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Sarah Pileggi
August 10, 1981
Channel swimmer Cindy Nicholas, who holds the two-way record, is aiming to become the first to swim the English Channel three ways, nonstop
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August 10, 1981

Channeling Her Energies

Channel swimmer Cindy Nicholas, who holds the two-way record, is aiming to become the first to swim the English Channel three ways, nonstop

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Weight is crucial to Channel swimmers in their struggle against the cold. Most of the men swimmers are large to begin with and put on as much weight as they can handle as August approaches. Nicholas, who is 5'5", began her intensive two-a-day training in May at 147 pounds. Now she is down to 135, having been careful not to lose more than two or three pounds in any week. "Six would have been easy," she says. Rather than coat herself with a thick layer of lanolin as many swimmers do for warmth, she uses only a light covering of Vaseline. "Seaweed sticks to lanolin, and you feel dirty enough as it is," she says. "I'd rather keep on as many pounds as I can and still be in shape."

Nicholas is a professional marathon swimmer. She has swum many of the world's major distance events for prize money, but she prefers the test of the Channel, where it costs her and her hardworking parents and, on rare occasions, a commercial sponsor at least $15,000 each summer that she swims.

"A race is interesting," she says, "but it's hardly any challenge. You race and you get money and that's all. Money for me has always been very secondary. If someone said to me, 'If you finish this, you'll get this much money,' it wouldn't help me. You need something more than that to get you to the finish."

In spite of her disinterest in racing, Nicholas is fast for a marathon swimmer, a fact she attributes to her training as a youth. She holds the record of nine hours and 46 minutes for a France-to-England Channel crossing, and only three of the 200-odd swimmers who have swum the Channel have faster times for England to France than her eight hours, 58 minutes. Her pace for a Channel swim is 84 to 88 strokes a minute—52 to 70 is normal for a woman—and she maintains virtually the same pace throughout the swim, no matter what the distance or the conditions. Thus, in a two-way swim, her speed shows to better advantage on the second leg, after about 10 hours. Though her time for one leg can be beaten, nobody has beaten her for two, and the only swimmer close to her is Jon Erickson of Chicago, who also intends to attempt a three-way this summer. It was Erickson's 1975 two-way record that Nicholas, swimming in perfect conditions, surpassed by 10 hours.

"Jon's stronger than I am on the first leg, but I catch up on the second and tend to get stronger," she says. "We're about five minutes apart on a one-way. But Jon has the advantage of having been in the water 30 hours a couple of times. I've only done 20."

Another contender for the triple is Kevin Murphy, a 32-year-old reporter for Independent Radio News in London, who is reputed to be able to sleep while he swims. Murphy is very slow, which means that the tides hinder him even more than most swimmers, but his persistence was demonstrated in 1979 when he was in the water for 56 hours in an unsuccessful three-way attempt.

Having swum the Channel 12 times since her debut in 1975, Nicholas is well acquainted with most of its hazards. She has transited viscous masses of jellyfish and once was so badly stung that she had to complete the crossing using only one arm because she could no longer lift the other. She has been menaced by tankers bearing down on her out of the night. Large swells have thrown her repeatedly against the barnacled rocks of Cap Gris Nez as she tried to push off the French shore. Her arms have been bruised from hitting the long snouts of garfish that are attracted by the phosphorescence that gathers around a swimmer's body at night. She has had to dive under or plow through thick beds of seaweed that can be as much as a quarter of a mile across. She has been tangled in fishermen's nets and banged on the arm by her pilot boat.

"That's the trouble with marathon swimming," Nicholas says. "You don't enjoy it. When you start you're waiting to finish. Sometimes you'll be swimming at night and there'll be ships going by that are really nicely lit up, and it'll be so peaceful and quiet and beautiful, but you can't appreciate it because you're worrying that between where you are and the shore something's going to go wrong." Her worst crossing of all, according to Nicholas, was the one in 1978 when, with, as it turned out, nine hours to go, she ran out of things to think about. Her goal that summer was to become what is known as Queen of the Channel, the woman with the most crossings to her credit. She had tied the record of Greta Andersen the previous summer on the second leg of her two-way, and now she was going for No. 6.

"It was my fifth swim of the summer," she says. "I'd done the Lake Ontario race and just before that the Lake Pemibiac [ Quebec] swim, 15 hours in 52-degree water. By the time I got to the Channel I'd had a swim almost every week and I'd thought about everything. I'd planned out my whole next 10 years. When we crossed over to the French side by boat it was flat calm, but I hadn't been in the water 10 minutes before it started breezing up. The rollers started before I'd even gotten to the big boat [members of her crew ride in an inflatable boat for the 900 yards to and from the beach]. I thought, This isn't fair at all.' But once you start, that's it. You've paid for the boats [around $1,500 per crossing] and you've paid for the registration [$ 170 for a three-way] and you've gone over to France [2 l/2 hours] and you've waited to start [five hours] and you really don't want to do it all over again. I was in the vilest mood you'd ever want to know. All I could think of was, 'When is this going to be over?' That swim took 12:15, and I usually do a one-way in nine hours. Every minute over nine was like an hour. I mean I've had more awful swims than good ones, but this was the real loser. It was so long and so lonely you wanted a shark to come up beside you so you could say 'Hi, how're you doing?' "

With Queen of the Channel under her belt, Nicholas was again without an immediate goal, a situation that causes her a certain amount of anguish, in or out of the water. But at the back of her very busy mind was the idea of the three-way. It had been planted there by her fisherman-pilot, Val Noakes of Folkestone, the night she finished her record two-way in 1977. From Shakespeare Beach, where she had encountered the night-shift workers, Nicholas had swum back to Noakes' 40-foot fishing boat, Fair Chance, and climbed aboard for the seven-mile trip to Folkestone. Feeling pleased with herself, she went into the wheelhouse, the warmest spot, and there Noakes, who has piloted all but one of her 12 crossings, looked her over and said, "Well, you look fit. Why didn't you turn around and do a three-way?"

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