Swimming the English Channel—cold, dark, and full of jellyfish—isn’t something most people would jump at, but one woman recently braved the 22 miles of water between England and France. She wasn’t crazy (or trying to escape a mad man)—she was going it for a good cause.
When Brittany King, 29, took the dive to support the Banfield Charitable Trust, she had to follow strict guidelines from the Channel Swim Association: No wetsuits are allowed, and she couldn’t touch anyone during the duration of the swim, although she swam alongside a boat carrying appointed observers the entire time. If she broke any of those rules, King would not be recognized as having completed the swim, even if she made it to the other shore.
To put things in another perspective: More people have climbed Mt. Everest than have completed the English Channel swim.
But the Cypress, TX, resident was up for the challenge. Her fitness resume already included being an NCAA athlete, running five marathons (all for charity), completing an Iron Man, and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
"Swimming the channel is like doing the swim portion of the Iron Man," King says. "So that's basically what first planted the seed in my head that I could do it."
We just had to sit down with King (pictured with her dog Hank) and find out more about why she would risk her life to add this accomplishment to her other impressive feats.
SHAPE: Why did you decide to swim the channel?
King: I decided to do it for the Banfield Charitable Trust "Laps of Love," which helps struggling pet owners get their pets the care they need. I remember once, I saw a case where this dog had been hit by a car, which broke both of her femurs. A college student who saw her brought her in, but the student didn't have the money to pay for the surgery. Banfield provided the funds so that I could perform the surgery, and the dog was able to be reunited with her owner.
SHAPE: How did you train for this swim?
King: It was definitely not easy—I'd been out of the water for seven years! And working full-time as an associate veterinarian has made it harder. But I joined a master's swim team, and I tried to run at least five days a week. So ultimately, I was probably running 30 to 40 miles and swimming 30,000 meters each week, and once a week, I'd try and go for a long, open-water swim.
SHAPE: Did you have any doubts while you were training? How did you push through them?
King: The morning of the swim, I was very afraid. I don't think being afraid is necessarily bad—it just means that you're trying something new and different; that you're pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. But the day of, I was like, "This is crazy! What am I doing?" I had to ask myself, "What's the reason behind this? Why am I doing this?" I have never given up on anything I set out to do, so I wasn't going to start there.
SHAPE: What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced during the swim?
King: Physically, I suffered from seasickness. My throat was raw. There were jellyfish in the water, and it was really hard to float on my back during feedings. I couldn't touch my pilot, who was in a boat alongside me, so he would toss me food for a "feeding," and I'd have to eat it while treading water.
Another hard part was when the sun set. I asked my pilot, "How much longer do we have to go?" and he told me we still had more than three hours, and my heart just sank. I thought something was going to eat me! But apparently when I'm scared, I get faster. I was later told that I sped up and passed a couple of other people.
It was also hard being by myself. When you're in the water, it's just you and your body, and if the current pushes you six miles in a different direction, you can end up swimming much more than the 22 miles. Physically, I felt so alone, even though I had an overwhelming amount of support from friends and family back home.
SHAPE: How did you feel when you finished the swim?
King: When my pilot said, "This is the last feeding," that was the best thing I ever heard. When I was standing on the shore, it kind of all sinks in at once, and you're flooded with these feelings of happiness, relief, sickness.
SHAPE: What kind of advice would you give someone who's trying to meet a fitness goal?
King: Tell everyone! When you have a goal, tell someone. It will help hold you accountable. Also, dream! If you dream, you can prepare, and if you prepare, you can succeed. If anyone I knew wanted to do something, as long as it meant something to them, I'd support it.
Do some research too: It's okay to adjust your goal if you have to. You know, I didn't want to wear a wetsuit when I was doing the channel swim, but I started to get hypothermia as I was swimming. My pilot told me, "You can get out and call it a day, or we can put you in a wetsuit, and you can finish the race." I had to adjust my goal in order to reach it. [Editor's note: King completed the swim in a wetsuit, so her accomplishment hasn't been officially recognized by the Channel Swim Association.]
SHAPE: What's next for you?
King: I'm halfway toward getting my pilot's license. I'm also thinking of training for two back-to-back marathons in Peru and Antarctica. If I do, the only continents in which I will have not run a marathon will be Africa and Australia. I want to continue to give back. I seem to have some athletic talent, so any time I can combine that with the ability to give back, I want to try.