‘If I don’t end up in intensive care, it’s a bonus’: the beauty and pain of being the world’s best endurance swimmer

‘If I don’t end up in intensive care, it’s a bonus’: the beauty and pain of being the world’s best endurance swimmer

From jellyfish in the Caribbean to hypothermia in the English Channel, swimming hasn’t been easy for Chloë McCardel – but can feel ‘so wild and free’

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We’re not off to a good start. I’m fumbling with my cap, the rubber clinging to my head lopsidedly, my hair straggling out. I take it off to start again and the woman who has swum the fickle English Channel more times than any other human, the “Queen of the Channel”, instructs me in how to correctly apply a swimming cap.

Chloë McCardel celebrates following her 10-hour swim across the Channel for a world record-breaking 44th time, after landing on Wissant Beach, France
Chloë McCardel swims Channel for record-breaking 44th time
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Chloë McCardel and I are going for an ocean swim at Bondi. She dives into the foamy sea ahead of me – more slender mermaid than broad-shouldered Amazonian. Knee deep, I feel the current suck at my flesh. It’s not one of Bondi’s better days. Chest deep, I realise I’m being dragged out and my very amateur ocean-swimming abilities are no match for this surf. Panic rises. McCardel is an impatient white-cap in the distance. What was I thinking, suggesting a swim with superwoman?

By any objective measure, Chloë McCardel is also a crazy woman, her commitment to putting herself through demented levels of physical and mental torture almost inexplicable. “I own crazy, I wear it as a badge of pride,” she tells me later.

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On 13 October, the 36-year-old Melbourne-born, Sydney-based ultra-marathon swimmer set a new world record, completing her 44th crossing of the English Channel in 10 hours and one minute. She left the water, stood on a French rock at Pointe de la Courte Dune and raised her lanolin-smeared arms in victory. McCardel’s 44 crossings of the world’s busiest shipping highway include three non-stop doubles (to France and back) and one triple non-stop (to France, back to England, then to France again). The “King of the Channel”, Englishman Kevin Murphy, has done only 34 crossings.

McCardel has conquered other waters too: in 2014 she set a world record for the world’s longest non-stop ocean swim – 124.4km from Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas to the capital Nassau, a 41-hour, 21-minute journey.

But the bare numbers and facts hardly tell McCardel’s story. There are good times when the sea is as smooth as a pane of glass, the water clarity is extraordinary, dolphins bounce around and she feels her technique is exquisite. But things can go bad quickly. In 2013 she jumped into the sea in Havana, Cuba, to attempt to be the first person to swim the 166km to the Florida Keys without a shark cage.

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