It has taken her 12 years, more than 450 hours in bitingly cold water and at least 1.5m strokes – but finally the Australian marathon swimmer Chloë McCardel has become the queen of the Channel by swimming the stretch of water between England and France for the 44th time.
Wrapped in an Australian flag as she celebrated her record-breaking swim, McCardel said she had been waiting a long time to celebrate.
“I’m so thankful, I’ve had so much support from people across the UK and Australia to get me through this last 12 years,” said the swimmer, who has battled a chest infection and suffered breathing difficulties in the run-up to her last swim.
“So many people helped along the way to make my dreams come true and hopefully I can inspire the next generation of open water swimmers and young people to go after their dreams.”
McCardel, 36, surpassed the men’s world record of 34 Channel crossings last year, and on Wednesday, passed the current record of 43 crossings held by British swimmer Alison Streeter.
It’s been a hell of a journey. She has suffered from hypothermia, spending days in Canterbury ICU after one crossing – and battled boredom, pain and jellyfish. She has done a number of double and one triple crossing, spending just under 37 hours in the water. But whatever the experience, the stretch of water kept calling her back.
“The first time I really felt like I’d found where I belonged,” she told the Guardian before the final swim. “Like my whole life has been heading to this one point. But I have a love-hate relationship with the Channel. On the bad days it’s like the French shoreline or the wind is tormenting me. But I’m drawn to it – it’s got this incredible, almost magical pull. I call it my spiritual home because I have literally been called back here every year.”
McCardel hopes her feat of endurance, skill and sheer grit will inspire other women. She speaks openly about being a survivor of domestic violence, and credits swimming with helping her begin to recover from PTSD.
“After going through so much trauma, swimming the English Channel helped rebuild my confidence, which was shaken a lot. My sense of identity and my sense of self worth was shaken,” she said.
The feat of crossing the Channel a record number of times occasionally seemed crazy even to her, she admitted. Swimming for a day and a half non-stop really shouldn’t be possible. She suffers from pain in her tendons, ligaments and muscles, her body is constantly telling her to stop. “There’s no logic behind it. It is basically like, how much punishment can your mind and body take before everything breaks?”
The rules of the Channel Swimming Association are strict: she cannot wear a wetsuit or anything that could provide protection – even a thermal swimming cap. After hours in the fiercely cold water, her brain starts warning that she is dying of cold.
To distract herself during the 44 gruelling swims she used visualisation techniques, imagining in intense detail how it would feel to finish, what that would look, smell and taste like and practises gratitude, thinking of all the people who have helped her. “If your mind is stuck in the moment, time moves super slow,” she says. “The idea is to take myself out of the present if I’m in a lot of pain, and take myself to a happier place.”
McCardel only learned to swim when she was 11, but soon started swimming competitively. At 19, she decided she wanted to be the best in the world at something, and took up marathon swimming. She went on to do the longest unassisted ocean swim in history – an astonishing 77 miles (124km) from South Eleuthera Island to Nassau in the Bahamas. She is entirely self-funded, and set up her own business to help other wannabe Channel swimmers achieve their dreams of a solo or relay swim, while also working as a motivational speaker and coach.
As the end of her epic challenge grew nearer, she did worry about experiencing a sense of loss – but said she had been very careful “not to wrap my whole self-worth up into one thing”.
With the feat completed she plans to grow her business and spread positivity about endurance and adventure through her keynote speaking. Whatever plaudits now pour in, she knows she will have earned them.
“It’s been a really tough journey,” she said. “But I’ve persisted.”
• This article was amended on 14 October 2021 to clarify that it is thermal swimming caps that are prohibited by the rules of the Channel Swimming Association, not all caps.