Sybil Hedrick Fisher '95: Hell or high water

In August, Sybil Hedrick Fisher '95 swam the English Channel to prove that asthma needn't prevent an athlete from achieving her goals

As told to Ashley McCausland Biggers '04

I lost my love of swimming after college. Despite two All-America awards, four years of ceaseless training had transformed what was once a passion into joyless work. To complicate matters, I had been diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma in 1994.

After I finally returned to swimming—with a master’s team in 1999—an asthma attack on the pool deck in 2001 led to a diagnosis of a more serious form of asthma. Racing in master’s competitions was now impossible, but an open-water swim on Hagg Lake, Ore., rekindled a fire inside me for the sport.

Swimming the English Channel had always been on a list of things I wanted to accomplish, and I decided to swim the channel to raise awareness about asthma. I knew I could help teach people that simple home modifications and changes in basic daily habits can improve their breathing and increase their capacity to do more aggressive activities.

The English Channel is 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, but swimmers usually cover 23 to 27 miles because the current and tides carry them. The first person to complete the swim did it in 1875. Since then, more than 750 people from all over the world have crossed ‘The Ditch.’ The first American woman was Gertrude ‘Trudy’ Ederle, whose 1926 attempt took nearly 15 hours. I wanted to be the first Oregonian.

The first challenge in swimming The Ditch is the distance. My coach, Andrew Soracco, and I began 18 months of training by increasing the time I was in the water each day and the number of times I swam per week. After several months we added a dry-land strengthening program, using primarily my body as the weight.

The second, and perhaps greatest, challenge in swimming The Ditch is the water temperature and weather conditions. We couldn’t anticipate the weather, but we knew the water would be 55-62 degrees Fahrenheit. Most people can tolerate those temperatures for about 30 minutes; I would be in the water for more than 10 hours, with just a swimsuit, cap, and goggles. Channel-crossing rules dictate that swimmers cannot wear anything that will insulate them from the freezing water. So we began swimming in the Columbia River and in Lake Merwin to adjust to the water temperature. While other fitness programs may focus on losing weight, I had to get fat. I needed a layer of blubber to help protect me from the cold.

I went through peaks and valleys during my training. There were times when I was 100 percent positive. Then, there were times when getting up at 5 o’clock every morning to train, going to work for eight to 10 hours, and trying to maintain a healthy home life seemed overwhelming. Channel swimmers will tell you it takes one person to cross the channel and a team of people to get them there. My support system of family, friends, and co-workers was so good that these low spells didn’t last long.

During training I spoke at events for the American Lung Association of Oregon and for the Oregon State Asthma Program, donating the time to educate people about asthma and to raise the sponsorship funds for the trip to England and my crossing.

We arrived in England on July 28 and trained in Dover Harbor for several days. It seemed the United Nations headquarters had relocated to Dover Harbor. People from Hungary, Barbados, Britain, Mexico, the Czeck Republic, and the U.S. were there, all for the same reason. Channel swims are booked on the tides, with each swimmer getting a window of several days and a ranking number for their swim. If conditions were not favorable when it was my turn, I would have to reapply and wait as long as two years for another opportunity.

We left Shakespeare Beach, England, at 7:42 a.m. on the morning of August 8 with me in the water, Mike Oram, a captain from the Channel Swimming and Pilot Federation; a copilot; an official observer; Greg, my husband; my coach; and a friend. They accompanied me in a boat. That morning I only felt a little anxious about the swim; mostly I felt excited for the challenge ahead.

I followed the feeding schedule designed for me before we left: I ate Hammer Gel [an energy concentrate] mixed with hot tea and a liquid protein replacement at the first hour mark, then every 30 minutes for nine hours. The tea helped counteract the freezing water. After nine hours I began taking nourishment every 20 minutes to keep up my energy level. During a crossing, swimmers are not allowed to be touched in any manner, so my husband rigged up a contraption involving a painter’s pole, a metal basket, and two water bottles on a string so I could eat without interference.

In training we used to say that when your mind crosses over to negative thoughts—what hurts, what’s tired, what’s cold—that’s when things go bad. So before we left we brainstormed song lyrics, movie lines, and the names of people who have been an inspiration to me that the crew could write on a whiteboard and hold up to remind me of things. About three times an hour they would hold it up and give me something new to think about. I sang ‘Fly Like an Eagle,’ ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ John Mellancamp’s ‘Jack and Diane,’ and replayed my favorite movie, The Breakfast Club. I also chanted, ‘Left, left, left, right, left’ to myself as one by one my arms reached above my head to pull me across the channel.

‘I will not get out,’ I told myself when at seven and a half hours my shoulders felt like they were falling apart from tendonitis. ‘I will not get out,’ I told myself when I felt frustrated and sick to my stomach. And when, as we neared the coast, the pilot told me to swim hard for 10 more minutes to push through a changing tide that threatened to sweep me back out into the channel, I just repeated, ‘I will not get out’ and kept swimming.

I drew strength from knowing that there were a lot of people back home supporting me. I could feel them with me throughout the swim. My father also served as motivation during the challenging periods. He passed away when I was 9 months old. I don’t think of him often, but at three specific times thoughts of my dad came to me.

Finally I saw the glitter of lights from the French shore. It was a restaurant, La Sierene, or The Mermaid, which seemed quite fitting for my arrival, as I had become so much a part of the ocean during the past 12 hours. People came out of the restaurant to congratulate me as I walked up on the shore.

In 13 hours and 52 minutes, I swam the English Channel. I felt too tired to celebrate, but I was overwhelmed with happiness. I couldn’t see much of France standing on the beach in the middle of the night, but what I could see of Cape Gris-Nez was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever experienced.

Returning to the boat for the trip back to England, my asthma inflamed immediately. I had coughed several times during my swim, an early sign of an asthma attack, but tried not to think about it. My hands were so swollen from the cold that my husband had to help me into long johns and a sweat suit to keep me warm. I fell asleep immediately, but celebrated with champagne in the morning, after we returned to England.

Country singer Nanci Griffith once said there is no need for any human being to be complacent. Those are words that I try to live by. Returning to my life in Oregon, I saw my channel swim as both the completion of a goal and the beginning of another. My husband and I have started a nonprofit organization called Just Water and Air that will increase awareness about asthma and inspire asthmatic athletes to chase their dreams—and promote more long-distance open-water races.