It takes about two hours for me to enter the athlete's mental zone, that closed-off world of focus and determination. Swimming with giant strokes, I can feel the curve of the earth. Handful by handful, Europe grows closer.
In 1875 an Englishman, Capt. Matthew Webb, feasting on raw meat for strength, coffee for stimulation and beef-tea mixed with beer for courage, swam the 21-mile Channel in 21 hours, 45 minutes and instantly became one of the world's first international athletic stars. The mayor of Dover presided over a reception in Webb's honor at the Royal Cinque Ports Yacht Club, and the Prince of Wales gave him $25,000 in gifts. Monuments were erected in his name. When he met his public at the London Stock Exchange, the crowd was so great that the 27-year-old hero couldn't get past the crush of people to enter the building. Six weeks later The New York Times proclaimed that despite England's autumn chill, every "village pond and running stream contains youthful worshippers at the shrine of Webb...each probably determining that he one day will be another Captain Webb."
It took nearly four decades for another swimmer—T.W. Burgess, of Great Britain, on his 14th attempt—to equal Webb's achievement. Fifteen years and three swimmers later, in 1926, 19-year-old Gertrude Ederle of the U.S. became the first woman to succeed in crossing the Channel's icy waters. A 1924 Olympic bronze medalist in the 100-and 400-meter freestyle, and a member of the gold medal-winning 4 x 100-meter relay team, Ederle, employing what was lampooned as a messy, undignified stroke called the Australian crawl, or freestyle, shattered the Channel record by almost two hours, completing her swim in 14 hours, 39 minutes. The ticker-tape parade that she was given by New York City was as exuberant as the one for Charles Lindbergh a year later. In all, more than 6,000 similar attempts have been made, by 4,400 swimmers. Of those, 485 have reached the other side, some more than once, for a total of 761 crossings, in an average time of 11 hours. Fastest and slowest: 7:17 (1994) and 26:50 (1923).
My own swim is uneventful until hour 4. Then, out of God's wide sky, comes an apocalypse. I swim into the middle of a 200-yard shoal of jellyfish, and suddenly the water is purple and gelatinous with sea creatures. Everywhere I put my hands I'm stung. The jellyfish cover my face and shoulders; they get squished in my armpits and groin. My torso and legs are flayed.
Over the next half hour of slow swimming my right arm loses feeling and my breathing turns raspy. Another half hour passes, and I become light-headed. Woodward's book is gone; he intently watches my every stroke.
It gets worse. I lift my head to speak for the first time all day. I say, "Hey, can I be having an allergic—" and my stomach heaves. "Hey, I'm throwing up everywhere!" I scream.
Brickell leans out the door of his cabin. "Motion sickness," he says before disappearing inside. Woodward gives me the thumbs-up.
For the next two hours I'm lost. When the tentacles of a solitary jellyfish rake the inside of my mouth, I barely feel the sting. My stroke rate hovers at a shaky 76. I'm dimly aware that the cold has clutched my brain, and it occurs to me that I'm hypothermic.
With less than an hour to go, Woodward surprises me with a message that I'm on track for a fast time. He also tells me that the two other swimmers sharing the waterway with me today have fallen victim to hypothermia. They're already back in England.
Woodward is soon pointing to the approaching European continent. I refuse to look. He becomes insistent. I breathe to the opposite side until he goes away. The entire beautiful universe has been winnowed down to the windmill of my arms and the space between me and dry land. I still can't feel my right arm.