The English Channel is both a fear and a goal in many long distance swimmers’ minds. With bone-chilling temperatures and miles of choppy ocean, Scottsdale resident Brad Denton swam his way through these waters and accomplished a personal goal not many swimmers can say they have achieved.
Only 20 to 25 people a year successfully swim the 21-mile stretch from Dover, England, to Cap Griz Nez, France.
Denton, 43, completed the swim in 12 hours and 31 minutes on Sept. 22, making him the first solo Arizona swimmer to complete the journey.
“The swim is very painful. It requires mental as well as physical endurance,” said Denton, the chief financial officer and senior vice president of Sprouts Farmers Market. “I did this for my own self-esteem, not to beat any records or prove anything. I guess I just did it for the personal accomplishment.”
The official swim was recorded by The Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation, an organization recognized by the British and French governments to assist swimmers crossing the channel.
Denton swam alongside a boat carrying people who supplied him with his food and water, as well as an official from the federation to make sure Denton’s swim was official and conformed to the rules and regulations.
To be recognized as an official swim, the participant is allowed a nonthermal swimsuit, goggles and a swim cap in the 60-degree waters.
According to Denton, he could not come into physical contact with anyone on the boat due to official rules of the swim, and they would lower his food and drinks to him on a rope.
“I just didn’t think about swimming. I thought about work and chores I need to do at home. The second you stop swimming you have 20 seconds until your body becomes stiff, like a wet rag that is hung out to dry when it is freezing outside,” Denton said. “Your body starts to swell and it takes 90 seconds for your body to get the warmth back, and while it’s warming up, it feels like thousands of needles are piercing your body.”
Swimmers face severe dangers when crossing the Channel, including hypothermia, cramping and commercial shipping movements.
The water between Dover, England and Calais, France, is known for being one of the busiest international shipping lanes in the world.
Calais is only a few miles away from Cap Griz Nez, making the shipping lanes close to the path taken by swimmers.
“With the huge freighters going by in the water, the swim became eerie. It was like hundreds of boxcars on trains rolling right by me,” Denton said. “Swimming at night is the worst, I feel like I am swimming through black ink.”
According to Denton, his worst fears were not the strong currents but the extreme cold of the water, the weather and the jellyfish that occasionally caught his eye in the water. Denton put on an extra 35 pounds to aid his body through the icy water.
Denton had no help from a trainer.
“I did the training by myself with the help and guidance from other swimmers who have done the channel swim. Not many people have successfully swam the channel, so there are not many people that would even be qualified to train me for a swim like this,” Denton said.
Denton has been a competitive swimmer since he was 5 years old. His training for this particular swim was rigorous; he swam 31 miles a week, including seven- to eight-hour sea swims in California every other weekend.
Dr. Pam Brill, a Peak Performance consultant for athletes — who did not work with Denton — said such a swim requires extreme mental toughness.
“The person will be someone who knows how to get their head out of self-doubt,” Brill said. “They will recall the meaning and passion that got them into the water.”
According to Brill, a person first creates a dream. Whether the dream is learning how to walk again after an accident or swimming across the English Channel, the person cannot be beaten down by the curveballs in life.
“The person imagines themselves facing down the waves … visualizing every worst-case scenario, then picturing themselves reaching forward, taking another stroke, then lifting their head to the side and breathing,” Brill said. “They picture themselves overcoming the worst.”
The long stretch of ocean was conquered because of ability to put his mind somewhere else, Denton said.
“You know, one time I was watching PBS and I saw these monks that lived in China wearing nothing but white cloths around them, like diapers. They were standing outside and it was snowing, but there was sweat dripping down their faces.
“It was amazing because in their mind, they were somewhere else.”