Cancer survivor swims Channel FOUR times

World record: Only four swimmers have swam it three times. No one has ever completed a fourth leg.

Could you have done it? Sarah Thomas swam 134 miles without stopping for 54 hours, fighting strong currents, hurting from salt water in her throat, and stung in the face by jelly fish.

More than 100 miles of icy sea. Suffocating, salty waves. Powerful tides that drag swimmers far off-course.

Crossing the English Channel is a huge challenge for even the most accomplished swimmers. The American 37-year-old Sarah Thomas has just become the first person to do it four times in a row without stopping.

“I just can’t believe we did it,” she gasped after crawling on to a Dover beach. “I’m pretty tired right now.”

Thomas set off from the Kent coast in the dark, early hours of Sunday morning. At around 6am yesterday, after more than 54 hours in the water, she set foot on dry land once more.

“Just when we think we’ve reached the limit of human endurance, someone shatters the records,” said Lewis Pugh, who recently swam the length of the United Kingdom.

Thomas certainly endured many obstacles.

Her course should have been 80 miles long, but she ended up swimming 130 miles as strong currents pushed her off-course. Over the two days, Thomas consumed only a protein recovery drink and a small amount of caffeine to help keep her awake.

On the first crossing, she fell sick from the salt water. “It really hurts your throat, your mouth and your tongue,” she said.

On the final return from France, she was stung in the face by a jellyfish.

Under Channel Swimming Association rules, swimmers attempting the feat can only wear a cap, goggles and a swimsuit. Many rub their exposed skin with goose fat for insulation against the freezing waters.

Her achievement is made even more incredible — not because she is a woman — but because she was diagnosed with cancer in 2017 while training for the challenge. Doctors believed she would never recover her peak strength.

This year, National Geographic published a list of the world’s most gruelling physical challenges.

Mexico’s infamous Marathon de Sables requires competitors to run 156 miles on hot sand, carrying their own supplies of water and food.

The Iditarod Trail, known as “the last great race on Earth”, is an annual, dog-sled race across 1,000 miles of Alaskan wilderness through blizzards and white-outs.

Meanwhile, in Brazil’s Jungle Marathon, runners must weave through dense rainforest and steep creeks, avoiding piranhas, jaguars and anacondas.

Are these feats reserved only for elite athletes? Or could we all do them if we tried?

Pushed to the brink

The people who can do these astounding things are freaks of nature, most people argue. To withstand extremes of heat and cold, and to be able to exert such stamina over so much time, takes incredibly rare physical powers. They might be acquired through training, genetic inheritance or, more probably, both. It is certainly not advisable for ordinary mortals to try.

Surprisingly, that is absolutely wrong, say others — notably, the athletes themselves. Jasmin Paris was the first woman to win the 268-mile Spine Race in January this year, while pumping milk for her baby daughter at feeding stations, beating her nearest male rival by 15 hours, and setting a course record by 12 hours. She says, “All you need to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other, and feed yourself. We can all do much more than we think, if we actually give it a go.”

You Decide

  1. Would you like to swim across the English Channel?
  2. What is the world’s toughest physical challenge?


  1. Design your own endurance challenge, like the ones listed in National Geographic. Draw a map of the course.
  2. Why is endurance important in life? Write a few paragraphs on this question, including real-life examples.

Some People Say...

“Endurance is patience concentrated.”

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Scottish philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the Channel in 1875, in less than 22 hours. Since then, 1,831 people have done it 2,369 times, including an 11-year-old. The fastest was Australian Trent Grimsey in six hours and 55 minutes, in 2012. Only four swimmers have previously crossed the Channel three times without stopping.
What do we not know?
What is truly the greatest physical challenge. The question is subjective: some people enjoy running; others think it is awful. The same goes for all sports and physical challenges. Many endurance events, like marathon-running, can be dangerous for people with heart conditions and other health problems.

Word Watch

English Channel
The stretch of water that runs between the UK and France.
The length
Lewis Pugh swam 330 miles along the south coast from Cornwall to Plymouth in 49 days. The effort burned 98,000 calories.
An achievement that requires great skill or courage.
Covering something in a material to prevent it losing heat.
A blizzard so dense that you cannot see.
Jungle Marathon
25% of the competitors do not finish the race.
Humans as opposed to divine beings.


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