Don’t tell me I can’t... swim the Channel
Aged 51, Wendy Figures shows it’s never too late to take on a challenge
My muscles ached but I continued battling against the sea’s current as night turned to day. Then, with one last stroke, I made it to the shore. I’d just completed a 22-mile open-water swim...
I’d always loved swimming and had competed in galas as a child but, by 26, I stopped to concentrate on raising my daughter Katie, then four. Georgie was born in 1998, and Ella a year later, but my passion never left me, and I loved teaching my girls to swim. In January 2002, when Ella was three, I decided to set up my own swim school at the local council pool near my home in Sheffield
But then in June 2012, a friend mentioned he’d been open-water swimming in a beautiful lake 40 minutes’ drive from Sheffield. At that stage, I’d only ever swum in a pool or the sea on holiday with my partner Paul. But it was the way my friend talked about swimming in the open air that fired something inside me, too. I was 46, and couldn’t imagine plunging into wild waters, but what was the harm in giving it a go?
It was a bright morning when we met up. ‘Here we go,’ I said, slowly inching myself into the water in my swimsuit. Despite the sun, it was freezing. But I was soon pounding through the water, as the endorphins hit me. ‘It makes you feel so alive,’ I said, when I stepped out at the end.
Soon I was swimming in the lake every weekend and with my friend’s support, I started to compete in open-water races, too. The following year I also joined Yorkshire Outdoor Swimmers, a locally-based group with different abilities.
Each year I took on an even bigger challenge and in 2015 I swam the length of Lake Windermere and back. At 10.5 miles each way, it was hard, but afterwards it got me thinking – it was only one mile off swimming the distance of the English Channel. Could I do that, too? Sea swimming wasn’t the same as swimming in a lake, but I was at peak fitness – and determined to give it a try.
There are strict regulations for swimming the Channel. Just to qualify, I had to swim six hours in water colder than 15.5 degrees. It cost £400 to register and I also had to book a pilot to accompany me in a boat. That would cost a further £3,000, but with Georgie and Ella at university and Katie, then 27, living away, I sold my swim school, which meant I could cover the cost. And I worked part-time as a swim instructor, giving me the chance to train.
Paul and three friends agreed to be my support crew – riding along in the boat for motivation. I increased my training to up to six hours a day and by June 2016 I was covering 31 miles each week. Then, in August 2017, we went to Dover. We had to wait eight days for the waves and wind to be calm enough – it would have been far too dangerous otherwise. But finally, at 9.50pm one evening, wearing my swimsuit, goggles and yellow cap, I set off for France. The swim was relentless. No matter how much I kicked, I didn’t seem to get any closer to France. Waves were pushing me sideways and I couldn’t find my rhythm. At one point I was even stung by a jellyfish. But I stopped every 45 minutes to refuel with homemade smoothies and energy drinks.
Then, halfway through my swim, as the sun rose, I saw the coastline. I was so tired but determined to carry on.
Finally, I reached the shore in Calais. I couldn’t believe I’d done it – I’d taken 13 hours and 45 minutes. The manager from one of the restaurants on the beach even came out to greet me with a glass of champagne.
Back home, all my friends and family were so pleased for me. It had meant so much to have achieved such a feat.
Now I’m wondering what my next challenge will be.
‘I was at peak fitness’
Mum-of-three wendy is so proud of her feat
wendy’s daughters are a great support