When someone tells Samantha Simon that she can’t do something, she only hears a challenge.
Swimming the English Channel is a feat that fewer than 1,500 people have accomplished, and one that only 10 percent of those who attempt it actually complete. For marathon swimmers, the English Channel is their Mount Everest.
Simon, a distance specialist for the Tommies’ swimming and diving team, stepped into the 65-degree water at 7:30 a.m. Aug. 17 staring from the English coastline across the 21-mile stretch of water. Thirteen hours, 10 minutes and 45 seconds later, she was standing in France.
“It was the best experience of my life,” Simon said. “I really like challenging myself. After my sister said, ‘Why don’t you try the English Channel,’ it sounded like a good idea. I don’t think she was serious, but it got me motivated anyway.”
The swim equals about 1,500 lengths in a typical 25-yard collegiate pool, and Simon used more than 66,000 strokes in crossing from England to France.
“It was more of a personal goal and to challenge myself,” Simon said. “It was very difficult, [yet] I just knew that once I got in the water I’d be fine and I could do it, but I knew I’d freak out beforehand.”
The day was supposed to be calm and warm, and for the first few hours in the water it was. Soon, however, the wind began to pick up. By the middle of the swim Simon was battling 25-foot swells that were washing her far off course and tipping the monitoring boat on its side. Simon’s parents rode along to support her, and with the boat’s crew, they were feeling the toll of the rough weather.
“When the waves picked up, I’ll be honest with you, I weigh 250 pounds and I think that I was put on that boat just to keep the thing in the water,” Sam’s father, Paul, said. “When you see that boat tipping back and forth under these big swells it’s like ‘I know I can’t live through this. If this boat tips over I’m dying. All I could keep thinking was just ‘Sam – go! Just keep swimming to France!’”
The boat’s first mate and captain both were nauseous within a few hours, and the captain had to lie down on two occasions just to cope with the sea. All the while Simon plowed through, singing to herself and recalling her favorite movie quotes.
“Every few hours I would shout out a movie quote or something I was thinking of,” Simon said. “I loved it. I was laughing underwater, and that probably looked pretty funny.”
The 21-mile crossing turned into 26, as Simon battled through tides and waves to reach her destination of Cap Gris Nez, France. After she made it, Simon’s boat captain said he would nominate her for the toughest swimmer of the year “because they wouldn’t have sent anyone out in that water,” Simon said.
“My wife and I were hanging on for dear life and Sam just kept looking up and never once did she question it,” Paul said. “Never once did she say, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I want out.’ Sam was ready to go no matter what the conditions were.”
Her St. Thomas swim coach, Tom Hodgson, was not surprised. “I never doubted she would make the crossing,” Hodgson said. “The news [that she made it] made me proud of her. To put this in perspective, about 2,700 different people have summitted Mount Everest. Only 1,500 or so have successfully crossed the channel, and probably very few of them in conditions like what Sam endured.”
But that’s just the kind of person Sam is, her father said.
“Sam has the attitude where the harder something is, she’ll say ‘let me try it,’” Paul said. “When she would do gymnastics as a kid and slip on the uneven bars, that girl would literally just hang there from one arm for what seemed like an eternity. For her, it was ‘I am gonna get a hold of that thing, and I am gonna finish this routine no matter what.’ And I’d be thinking, ‘Come on, just let go and fall,’ and Sam would not let go.”
Determination came early for Sam, and the attitude fostered her passion for pushing herself. She found her love for challenge through swimming.
“My favorite quote is, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’” Simon said. “So I would just think of that, and if it hurt for a minute I would get over it and tell myself, ‘you can finish this.’”
In 2008, Simon swam the 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon in just under nine hours. In March 2009, Simon completed a six-hour swim in 57-degree water off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., to fulfill an English Channel requirement of swimming at least six hours in water 60 degrees or colder. To train for the channel swim, Simon spent her summer swimming in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior in temperatures as low as 48 degrees.
“When I was in Lake Michigan I was kind of hypothermic and my hands were like claws,” Simon said. “My mom asked me some super simple math questions, and I couldn’t do it, so it was clear that mentally I wasn’t all there.”
"It’s a scary thing every time I see my daughter get into the open water, and I start to wonder ‘Should we allow our child to do this?'"
Sam’s parents do everything they can to support their daughter’s dedication. But there comes a point where you have to take a step back and wonder if it gets to be too much, her father said.
“It’s a scary thing every time I see my daughter get into the open water, and I start to wonder ‘Should we allow our child to do this?’” Paul said. But it’s like she said, ‘I’m 19 years old; either come with me and cheer me on, or I’m gonna try and figure out how to do it one way or another.’”
With three children, Sam’s mother and father have learned they prefer to cheer for Sam and her older sister and younger brother.
“My wife is the one I give a lot of credit to,” Paul said. “Because everything my children want to do, my wife will find a way and stand by them 199 percent. I really just carry the luggage and keep the boat in the water because of my size.”
Paul can look forward to carrying Sam’s luggage to two more destinations next summer as she attempts swimming’s “Triple Crown.”
The Triple Crown is a pinnacle accomplishment for the sport that demands swimming the English Channel, swimming around Manhattan Island and swimming the Catalina Channel in California – all within one year. It is a feat that less than 40 people have ever accomplished.
The Manhattan Island swim is a race only offered to 25 people once a year, and one must apply and be selected. Simon found out in November that she had been chosen as one of the competitors for the June swim. Two months after that, she is scheduled to attempt the Catalina swim.
“After the English Channel, I got really inspired to go for all three,” Simon said. “My parents have been with me the whole time, and they’ll be there this summer. My family is the most important thing to me.”
The Triple Crown equals about 70.5 miles of swimming, with the English Channel swim and Catalina Channel swim both approximately 21 miles, and the Manhattan Island swim about 28.5.
During her St. Thomas season, which runs October through February, Simon competes in the 400-, 500-, 1000-yard, and one mile events. As the longest race in collegiate meets, the one-mile is 66 lengths with a good time for women near 18 minutes. In preparing for this year’s season, Simon had to relearn the strokes and tactics that these shorter races demand after training for the much longer channel swim. But she said the training and preparation for the channel swim has given her a leg up on her competitors.
“It’s really helped mentally,” Simon said. “I’m just like ‘I’ve swam for 13 hours, I can swim for 20 minutes.” As she dives into races this winter, Simon said that remembering what it was like bobbing through 25-foot swells in frigid water makes a 25-yard heated pool look very tame.
But whatever the distance Simon is facing, her determination continues to outmatch the challenges that come her way. Standing just 5’2’’ tall, her small stature doesn’t reflect the enormous size of her passion, because, as her father said, “you just can’t measure the size of this girl’s heart.”