Masters swimmer takes the ultimate open-water challenge

Credit: Donald Miralle/Allsport
Going into 2002, I knew that my first story of the year was going to have to be about Kristine Buckley.

Fortuitously, a reader had e-mailed me in November, giving me the scoop about this remarkable masters swimmer in Northern California — who happened to be the only woman in the world with more than 75 swims from the island of Alcatraz under her belt.

This alone would be worthy of attention, given that Buckley had merely taken up swimming as a form of recovery and fitness after enduring a stress fracture in her hip (due to aerobics with ankle weights) in 1985. But those multiple swims were only training swims for something far more grueling and unexpected.

This past summer, Buckley crossed the English Channel.

In her own words, Buckley is not fast. Nor is she nationally ranked, nor an ex-Olympian. But she did what few nationally ranked or ex-Olympians have ever done, or would be capable of doing if their lives depended on it.

To say she crossed the Channel in less than favorable conditions would be putting it mildly: 64-degree waters, rough currents, and unpredictable conditions made her accomplishment all the more impressive. Quiet-spoken and modest, Buckley shared her experience with me via phone and e-mail, and inspired me enough to share her story. She is certainly deserving of the recognition.

After my hip injury in 1985 I began swimming regularly at a community pool, then decided to give masters swimming a try, Buckley explains.

After joining Northern Californias Tamalpais Aquatic Masters, she met up with Suzie Dods, a marathon open-water swimmer who holds the distinction of being the first woman to cross Lake Tahoe the long way. Dods had decided she was going to try completing the English Channel swim on her own in 2000, after three successful relay crossings.

Although Buckley was a bit too new to the sport of open-water swimming to join Dods on her quest, she was nevertheless inspired to train with her, given that they had the same stroke count and speed.

I was inspired (by Suzie) because we are the same age, and I figured if she can do it, I can too," Buckley said. "So we became training partners, even though I knew I wasnt on her level yet. Then Suzie made her channel swim last August, and she told me it was my turn!

Just as scaling Mount Everest holds a mythical and challenging allure to mountain climbers, so too does the English Channel for open-water swimmers. Buckley began to believe she was capable of the feat her friend had recently accomplished, and she started frequent Bay Area swims with the San Francisco Bay Swimming Association.

Training in the frigid waters of San Francisco was ideal preparation for what lay ahead for Buckley in the English Channel. Unpredictable currents, fog, boat traffic, temperatures ranging from cold to colder ... but diligently, the woman who first found her way to a pool (quite literally) by accident began the grueling process of training for a marathon swim.

Buckley did more than just the five to six weekly open-water workouts necessary in preparation.

My training included pool workouts of various drills and intervals, which added up to 4,000 yards a day," she said. "I cross-trained with weights after work. Every other Sunday, I scheduled a long bay swim ranging from four to eight hours. In all, I probably covered about 18 miles a week in the water.

The more bored she got lap swimming, the more frequently she would dive into the bay and train outside, rain or shine. Jellyfish and seals made appearances from time to time, and once, after a severe storm, Buckley and her swimming partners were caught in the bays pitch-black waters, surrounded by telephone poles, fallen trees, and other dangerous debris.

With a full-time job, it was not easy for Buckley to meet the training demands that an English Channel crossing required. Financially, she had to budget for the quest as well, saving her tax refund checks and vacation days for the expensive and time-consuming task ($3,000 for entry fees and guide boat, with additional charges for hotel, food, airfare, and multiple chaperoned training swims).

Crossing the English Channel is not a casual affair. A Channel Association presides over the attempts, and it sanctions each crossing. Entries are limited and booked up to two years in advance. There are only four pilot vessels that comply with the Associations strict standards, and each vessel has only four spaces available per swim week. There are a limited number of such weeks during the summer that are deemed suitable for crossing attempts, and they can be called off at any moment due to unforeseen circumstances. Buckley was informed that her week would be Aug. 10 - 16, 2001.

When Buckley arrived in Dover, England, on Aug. 8, she learned that all the swims for the previous week had been postponed four days due to storms and other severe conditions. But luck was on her side; on Aug. 10, the first day of her six-day window, the conditions were deemed safe enough for a crossing attempt, and at 2 a.m. on Aug. 11, Buckley took her first strokes in the black waters of the Channel.

The shortest distance across the channel is 21 miles, but because of currents, no one is ever lucky enough to make the crossing as the crow flies (or in this case, as the fish swims). Buckley admits she was in a bit over her head, but at the time ignorance probably worked in her favor.

Let me just tell you how nave I was about this whole Channel swim!" she said. "I figured if Suzie had crossed in 12:37, it would take me 12 to 14 hours. I thought one just showed up in Dover and swam across. WRONG! It all depends on sea conditions, water and air temperature, wind-chill, hypothermia, swim technique and seasickness. I learned how to combat seasickness: taking one 25-mg tablet of Meclizine the night before the swim.

Buckley had no racing plan; she barely even had a racing crew! While other swimmers had an entourage of trainers, friends and family, she showed up for her scheduled start carrying her own food and supplies. Her skeleton crew consisted of the boat pilot, his brother, and a member of the Channel Association dispatched to observe and write a report on Buckleys crossing attempt, thus deeming it official or not.

Disqualifications can occur if swimmers touch the guide boat, or take longer than the allotted three-minute feeding breaks.

Buckley just wanted to finish, no matter how long it took. But even her prediction of 12 to 14 hours was unrealistic in the unfavorable conditions, as in one particularly rough spot where it took her 3 1/2 hours to complete two nautical miles. Although she wore a watch, she only looked at it twice and relied on her pilot for an update during her half-hourly feedings.

At one point (he) told me I had six more hours to swim," Buckley said. "I must have already been swimming for eight, and so I remember feeling pretty discouraged. But still, I could count my fingers and remember my name.

(This is a self-test that open-water swimmers use to ensure they are not suffering from hypothermia).

I eventually got the remaining hours down to four, only to discover that the pilot was wrong and that I had another six hours to go from that point. I assessed the situation, realized I could still count my fingers and I knew my name, and so I figured Id just keep going until the captain told me to get out.

Freda Streeter, a famous English Channel trainer, was once quoted as saying, No one has ever died of a sore shoulder, and you will eventually get to France.

Buckley had a simpler mantra, courtesy of a clipping her friend and inspiration Suzie Dods had sent her: I will never quit.

And she never did. Sixteen hours and 54 minutes later, Kristine Buckley became one of the elite few to cross the English Channel. One of her competitors was not so lucky; a Swiss personal trainer about 30 minutes behind her had disappeared into the cold waters after asking his father for some hot chocolate off the boat. His body was found eight days later in Belgium.

As worthy of publicity as Buckleys feat has been, it has not gained the attention one would expect. Part of this complacency may be the medias continuing lack of interest in swimming stories (football and basketball sell, swimming has yet to go certifiably mainstream). Part of the lack of coverage may have to do with the unfortunate events of Sept. 11, which occurred a month to the day after Buckleys formidable crossing. But some of the mystery may be the result of Buckleys own reluctance to step into the limelight.

I didnt go out and brag about my attempt to swim the English Channel," she said. "I didnt ask for fund-raisers, I didnt solicit major corporations for donations, and I didnt broadcast myself to every television or radio station. I wanted to do this for myself.

Indeed, Buckleys goal of crossing the Channel was a personal quest born out of watching her peer Suzie Dods succeed at the task. It was also a resolution of sorts, born out of her desire to stay in shape after a debilitating injury and take up a new sport to see where it would take her. The result was unexpected, unbelievable, and incredibly inspirational.

In this New Year, I wish every one of you the determination and willpower to achieve your goals, and the feeling of self-fulfillment in your own personal quests as Kristine Buckley achieved in hers.

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