“My shoulders went blue - there were a few tears” Meet the woman who battled injury and hypothermia to sea swim 17 hours in memory of her best friend

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Sofia Zagzoule
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Last week Lisa Williams became one of just 500 women to swim solo for 41 miles across the English channel, in a gruelling 17-hour journey she undertook in memory of her best friend who died two years ago from breast cancer. 

To make the feat even more extraordinary, a torn muscle in her left shoulder meant Lisa spent the last seven hours of the challenge swimming with just one arm.

With wild swimming on the rise in the UK,  she tells about the daunting obstacles she faced in completing her fitness adventure, from giant jellyfish to the risk of hypothermia:  

“I was not supposed to swim until September but good weather meant I got a call to complete it early so it was all a bit of a shock,” Lisa tells us. “You book the swimming slot about two years in advance, so this swim had been a long time in the making.

“I set off just after midnight. The currents guide you and the tides turn every six hours so it can be brutal. A person swimming close to me had to pull out after 14 and a half hours with a mile to go which was heart-wrenching. Most people fail.” 

Beware the jellyfish

As well as the obvious challenges of swimming the Channel; diving into the sea in the pitch black, enduring hypothermia-inducing temperatures and strong currents that ended up taking Lisa about 20 miles off course, she also had to contend with giant jellyfish up to 30cm in diameter.

“I was seeing lots of compass jellyfish which are quite large, they have lots of tentacles and are not pleasant! I saw one just below me so was tipping my head up whenever I saw them to try and avoid a sting.

“I only had on a swimming hat and goggles so the jellyfish were a big risk.”

Backbreaking injury

A torn muscle in her right shoulder meant Lisa struggled to swim for seven hours using one arm.

“I was doing a quick swim when I got a bad injury just below my shoulder blade. It was a sharp excruciating pain and meant I could hardly use my right arm. I had to kick harder with my legs and do one arm front crawl or go onto back crawl. I was in a lot of pain.

“That was the hardest part. The blue moon at the moment means the tides have been doing funny things. I could see land half a mile away but the wind changed direction sweeping me out to sea and the tide turned me way off course.

“I was in a lot of pain and was very tired, the injury plus the tide meant I was working extremely hard for five hours. I had never envisioned having to swim more than 14 hours and my longest training swim had been around the 12 hour mark so it was extremely tough swimming for what ended up being 17 hours and 18 minutes.”

Risk of hypothermia

During the swim Lisa’s shoulders went black and blue. “It can be one of the first signs of hypothermia,” Lisa says, “But the team who were with me knew it had happened to me before and that I was OK to carry on, thankfully. Otherwise I could have been forced to pull out.

“The temperature was about 17 degrees and at night it felt pretty cold. Everyone on the boat had two or three jumpers on - and gloves. We start training in the sea in May when the temperature is around 10 degrees and then slowly build up distances and toleration to the cold.

“I was cold through the whole swim but I was never shivering. If you start shivering that’s when you have an issue. I would stop to feed every half hour for around 12 to 13 seconds – they don’t want you to stop in case you get too cold. The crew drop the drink – a kind of protein powder with summer fruit squash on a fishing reel. Sometimes it would miss me and hit the water which I didn't appreciate at the time but it was funny looking back.

“I've also put on two stone in last two years. When you train you should put on weight to avoid hypothermia.”

The motivation to keep going

Lisa has already raised £7,000 for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity in honour of her friend Elaine who she lost after a seven year battle with breast cancer two years ago at the age of 37. “The thought of Elaine and all she had suffered for seven years with numerous rounds of chemo and radiation hammered home the message that I had to swim hard,” Lisa says.

“I was actually saying: ‘Come on Elaine give me some luck here, let’s get here let’s get it done.’ That was when I was in real pain and couldn’t use my right arm at all. I kept thinking about the pain she was in for seven years and telling myself: ‘this is just a few hours.' I screamed from pain lots in the water, and there were a few tears.

“There were a lot of bits when I swam with just one arm which was really difficult but I knew if I stopped they would pull me out.”

Sacrifices along the way

“To train for the challenge, I was doing six hour swims at the weekend and all over the winter,” says Lisa. “Then in May I started down in dover on Saturdays and Sundays doing seven-hour swims. It's safe to say I've hardly see my boyfriend and my friends have forgotten who I am. I haven't seen my nieces and nephews for six months.

“I've had to say no to hen dos for this summer and no to so many things. You have to be so committed to swim the Channel and basically put your life on hold.”

Sponsor Lisa on her amazing achievement here

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Sofia Zagzoule

Sofia Zagzoule is a freelance writer and particularly loves to write about what she loves including, but not limited to, travel, food, fashion, culture and lifestyle