Swimming across the English Channel from Dover, England, to Calais, France, is a feat attempted by the bold and courageous and accomplished by only the most determined and courageous of them all.
Shannon Ward-Swartz, a 1970 graduate of Anoka High School, and her nephew Todd Miller (whose mother is a 1959 graduate of Anoka High) formed a tandem team and accomplished that very feat July 22.
It was a victory for which the aunt and her nephew trained for nearly a year, swimming laps in community pools with the Minnesota Masters and becoming accustomed to cold water swims by stroking in the waters of Lake Minnetonka, Christmas Lake, Lake Harriet and even Lake Mille Lacs.
“We’d get out there as soon as we could after the spring thaw,” said Ward-Swartz, a resident of Eden Prairie.
But Minnesota waters could do nothing to prepare the duet for a swim in salt water, and so they arrived in England July 1, knowing their window of swimming opportunity was open July 18 through 26.
“Swimming in salt water is like swimming through sand paper. You can’t replicate that here (in Minnesota),” said Miller, who lives in Edina.
And so, the English Channel relay team did its final training in the English Channel’s salty waters.
“We trained (in the harbour at Dover) for two weeks before the swim,” said Ward-Swartz, and described an exclusive community of English Channel swimmers who shared the harbour’s waters, each swimmer anticipating an attempt to swim across the channel.
And then, on July 22, the waters were open, the weather was promising and the conditions adequate.
“Everything has to be exactly in order,” Ward-Swartz said.
On that midsummer’s day, the order was acceptable and so Ward-Swartz and her nephew began taking the first of millions of strokes necessary to propel themselves across the English Channel.
They’d swim in two-hour shifts, pausing each hour – or half-way into each swimming shift – to take a 15- or 20-second break and rehydrate with gulps of water.
On board their support vessel – a 25-foot long cabin cruiser – Miller’s 13-year-old daughter and one of Ward-Swartz’ business clients served as pit crew, keeping a close eye on the swimmer in the water, providing water during the breaks and standing ready with a warm towel and clothing for the swimmer climbing on board for rest and refueling while the other re-entered the channel.
“That two hours rest seemed to go by like that,” said Miller, snapping his fingers to demonstrate the speed at which the resting hours passed.
But sure enough with the pilot of their support vessel navigating the waters and marking their progress – and with Ward-Swartz and her nephew alternately stroking and kicking their way through the waters – the aunt and her nephew crossed the English Channel in 14 hours, 33 minutes.
Miller described the challenge of crossing the Channel, calling it the busiest shipping lane of the world.
“It’s like crossing a busy street,” Miller said.
And Miller and his aunt know what they’re talking about. They’ve both crossed the channel as members of four-person relay teams in prior years. Not only that, Miller has attempted to cross the channel as a solo swimmer on two different occasions.
But the Ward-Swartz/Miller duet team crossing remains a rare and unusual accomplishment.
Ward-Swartz said she and her nephew are one of only a handful of duet teams to accomplish that feat. Most relay swim teams crossing the English Channel comprise four or six swimmers, she said.
But, for Ward-Swartz and Miller, the successful crossing team took just the two of them.
And for the aunt and her nephew, this was a feat for the family history books.
Sue Austreng is at [email protected]