Despite high currents, jellyfish and chilling water, University of Richmond alum Molly Sanborn ‘16 became the 1,864th swimmer in the world to successfully swim across the English Channel.
Sanborn has always felt at peace in the water.
From learning the basic strokes at age 5 to swimming for the University of Richmond's club team, Sanborn has been swimming all of her life.
Having grown up in an active family that often participated in triathlons, open water swimming was not entirely new to the seasoned swimmer. It wasn't until the age of 12 or 13, however, that the thought of swimming the infamous English Channel even crossed Sanborn’s mind, and by her teenage years, it had become a goal.
The English Channel is the 21-mile-long waterway that separates England and Northern France. With average temperatures ranging from 45 to 62 degrees Fahrenheit, the waterway's strong currents, frequent freight and passenger traffic, the channel is not meant for open-water swimming. So, what could possibly implore approximately 1,881 people to dare to dive into this 14-hour endeavor?
“We are all just a little unhinged,” Sanborn said.
When Sanborn first told her family about her ambitions around the end of 2021, she was met with jaws dropped in utter shock but the doubt was quickly replaced by overwhelming support that would be critical later on. Sanborn said that despite her doubts, her loved ones all assumed she would succeed, which pushed her to begin her training.
One may think the training for this swim would be rigorous, echoing the famous montages of 80’s sports films. But to Sanborn, her training was not necessarily the iconic Rocky sprint up the stairs in Philadelphia.
“It was not as intense as you’d think,” Sanborn said.
Beginning in January 2022, Sanborn swam four times a week, cycling through different forms of training. However, when it was time for the long swim, she would dread one week of every month, she said.
Sanborn’s long swim began with a three-hour consistent swim, and by the end of her training, her seemingly endless strokes “staring at the boring long line at the bottom of the pool” totaled to an eight-hour swim, just over half of her English Channel swim.
The winter offered the most struggle, as Sanborn was confined to an indoor pool for training. When February came, she pivoted her training toward open-water swims and began to venture into the Chesapeake Bay.
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“The shift to open water was amazing, but the hardest part was the body adjusting to the cold,” Sanborn said.
Soon after, however, she said the cold water had become “mentally calming.”
After eight months of training, including three 12 to 15-mile open-water marathon swims, August arrived. With a swimming window from the eighth to the 14th, Sanborn, her parents Tim and Kay Sanborn and her team arrived on Aug. 5th in Dover, England, where she was stunned to find ferocious weather.
“The biggest thing on my mind was: I won’t be able to swim,” Sanborn said.
Weeks of long swims, staring contests with the rigid pool floor line and the adjusting of her body to bitter waters would end with a flight back to Maryland.
“All of a sudden, they say swim is at 10 p.m.,” Sanborn said.
For the swim to be considered official, Sanborn was required to start on land. To start her swim, Sanborn jumped into the water from a boat and swam approximately 500 yards to land to begin. She was instructed to follow the light beam of the boat.
“The boat sets the course. You set the pace,” she said.
When Sanborn began the official swim, she said, “My brain turns off my anxiety. Let's just do it.”
The water temperature was approximately 62 degrees Fahrenheit, though to Sanborn, it felt colder, and she was surrounded by darkness. As she turned her head one way to breathe or neared the boat, she was blessed with the light of the beam, illuminating the “eerie, pale green water.” When she turned her head the other way, she faced complete darkness.
“In the dark, you cannot – you can't take your eyes off them, can't lose focus – my God, it was stressful. My anxiety was at the highest level …in my life that I can remember, ” Sanborn's father, Tim, said when describing the setting.
The first six hours before sunrise were “more than a little terrifying,” Sanborn said. Her body was entirely confused, hungry, cold, exhausted by lack of sleep.
“[I] wanted to quit once every 3 minutes during the first 6 hours,” Sanborn said, but she was bolstered by the thought that it would be embarrassing to quit so soon.
However, her main motivation to make it through to sunrise was her mom.
“It's funny what you do for your kids,” Sanborn’s mother, Kay, said.
Sanborn’s mother had been training to be her support swimmer, someone who was allowed to swim alongside her for up to one hour every 2 hours.
“It was on my mind for 18 months, every single day, you know, so it really pushed me to push myself as well,” Sanborn’s mother, Kay, said.
Due to the dangers of having not one, but two people swimming in the pitch-black open water, Sanborn’s mother was not able to swim with her until sunrise. To persist through those first six hours, Sanborn said that she told herself, “Mom hasn't even gotten the chance to get in. She's been training for this. At sunrise, you can quit.”
When the sun eventually rose, Sanborn felt “a total psychological shift.” She was finally enjoying herself and felt that she owed quite a bit of that to an influential megastar.
“I sang probably Taylor Swift's entire discography,” Sanborn said. “When I got to ‘Reputation,’ I was swimming like, ‘hell yeah let’s go.’”
The period after sunrise with just two hours left to land felt like a completely new reality. “Listen to Taylor Swift! She can get you through anything, including swimming for 14 hours,” Sanborn said.
However enchanting the first few hours after sunrise might have been, the last two miles before reaching the shore were the hardest that Sanborn had ever swam. The majority of people who swim the English Channel are known for quitting just one mile short of shore, due to the overpowering current. Sanborn was fighting the urge to give in with a tip from the Netflix sitcom, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
“[Kimmy] said, ‘You can do anything for 10 seconds, and for two and a half hours I just counted down from 10,” Sanborn said.
When the swimmer was just short of reaching the French shores, the ship deployed a dinghy so the captain could observe her touching shore. When Sanborn watched the dinghy splash into the water, she said her immediate reaction was, “Oh my god. I'm actually gonna make it.”
Sanborn began to sob.
“I've become an incredible multitasker when swimming. I threw up while swimming for the first six hours, cried while swimming,” Sanborn said.
When she finally did touch shore, she was “mostly relieved that [she] did it and [she] could stop moving [her] arms”.
Sanborn explained that it took a few days for it to sink in, but it was a WhatsApp group chat that highlighted an essential part of her expedition: “You really can’t do it without your crew.”
The group chat, filled with friends and family members who wanted to follow along with her swim, had been flooding the chat with supportive messages, enough to make Sanborn tear up once again.
“[Marathon swimming is] the epitome of a solo sport, and yet it's absolutely not a solo sport,” Sanborn said. Sanborn would not have made it through the first six hours without the knowledge and encouragement of her mom, the nutrition and guidance she received from her crew on the ship and the support from the rest of her family and friends who awaited the news, she said.
“The experience was so much more than the day of,” Sanborn said.
The training opened her up to the world of being “slightly unhinged,” where she found peace in the February waters of the Chesapeake Bay and developed strong, but “insane” friends along the way. Her consistent freestyle from 10 p.m. on Aug. 15th to 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 16th challenged her both mentally and physically, but it allowed her to value her own strength and resilience, she said.
“Marathon swimming is great, but don't try this at home!” Sanborn said.
Contact features writer Isabella Corona at email@example.com.
Ananya Chetia contributed to reporting.
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