Taking laps in the sunny pool outside her Arizona apartment, Asha Allen thought about swimming in the cold currents of the English Channel.
She resolved six years ago to make the 20-plus mile swim from Great Britain to France after reading a book about long-distance swimming. She lived hours from any ocean at the time so she started swimming laps in the pool.
“I didn’t know how I was going to train, but I said I’m going to do it and I’m going to start now,” she says with a bright smile. “It was like swimming in a fishbowl in preparation for a channel swim.”
Open-water swimming became more accessible after the family moved to Benicia for her husband’s job four and a half years ago. “The Bay Area is a premier training area for channel swimmers. The currents and temperatures in the bay mimic the channel, and swimmers come from all over to train here,” she says.
Asha swam the Catalina Channel and the length of Lake Tahoe prior to making her English Channel crossing on Aug. 13, 2016, in 13 hours and 3 minutes. She is considered a member of the Force 5 Club because she completed the route in extreme conditions: winds of 19 to 24 miles per hour and waves ranging from 6 to 9 feet.
Sitting cross-legged on a chair at Starbucks, Asha radiates joy and determination as she describes the challenges and surprises she experienced while preparing for the solo swim.
“I was sure training was going to be a grueling and lonely experience,” she says. Instead she found a community of marathon swimmers who mentored her and remain close friends. Her dream also brought her back to swimming, something she loved in her youth but gave up when she went to college. And she used others’ interest in her swim to draw attention to Mission San Pedro, an organization she helped found to assist Mayan widows living in Guatemala.
Asha, 46, is a palliative care social worker at Kaiser Medical Center in Vallejo. She and her husband, David Roth, have seven children in their blended family.
Looking back at the training and actual swim, what stands out? The event itself was beautiful and wonderful, but leading up to it and trying to boost myself up and move out of a sense of fear was tough. I had a lot of fears to work through. I was so afraid of the cold water, the jellyfish …
Most people take six months of training. It took me three years to prepare myself.
What motivated you to persevere? I had a dream, and a dream is a passion and I just thought, “You can swim …” In my mind, the English Channel was the ultimate success. I’d been a competitive swimmer in high school and I couldn’t be fast anymore, but I could keep going. I could endure.
Why did you give up swimming after high school? My dad had been my coach. I was very mad at him and gave it up. It was youthful pride. I even chose my college because it didn’t have a swim team, and I loved swimming so much that I didn’t want to be tempted. …
My dad was there when I did the channel swim. He’s now in his late 70s and he is so supportive and sweet. He was very proud of me. He wrote me a handwritten letter later that was very sweet. So I felt that emotional rift kind of heal—I didn’t expect that.
How did you make the transition from swimming in a pool to swimming in open water? I took a class called Intro to Bay Swimming. It helps people get comfortable with swimming in open water. It was my first time in the bay and I just bobbed up and down in a wet suit. I maybe swam about five minutes, but it broke the ice.
Second time in bay, I swam out to the buoy at Aquatic Park in San Francisco. That was 30 minutes. I’m very cautious. I was a good swimmer, but the cold and the sea lions and the currents … and the cold! I had to get used to that.
What steps did you take to make an officially recognized channel swim? You reserve your pilot, you reserve your boat and pay the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation. I did it two years ahead. They give you a weeklong window and you commit to being on call in Dover for that week. Whenever the weather and tide and currents are right, they call. I got called at 3 in the morning. …
The pilot had waited three to four days for good conditions. He was backed up because the conditions had not been good. I decided I wasn’t going to second-guess my pilot. If he believes in me, I’ll go. You can’t second-guess your team.
It does take a team, that’s very important. There was a pilot and co-pilot, one or two observers from the channel association and David (her husband) was my crew chief. He was amazing. He was the only one who fed me. We trained together for this.
How do you eat while swimming? There’s a water bottle on a string with a protein mix in it, and they throw the bottle from the boat. You have to find the right combination for yourself. It took me about a year and a half to find that. Because you’re horizontal, it’s hard to digest.
You want feedings to be 20 seconds or less, and I only achieved that at the English Channel.
What other conditions did you train for? Part of the training is sleep deprivation. That’s part of what I did. It was OK to get a call at 3am to come to the boat because I’d been getting up at 3:30am for a while to swim in San Francisco.
That’s another thing you have to train for—swimming at night.
What are the requirements to swim the English Channel? You have to submit a medical form and you also have to have a qualifying swim of at least six hours in 60-degree water. Tahoe was 63 degrees and Catalina was 67 degrees, so neither of them could be a qualifying swim. I did my qualifying swim at Aquatic Park in San Francisco. I swam in circles for six hours.
There are some rules during the swim: No one can touch the swimmer, the swimmer cannot touch the boat, and no assisting devices can be used so you can’t wear a wet suit.
Did you experience fear once you started your swim? At one point there were literally hundreds of jellies around. They’re fascinating, so alien looking, and I had a little panic attack. I looked up at the boat and then just kept going.
I’d think, “This is good because this is beautiful and when else will I see them live like that?’ or ‘This is good because it’s helping me swim faster.’ I only got one sting. …
You can’t afford fear, negativity or anxiety if you’re going to swim the English Channel. I felt there was no option except to touch France.
What did you experience as you neared the shore of France? I started crying as I was seeing the beach underneath me as I got closer and closer. It was almost like a dream. You’re in an altered state near the end; your mind kind of softens. I was telling myself, this really is land, then my fingers would touch the sand. It was 8 something at night and it was getting dark. The tradition is to take some stones from where you end, so I grabbed my stones, crawled into the Zodiac and headed back to the boat.
How long after the swim before you got back in the water? The next morning I went to Shakespeare Beach just down the hill from where we were staying in Dover. I went for a recovery swim, just 20 minutes in the water.
They have a tradition down there that they blow a whistle when a channel swimmer comes back. They blew the whistle and everyone was clapping. I was clapping also, then someone told me the whistle was for me.
What advice do you have for others who might want to become marathon swimmers? I would say to start small and with small successes, a little bit at a time. Start with 30 minutes, then go to 35. Work on incremental improvement.
Find others, a mentor you can talk to.
Do something toward your goal every single day. Anything, even if it’s just visualizing. I remember on days I couldn’t swim, I would do something else like spending time writing or visualizing how I hoped the experience would be.
Any big swims in your future? My next big swim will be a relay on Lake Powell. Six of us will swim at total of 60 miles in October.
I’d like to do Manhattan Island as a marathon solo, maybe next year. In swimming, there’s a triple crown: the Catalina Channel, the English Channel, and Manhattan.
What do you do to relax? I do yoga at Benicia Yoga House. I teach there. I also swim to relax.
What’s the difference between swimming to relax and to train? You get to float around on your back when you’re swimming to relax.