Thursday, August 16, 2012
McKinney High grad swam across English Channel on Monday
Sarah Thomas became the 58th person to don the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming.
MCKINNEY Michael Phelps just fished his way to six more Olympic medals, the London Games his finish of fancy.
Several days later, barely a hundred miles away, another American paddled into a different elite class: the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming.
McKinney native Sarah Thomas on Monday swam across the English Channel, the final jewel of her marathon-swimming Crown, which also includes crossing the Catalina Channel in southern California and swimming around Manhattan Island in New York. She became the 58th person to don such a crown.
“Swimming a channel is filled with hours of nothing,” Thomas said, “on moments of incredible.”
Unofficially, it was 11 hours 20 minutes of nothing – about four hours off the English Channel record, but just four years after Thomas’s first marathon swim.
Her earliest open-water waves splashed in the summers at her grandparents’ Oklahoma lake house and at her father’s in Boise. In fifth grade at McKinney ISD’s Slaughter Elementary, she joined the McKinney Area Swim Team (now Metroplex Aquatics in Allen).
Her main events: 500- and 200-meter races. They are a tidal cry from this week’s plunge, close to 34,000 meters (21 miles), but all Thomas knew at the time. From there, she “swam on” at the University of Connecticut (UConn), where she double-majored in journalism and political science.
“She started swimming when she was just a little tyke but didn’t know about open-water swimming until after college,” stepfather Kent Maxson said. “She wishes she had, because endurance has always been her strength.”
Thomas agrees, admitting she’s “just an average swimmer as far as speed goes.” School became priority as she earned a master’s degree in science in legal administration from the University of Denver.
But there, she jumped back into the water, joined the college-based masters team, the University of Denver Aquaholics, and discovered the Horsetooth 10k. In that, she realized a “middle ground” in open-water swimming, outside both an ultra-marathon and triathlon, she said.
She finished second for the women in August 2007 at her first marathon swim, and “was totally hooked on open water.”
“I love the freedom of swimming until I get to the other side, without lane ropes,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite things.”
Thomas set the Horsetooth female course record two years later, and while training, met Craig Lenning who was preparing for the Catalina Channel. Going through a divorce at the time, eager to focus her energy elsewhere, Thomas signed up for the 21-mile swim.
She finished in 9 hours 6 minutes, then one of the Top 10 recorded times in the swim’s history. Shortly after, Thomas signed up for the English Channel, a swim often buoyed in a two-year wait list, and aimed her goggles to this summer.
Last June, she swam 28.5 miles around Manhattan Island in New York, and in April continued her English preparation. Bad weather ended a Tampa Bay Marathon Swim she led with five miles to go.
Thomas chose Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CS&PF) for her crown’s conclusion, and was selected for an eight-day period on a neap tide. She and her crew came to Dover, England in July, only to wait through a blown-out tide.
Her boat captain, Eddie Spelling, assured Thomas a spot on an August tide -- one that rolled off Shakespeare Beach early Monday morning.
“When I finally got the call and started swimming, it felt surreal,” said Thomas, who swam in water temperatures in the low- to mid-60s. “Here I was, this tiny swimmer, crossing the path of these giant shipping boats. Pretty cool.”
The crew, including Thomas’s mother Becky Maxson, followed her on boat, providing her periodic dextrin-Powerade-water fuel and mouthwash to prevent “raisin tongue,” Thomas said. She swam through six hours of stomach-ache and a cloud of jellyfish that greeted her down the home stretch, forcing her to dodge, to the cusp of sabotage. “I did get stung by one and was almost ready to call it quits,” she said.
She swam up to Gap Gris Nes, most Channel swimmers’ destination. Spelling ushered Thomas toward a fancy beachside hotel; she climbed from her 11-hour habitat covered in grease, seafood, and sting.
Her final greeting -- French restaurant-goers -- lauded her with applause. Revealing her American identity to the restaurant owner, he gifted Thomas with a glass of French champagne, his wife with praises.
“She told me that swimming the channel was just as big as the Olympics, and that I had a big heart,” Thomas said of the owner’s wife. “It was pretty incredible.”
Had he been there, Kent likely would have echoed the sudden French enthusiast. “She’s got an iron will, one you’ve got to have to do what she’s done,” he said.
Fellow American swimmers just in London were tethered with medals and global meaning, while Thomas gets simple satisfaction, her name on a lesser-known list.
Only 9 percent of International Marathon Swimming Hall of Famers were Olympians, and men make up 70 percent. Almost half of the inductees have swum the English Channel, according to IMSHOF figures.
Thomas is the 41st American of the 58 swimmers who’ve completed the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. She adds to a list that’s nearly doubled in the last two years. “Clearly, this is a growing sport,” she said.
But it’s still not a sport recognized as widely as the 100-meter freestyle or 200-meter butterfly. Olympians rule the pool; open-water swimmers reign in rarely-charted waters.
Phelps likely couldn’t or wouldn’t do what Thomas did. She never even pictured herself doing it.
“I’d heard about things like the English Channel when I was a kid,” she said, “but always thought only crazy people did stuff like that.”
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