George Thornton English Channel Swim : LETTER FROM GEORGE


I did not complete my swim across the English Channel. I am extremely disappointed. Although I failed to swim all the way to France, I do not feel I am a failure. I swam 9½ hour and covered nearly 20 miles.

I just couldn’t go another 9 hours or more. I was feeling good through 8 hours. Then I started to fall apart. I began to get tired—which I expected. My shoulder started to hurt—which I expected. My tongue started to swell up and my throat started to be sore—which I expected. BUT I started to get real cold—which I did not expect. In all my training, I have demonstrated a high level of cold tolerance. The result yesterday was that I ended up with near hypothermia. I started to shiver and then shake in the water. After trying to warm myself by swimming harder, I was just flaying along and veering the right. I got to the boat and when I got on deck I was shaking pretty badly.

I gave it my best effort. It was just not enough. Why did this happen? In the post mortem with Louise, son Charles, and coach Joe Bakel at lunch today, we tried to understand, but there a too many variables to pin it down. I certainly have no external excuses: the sea was calm most of the time; there was little wind; the water temp was mild for English Channel swims @16 C (64 F); the sky was a bit overcast; I was taking in fuel fully each half hour up to the end.

So what are the possible explanations? Maybe I didn’t train hard enough; I did only up to a 10-hour swim in late June, compared to 12 hours in 2012. Maybe I didn’t get enough cold-water exposure this year, compared to 12 hours in the 57-58 water in the ocean in La Jolla in 2012. Maybe the prostate cancer last year, the surgery last fall, and the lingering “black cloud” have left me with less energy and stamina. I will never know.

Joe has read about the “9 hour” wall some swimmers confront, which has to do with what energy sources the body is drawing on. There may be a shift that cold water distance swimmers encounter. It happened to him three years ago. He cramped, but dogged through it and went on to completion. The combination of my “maybes” and some increase in wind and choppy seas at hour 8, may have been what led to my hypothermia.

We believe at least 5 swimmers went out yesterday. We see that two were successful, but 2 others did not make it . We do not know those stories.

And now to several important follow-ups for me. I will try to express my substantial THANK YOU to all the great people who helped me on this journey. Louise has been my daily supporter and cheerleader for three years. She sacrificed many regular outings while I “swam, ate, napped…swam, ate, napped……” Charles gave up his work and family time to spend two weeks last year and again this year to be here and do all the communications. I have heard from many of you that he was instrumental in getting many inside and outside our circle involved. Joe Bakel has been my coach and much more for three years: regular planning sessions, companion swims, and the 2 weeks for each expedition. Oh I hate to think of the opportunity costs for Charles and Joe!

My undying THANKS go out to all those who swam in support of me over the years. I will single out only Ann Donaghue. She has done so much I cannot begin to list it all. It culminated in the “virtual” swim that accompanied me yesterday. I know just a little about the folks from Fort Collins, Loveland, Denver, and other parts of the US and even in other countries. THANKS for all of this. Louise told me who was swimming and it was inspiring.

To those of you who donated to “21 for 21”, I know I didn’t go quite that far, and I did not make it to France. But I am know that your contribution was inspiring to me, and confident it will be used to good ends to help prevent drug and alcohol abuse in Northern Colorado.

I have been told, before the swim and afterward, that this adventure has been inspiring to folks. One of these stories: Joe went to the White Horse pub next door last night. This is the oldest pub in Dover, opened in 1365. It is a traditional British neighborhood pub, and the hang out for Channel swimmers. On the walls and ceiling, finishers write their names, dates, and times. Joe met a local bloke who swam the channel at age 17, nearly 40 years ago. He heard about my attempt at age 73, and said, he had thought about swimming again, but thought he was too old. But now he might train again and give a go.

I take no little solace and even great satisfaction that my effort has some outcomes like that.


3 Responses

  1. Congratulations George for giving it a good try. It quite an undertaking. A sprinter like me or Lloyd Flanders couldn’t have kept up with you!! I think that possibly you are in California from swimming in the cold water note in your email. I was out there the past two years visiting my sister in Oceanside but probably won’t make it this year. If I come out again I will try to look you up. Great effort George! Sid Showalter

    Date: Fri, 9 Aug 2013 15:20:28 +0000 To:

  2. Dear George, thank you for getting in that freezing cold water and swimming for 9+ hours. You and Louise have always set a high standard and you are truly an inspiration and a swimming hero to me. I look forward to hearing more about your Channel swim but why do I feel like this is not the end of the story ? LOL ! Best to you and your family. Lyn

  3. Valiant effort, George, just tremendous. You were a I/O legend in grad school, and now well… just a legend. There is beauty in the dream and nobility in the pursuit. There is no end to your inspiration. All the best to you and Louise. -Sandra Lee

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