But What If I Can?

I’m 55 years young and I’m attempting a solo swim of the English Channel in late August.  It almost seems crazy to write that.  It’s already been quite a journey so far for sure.  You see, I was “freestyle challenged” as a high school swimmer.  I liked breaststroke and butterfly, and freestyle just perplexed me.  I did not know how to make it feel good or to make it fast.

I continued to work on it in my 30s and 40s as a fitness swimmer.  And then — after some late night Googling of “how to swim freestyle better”, I became a certified Total Immersion coach, which is just a branded name for efficient freestyle.  And my challenge began.  I knew I needed to be able to demonstrate this stroke in order to coach it well, so I began my quest for my perfect stroke.  I remember writing on my application to attend the training something like, “I haven’t done open water swimming yet, but I just have a feeling I would love it.”  Boy, was that the biggest understatement.

I tested my new stroke a few months after my training by doing a 1 mile lake swim… and I was hooked.  It was so easy and so much fun.  I wondered if I could do 2 miles.  Then 2 miles became 3, then 6, then 12, then 20, then 29 miles around Manhattan in 2019.  In the meantime, I swam on relays around Manhattan, Catalina Channel, and the English Channel.  I swam in lakes, rivers, oceans, bays, sounds, and even from Alcatraz to San Francisco.  After swimming the English Channel on a 6-person relay in 2017, I began wondering if I could possibly do it solo.

It took me a year to press the send button on an email to a pilot.  When I sent it, I told my son Matt and husband Chris what I had just done.  Matt then asked if I would be okay if I made it halfway.  I said I would, but that would not be my goal.  Walking onto that beach somewhere in Calais, France is my goal.  Period.  I visualize that daily in my swims.  I hired Don Larkin as my strength trainer, and he has made my “extra large” shoulders big and strong and healthy so that they are just fine with my many, many miles of training.  And I’m faster than I’ve ever been in my adult life… at 55!

Here’s the thing… We spend so much of our lives telling ourselves what we can’t do, or what we can’t have.  I choose to wonder what I can do.  Friends and strangers ask me all the time why I would want to swim for 14-15 hours in cold and possibly dark (night) water.  Why not??  I get one life and I want to live it… I guess you could say I want to immerse myself figuratively and literally in life.  After I came up with all of the reasons why I couldn’t do this or shouldn’t do this, I guess it all came down to, “but what if I can.”  And I will.


Jeannie Zappe owns and operates Swim Your Best, a local swim coaching business in Mechanicsburg, PA.  She is also Co-Head Coach of the US Masters Swimming program at Keystone Aquatics in Carlisle, PA.