In Depth With An English Channel Swimmer.

I remember the first time I met Grant Callaghan. It was about four years ago, at our usual Saturday open water group swim. When he told me that he was going to take the crossing of the English Channel, I knew their was no doubting him. As with a lot of people I’ve met through open water swimming, there is no surprise to their drive and determination to take on a challenge like this and set themselves up with the best possible chance to do something amazing. I also knew that his story to cross the English Channel would be worth sharing. Open Water Magazine(OWM) got the change to speak to Grant a couple of weeks before heading over to Western Australia to swim the Rottness Channel Swim and get the low down on taking on what a lot of people consider to be comparable to Climbing Mount Everest.

This article was originally published through Open Water Magazine, Issue 2.

OWM: What was your motivation behind doing the English Channel Crossing. Is there any specific reason you had for taking it on?
GRANT: After I do one big swim, like the Bloody Big Swim, that night I’d be seeing what more I could do. It’s just something about me that says “I could have done more”. A coach put a brochure in the bag at the swim and it said “if you’d like to have a coach take you through the English Channel, sort out the logistics and coach you”. I thought there was no way I could do it myself, but if I had Chloe McCardel as my coach, then why not go do that. 
So she interviewed me and somehow she thought I might be able to do it mentally and she said “alright I’ll be your coach”. I was her first solo English Channel swimmers that she took on.
I kind of fell into it an opportunity that presented itself and I said “yeah I’ll go do it”.

OWM: So what’s your actual history with swimming then?
GRANT: A big motivator was that I got onto a blog by an Irish swimmer who had done a lot of cold water and open water swimming called the Lone Swimmer. I kept reading his blog and it was really inspiring. He would swim in different locations and in cold water and just wrote a lot about distance swimming with all these amazing people, so I started googling for what I could do and discovered the muscles[Open Water Swim Group] and that’s how I learnt to swim in the ocean basically. I had done nippers before when I was a kid and was a surfer and a spear fisherman, but I was never a swimmer really.

OWM: Preparing for the English Channel Crossing, what would a standard weeks training be?
GRANT: A standard week would be five to eight swims, the furthest I got to was 36kms in a week but I would be building distance all the time. I would have swam more if I physically could have because I mentally wanted to. 
I went to the physio once a week, I had a massage every week from the sports masseuse and went to Pilates twice a week. I did stretching almost every night and used a foam roller.

OWM: Say for example 36kms in a week, how many hours do you think that actually would take you?
GRANT: That’s a good question. The actual swimming time would be 12 or 15 hours of swimming. Then there is the driving, getting in and out of the pool and stuff around that and it pretty much ends up like a job really.

OWM: Were there any big changes to what you’re eating and your diet going into the Channel Swim?
GRANT: So I went to a nutritionist who specializes in endurance sports. Her name’s Steph Lowe and she’s awesome. As much reading and knowledge as I could pick up about low carb high fat diet, I still wasn’t getting it right. My weight dropped from 112kg to 97kg and I wanted to get it back to about 105kg to 108kg. So we progressively added more carbohydrates to my diet. So that was a big change and fasted training was huge for me as all my training was in a fasted state.

This story is from Issue 2 of Open Water Magazine, a magazine specializing in open water swimming and being active outdoors, the magazine is a quarterly publication that can be downloaded as a PDF from the website

OWM: So with removing sugar from your diet, was that out of choice or were you having a bad reaction to the sugar?
GRANT: My training was getting interrupted about a year out. I wasn’t sleeping very well and I kept getting colds. I did some research that when you have a lot of sugar, you can spike your insulin and some people don’t sleep that well and some people become insulin resistant. For my body it’s not good. I classify carbohydrates and sugar essentially the same thing. So pasta, bread, I removed almost all of that and in the end I was having about 120 grams of carbohydrates per day and about 4000 to 6000 calories.
The other thing was timing of carbohydrates. So I’d have some carbs immediately after a training session to help with recovery.

OWM: You were saying that it kind of turns into a job for you and was there ever a time when you thought it was just too much and felt like giving up?
GRANT: So my coach Chloe was terrific. She would write my programs but she was also there is a mentor. She wasn’t there at every training session but every two weeks we would have a trial. But anytime I would get confused about training or injury management, I could call her up and she would tell me what I can do. I have this theory that if I did 100% of what she said then there would be a 100% chance I’d make it. If I did 60% of what she said, there’s still a really high chance that I’d make it.
I remember calling her once after a session, I was feeling really bad and I think I was almost crying and I said can’t do this. It was like December and she said “you’re crazy, we’re going to make it! I have no doubt about it at all. Everyone’s going to have a bad session”. She said that she trains 10 times a week. If she has at least 2 sessions a week that she feels good, she’s happy.

OWM: It sounds like you were smart to give yourself that much preparation time. Have you heard of anyone deciding in four months to do the English Channel Crossing?
GRANT: I think I’d be on the extremely fast side. I would suspect that people would be more in the three to five year planning and they might be pretty good swimmers already and have done a series of marathons swims. I basically did it in 18 months which would be an outlier and I think possibly quite stupid.

OWM: You got an award didn’t you, for the earliest Crossing?
GRANT: They have an award called the Earliest/Latest Swim. Whatever the number of days is outside of the median and then they give a trophy each year for that. It’s in a little trophy room at the Channel Swimming Association Hall of Fame and there’s the Fastest Triple Crossing of the Year Award and my award is next to it.

OWM: So who actually decides when your going to swim, is it the pilot’s decision?
GRANT: Yes, the pilot decides which day and at what time you will swim. The pilot is an experience channel pilot, one of only 12 with a license to take aspirants across the Channel. They are definitely the boss. We have a seven or eight day window on a neap tide to swim. The pilot looks at five different weather sources for the forecast, tides, etc, and then uses his experience and knowledge of the swimmers ability and pace to decide which is the best time to go. For me, I got a call at 4pm in the afternoon saying “be at the marina at 3am. Tomorrow we’re going to go”. So it happens really quickly. Then there is a mad panic to get your crew together, get all the provisions to be out at sea for 12 to 18 hours, finalise the swim plan, make the food and the swimmers specific feeds, and try get some sleep.
My pilot Andy (who is super awesome), said it’s was going to be rough in the beginning and then all fine up. This became a very important statement for me. Because it was very rough in the beginning, and I kept trusting him that it would fine up. That confidence in Andy was a big reason I got through the first 5 hours of the swim.

OWM: Can you actually talk us through getting in the water and making the crossing, I know it took you roughly fourteen hours?
GRANT: Yeah, 14 hours and 22 minutes and I was kinda hoping for about 15 to 18 hours, so I was delighted with that and I gave myself a 50% chance of making it, so I over performed really.

OWM: I think 14 hours is like the mean so you like a right on the average for the crossing?
GRANT: Yeah I think under 12 hours is supposed to be really fast and then 10 hours you’re looking at breaking World Records pretty much. An Australian guy has a record of 6 hours 55 minutes. I don’t really remember jumping in the water. I remember, before the swim I was off my face on adrenaline. There was a lot going through me and I don’t remember jumping in the water, but there wasn’t really any fear. One of my friends was swimming that day and I gave him a hug and he left a half hour before me. I jumped in the water and it was pretty rough, I took off and I didn’t really notice the cold at all but later on, I found out that the lowest it got to was 13.2[degrees Celsius] and it was pretty rough. After about an hour the sun started to come up a little bit but then it started to become misty and it was grey, cloudy and overcast. I keep telling myself that it will fine up because that’s what the captain said and I should trust him.
Then after an hour and a half I heard this voice in my head that said “this is just too rough”. I kept swallowing water every 2–3 strokes, getting swamped and I could see the keel of the boat it was so rough. I didn’t see my girlfriend and coach for the first 5 hours because they were on the other side of the boat throwing up. I suspected that was the case or they were lying down asleep. After about five hours the captain pointed over my shoulder, I looked over and saw my training partner, Glenn’s boat, going back in and that really scared me. Glenn is an amazing swimmer and I thought even he can’t get through this, there is no chance I can get through this rough weather but I said I’ll just keep going. Then about half an hour later, I saw everyone looking back and we’d seen our first big container boat going through the channel. Every day on average there are about 500 container ships going through the English Channel and a really large ones are amazing to see when you’re at surface level watching this huge boats going through and I think it was a mental milestones for me actually being in the shipping channel.
Just then the sun started coming out and felt it on my back. I started to warm up a little bit. They gave me some codeine as well and that really helped because I think I hurt my bicep in the rough waves and then after that everything started fining up. I went from every 10 strokes being swamped, to every 20 strokes, to 50 strokes I’d count. My girlfriend and Chloe started waking up from the illnesses and then they both started cheering me and we all started settling into a nice kind of rhythm and I thought “well I’m probably going to make it now”.

OWM: Do you remember the end of the swim then?
GRANT: Yes, so at the end we got really lucky. We landed in the exact best spot which is the closest distance, which was called Cap Gris-Nez and it’s not like a nice sandy beach. It’s full of these big boulders. 
At the end you need to clear the water, so if you’re on a nice sandy beach you can just go past the waterline, but with the boulders you have to climb up on one. I wanted to stand up and be like Rocky, but I sat down and I was pretty numb. I remember being in a car accident when I was a teenager and sitting on the side of the road just looking at my crashed car and it felt the same way. It was just pure relief and that’s it.

OWM: Knowing what you know now, would you do it again?
GRANT: I think I would try a swim that’s closer to home. There’s a lot of other swims, you don’t have to go all the way to England to do that. You don’t have to do it in such a cold water either. I’d be more interested in doing a swim around here and even just making your own one. Hell of a lot cheaper, but for me it was really nice. My parents rented a house and they came from the US and my sister and a lot of friends came and everyone just kept staying in this house so it turned out to be a really nice family holiday just built around the swim and I got my dad to swim the English Channel for about two minutes.

This story is from Issue 2 of Open Water Magazine, a magazine specializing in open water swimming and being active outdoors, the magazine is a quarterly publication that can be downloaded as a PDF from the website