what to do. What am I going to tell her? I tell her to count nine feedings.

"And then I'll be there?"

Think of something, Jim. She won't even be close.

"And then you'll be close," I say. Mike does not think this is a good plan. He wants to know what I'll say in nine feeds' time. Well I figure I'll drive off that bridge when I get to it. Maybe she'll lose count. I look ahead, but France is still looking awfully small.

Never tell them whereabouts they are, or how far they have got left, is the general rule. Be encouraging and be vague. Tell them to pick it up and they will be there quicker. Simple logic like this always baffles a delirious Channel swimmer.

At seven and a half hours she has been holding down the blackcurrant and fructose and I begin to add very small amounts of Maxim. Her teeth are chattering and she wants more aspirin. She is getting annoyed that I am not answering her questions of how far to go with direct answers. This is a good sign. If she is complaining she is OK. It's when they go quiet that the pilot will start to watch very closely for signs of hypothermia.

She looks awful. Then, out of the blue, she asks in a quiet, miserable voice, "Will I do it in under 10 hours?" and my world stops. Her pain is breaking my heart but I'm helpless. Like a protective mother to her child, I want to scoop her out, hold her tight and shelter her from all this suffering. But it is a pivotal moment in the swim. She has set her mind on the next few hours and has resolved one way or another to deal with it. Her pace is slightly up and Mike is amazed. He wants me to be even more encouraging. She could finish in under 11 hours if she can keep this up.

I jump in again and after a pitiful 15 minutes my shivering can once more be felt all over the boat. What a wimp.

But something has happened to her. Over the next hour she stops complaining and her stroke-rate and speed both increase. She is back on to weak Maxim and is taking all the drinks without any difficulty. At eight and a half hours the entry in the observers' log reads, 'Silent and determined now.'

France is looking so large now and yet the last two to three hours are interminable. Nine hours, nine and a half hours. She is inching towards her goal, desperate to get there but apparently making no progress. "Am I there yet?" she asks exasperated.

"In 20 minutes you'll be 1,000 yards from France!" I yell. But it takes an hour to get 1,000 yards from France and by this time the sunshine is long gone and it's pitch black. If she passes out now, the tide would wash her up on the beach but I can't help feeling that to be washed unconscious onto a French beach would not really be the ideal way to finish.

Unfortunately, she can't see anything in the darkness. As it is now too shallow for the boat, I'm in again to lead her to the beach, but she can't see me either. They are shouting directions at us but we're floundering. It's maddening to be so close and to feel like neither of us is getting anywhere. We don't know just how close we are. And then all of a sudden Eva realises we're swimming in three feet of water and can stand up. She runs up on to the beach, throws her arms in the air and screams.

It's 9.11pm. Ten hours and 46 minutes after starting, and 43,000 strokes later, she's made it. She's conquered the English Channel.

It is a three-hour ride back to England. She talked like a waterfall, 11 hours of pent-up thoughts tumbling out of her. We sat on the top deck of the boat in the cold and the wind with blankets around us. In the two and a half years I'd known her I had never seen her looking so radiantly happy and so at peace. She was exhausted, cold, dirty and her body was in so much pain; but she was loving it. I left her to her thoughts and reflections on her achievement and her immense pride. Even though I felt as though I had nothing to do with it, it was without doubt one of the greatest swimming experiences of my life.