On August 1, 2013, I made my attempt to swim across the English Channel. At age 59, I am the second oldest American female "Channel Aspirant."

My love of open water swimming began just three years ago when I joined the local Masters Swim Team. This quickly progressed to participating in triathlons and I discovered a passion for open water venues, the lakes and rivers around the state of Virginia. I developed an affinity for the sense of adventure and tranquility that open water swimming provided. But the seed for considering an English Channel swim was proposed by my niece Katie during a late night beach vacation conversation several years ago. The idea was intriguing: It is the busiest shipping lane in the world, the weather is fickle at best and water temperatures average only around 60 degrees. All of that makes the Channel the most challenging swim of all.

Sarah Duntstan (Nurs ’76) with her husband Jim (Med ’76)
My age and limited swimming experience were other reasons not to try, and so was living in Lynchburg, Va., many miles inland from the closest ocean. But I decided to give it a shot. Lots of cold showers and brief swims in my local lake all winter (the longest and coldest swim being in 48 degree water for 30 minutes) helped acclimate me to the Channel’s 60-degree water. I attended a swim camp in Mallorca Spain run by top Channel swimmers to complete my Qualifying swim, a six-hour test. My training and preparation also included several 6-hour pool swims, and weekly swims averaging 15 miles or more. I entered a 10-mile Lake swim and although I was the last finisher, I discovered that I could actually swim 10 miles. I just had to double that to get from England to France.

I spent three weeks in England before my swim. I was a crew member for a friend on her 18-hour try across. I lost another young friend in the Channel two weeks before my attempt. I swam many hours in Dover Harbor, with other Channel aspirants. Then, on the morning of Thursday August 1st, I began my swim at 5:30 a.m. I swam into the sunrise in calm conditions, which are so rare in the Channel. After swimming for 8 1/2 hours I made it 14 miles – two-thirds of the way there. The French coast was visible in the distance. I found it hard to believe that I was actually there, swimming in the English Channel. But I couldn’t go on. I am still not sure exactly why. There are monkeys on your shoulders out there – there are lots of negative voices in the long hours of swimming – and sometimes they win. I had been told that Channel swimming is 80 percent mental and 20 percent fitness. I found that to be true.

But I am proud of my Channel attempt. I did not earn the elite title of "Channel Swimmer." But having set a goal and worked hard to achieve it has enriched my life and provided inspiration to others. In the words of Aeschylus, the Greek poet, "The fullness of life is in the hazards of life. And, at the worst, there is that in us which can turn defeat into victory."

On August 1, 2013, Sarah Duntstan (Nurs '76) attempted to swim across the English Channel. She is the second oldest American female "Channel Aspirant."