Brianna Thompson conquered the English Channel in her school holidays. Now she’s ready to take the plunge into the waters of Scotland’s infamous Loch Ness.
Brianna Thompson conquered the English Channel in her school holidays. Now she’s ready to take the plunge into the waters of Scotland’s infamous Loch Ness.

Young swimmer conquers English Channel, now for Loch Ness


THEY APPEAR somewhere between England and France. Tentacles streaming, swarms of jellyfish pulse by in a strange, aquatic ballet of iridescent blues, rose pinks and flashes of shimmering orange. Brisbane's Brianna Thompson doesn't know how long she's been in the water, or how far she has to go, but as each jellyfish barb stings at her skin, and tiny bursts of fire explode on her bare flesh, the 18-year-old tells herself one thing.

Like Dory in Finding Nemo, Thompson tells herself to just keep swimming …

The English Channel, that long arm of ocean that separates southern England from northern France, has long held a fascination for swimmers. For some, the urge to lather oneself in goose fat and enter the waters off England's Samphire Hoe in Dover to emerge victorious about 32km (depending on the currents) later in Cap Gris-Nez in Calais is irresistible.

The English Channel, that long arm of ocean that separates southern England from northern France, has long held a fascination for swimmers.
The English Channel, that long arm of ocean that separates southern England from northern France, has long held a fascination for swimmers.

Since Matthew Webb became the first person to officially cross the Channel in 1875, thousands of open water swimmers have given it a red hot (or a freezing cold) go. Not everyone succeeds, but at last count, according to its official body, the Channel Swimming Association (CSA), there have been 2494 successful solo swims across it.

One of those was Brianna Thompson's swim during her high school holidays on September 29, 2018. The then 17 year-old, Year 12 Wavell State High School student swam the Channel in 11 hours and 52 minutes, a more than respectable time in a feat achieved in an average time of 13 hours and 17 minutes.

Then in 2019, when she was 18 years old, she did it again - only this time she swam what's known among Channel aficionados as a "double". Which is to say, she swam from England to France and then, about three to four minutes later, turned around and swam back again.

Among the families wading in the shallows, she struck a solitary figure in the middle of all the action, slowly, but steadily churning up and down the Enoggera Reservoir’s centre. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Among the families wading in the shallows, she struck a solitary figure in the middle of all the action, slowly, but steadily churning up and down the Enoggera Reservoir’s centre. Picture: Mark Cranitch

That swim, over July 9-10, took her 22 hours and 37 minutes, a return journey that almost didn't happen because the young swimmer from Boondall on Brisbane's northside was understandably reluctant to churn through all those jellyfish again.

Thompson, now 20, says she could cope with the painful, aching cramps that seized her thighs, and with the salt water stripping an entire layer off her tongue. But, voluntarily turning around to be stung again by those curling tentacles? Now that took some facing.

"I really struggled with the return swim, to be honest," Thompson says relaxing after a training session at Brisbane's northside Enoggera Reservoir, a favourite spot for open water swimmers.

"When you do the double, you officially have up to 10 minutes to turn around, but you don't want to take that long because you'll get cold and your muscles will seize up - plus, it gives you far too long to change your mind," she laughs.

"Where I landed in France was a particularly rocky part of the beach. I was sitting on a rock, it was about one o'clock in the afternoon, and I was pretty emotional about turning around.

"I had been stung so many times, it felt like hundreds, and I just didn't want to go on.

"My British-based coach Tim Denyer was shouting at me from a boat to just keep going; that everyone believed in me; that I had this, that I could do it." Thompson smiles. "So I did."

 

Brianna Thompson training for her English Channel swim at Enoggera Reservoir in Brisbane’s north. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Brianna Thompson training for her English Channel swim at Enoggera Reservoir in Brisbane’s north. Picture: Mark Cranitch

Thompson is still wet from her session in the reservoir, tiny rivulets of water running down her arms. Earlier, among the families wading in the shallows, she struck a solitary figure in the middle of all the action, slowly, but steadily churning up and down the reservoir's centre.

It's a solitary business, this open water swimming, and one that requires a particular sort of self-discipline. One in which, no matter who is in your support crew, success ultimately comes down to you. Alone with your thoughts with your mind playing all sorts of tricks on you. Often swimmers are in foreign waters, uncertain and a little frightened of what lies beneath.

Which is why Thompson is at this Brisbane reservoir at least once a week, swimming for between two to eight hours.

To remind herself - mind and body - what it feels like to swim for hours in freshwater, with the sky above and who knows what under the surface. She's preparing for her next big swim in August this year. In Scotland, at Loch Ness, where, she laughs, encountering the famous Loch Ness monster, known fondly as "Nessie" would be a piece of cake after squaring up to all those jellyfish.

 

As a member of her local Albany Creek Swimming Club, her-then coach Mick Lewandowski noticed when Thompson was still at Boondall State School that the young swimmer preferred the longer swims.
As a member of her local Albany Creek Swimming Club, her-then coach Mick Lewandowski noticed when Thompson was still at Boondall State School that the young swimmer preferred the longer swims.

Thompson will swim the 38km length of the loch in the Scottish summer, when the usually freezing water temperature will be somewhere between a more pleasant 12C-17C. Like the English Channel, the freshwater loch southwest of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands holds a particular fascination for open water swimmers.

Beginning at Fort Augustus at its southern end and finishing at its most northerly point, known as Loch End, according to the latest figures available from the British Long Distance Swimming Association (BLSDA), only 16 people have (officially) had their swim recorded since the first official swim in 1966 by 18-year-old British teenager Brenda Sherratt.

It's known, even in summer, as a particularly chilly, not to mention eerie swim. Which begs the question: why do it?

Why do any of these long distance swims? For Thompson, who has no sponsors and with the help of her mother Elise, 49, funds all her swims herself, it began with a Facebook post.

A young Thompson in her early long distance training days photographed at Enoggera Reservoir. Picture: Mark Cranitch
A young Thompson in her early long distance training days photographed at Enoggera Reservoir. Picture: Mark Cranitch

"I was at home with mum (Elise Thompson, an accreditation assessor with the Australian Skills Quality Authority) and I saw on Facebook that a friend I used to swim with called Ben Freeman had swum the English Channel," Brianna says.

"I just remember looking at that post and saying to myself, 'Oh my gosh, that's what I want to do', straight away.

"I walked out and told mum, and I think she said something vague like, 'That sounds good'.
I don't think she realised than how serious I was.

"I just like a challenge, I guess. When I heard that people call the Channel the 'Mt Everest of swimming' I thought, 'Cool'.

Thompson, who works as a lifeguard for the Royal Life Saving Society Queensland at Redcliffe's Settlement Cove, was not a complete stranger to long distance swimming.

As a member of her local Albany Creek Swimming Club, her-then coach Mick Lewandowski noticed when Thompson was still at Boondall State School that the young swimmer preferred the longer swims.

Brianna Thompson with respected English Channel coach Tim Denyer.
Brianna Thompson with respected English Channel coach Tim Denyer.

 

"Mick saw that I really enjoyed the 800m and 1500m and when I was about 13, he suggested I might like to try open water events.

"He said I should enter the Brisbane Open Water Championship held at Lake Kawana, and try for the longest event, which was the 5km."

The rookie swimmer entered, and surprised herself by qualifying for the national titles.

The other surprise was how physical open water swimming competitions can be.

"Here I am, this kid with no idea what I am doing, and it can be a bloodbath out there. The reason we put vaseline on our ankles is so other girls can't grab them to pull you back. I've had girls grab at the front of my togs and fling me sideways … in my first-ever 10km a girl and I locked arms and she pushed me under the water and held me down for a little bit. It's crazy, you file your nails down and take your earrings out, anything to reduce the damage you can do," she laughs. "I love it, but it's hectic."

As she moved through the ranks of open water competition, Thompson also began swimming at meets organised by Trent Grimsey, a Queensland swimmer, coach, and the current record holder for the fastest crossing of the English Channel, with 6 hours and 55 minutes in 2012. Grimsey, 32, runs Grimsey's Adult Swimfit which holds regular, open water meets. It was at one of these, held at Redcliffe on Brisbane's bayside, that a nervous Thompson approached the Channel champion with: "Hi, I'm Brianna and I really want to swim the English Channel."

 

Brianna Thompson's coach Tim Denyer holds a sign recognising a milestone in her double crossing of the English Channel on July 8 and 9, 2019
Brianna Thompson's coach Tim Denyer holds a sign recognising a milestone in her double crossing of the English Channel on July 8 and 9, 2019

 

Grimsey smiled and told her what it would take. It wasn't for the faint-hearted.

It has to be official. Anyone wanting to "cross the ditch", as some call the Channel swim, must register with Britain's CSA which controls, among other things, the number of crossings each year, the booking of the official "pilot" boats and crew that accompany each swimmer, and also records official times and statistics.

"To qualify for the Channel, you have to show you can do a six to eight-hour swim in under 16C," Thompson explains. "So we started training in January 2018, committing to nine sessions a week; eight in the pool, and one in open water, either at Redcliffe or Enoggera Reservoir."

For Thompson, it also meant attending Grimsey's gruelling eight-hour Cold Water Camp. Held every April at Melbourne's Brighton Baths, at St Kilda, it involves remaining in the water for eight hours. She had to learn to pee while swimming - trickier, she says than what it sounds, and eat - also trickier than what it sounds.

 

Brianna Thompson and coach Tim Denyer after she completed her two-way swim of the English Channel on July 9, 2019.
Brianna Thompson and coach Tim Denyer after she completed her two-way swim of the English Channel on July 9, 2019.

"Basically", she laughs, "it's a bottle filled with sustenance drinks attached to a long lead and thrown out to you every half-hour or so.

"You have to keep swimming so you sort of flip over on your back and scull."

While his young charge trained, Grimsey worked with his UK counterpart, British swim coach Tim Denyer, 41, and Australian nutritionist Tara Diversi, 38, the three teaming together to ensure Thompson would have the greatest chance of meeting her dream.

The best months to swim the Channel are July, August and September, and with only eight so-called pilot boats allowed to accompany swimmers in the Channel at the same time, competition for what is known as "slots" is fierce.

"It can take up to two years to get a slot, but I got one on a pilot boat called Viking Princess much earlier than expected."

In early September 2018, much, much earlier than she had expected, Thompson and her mother were headed for England.

"It was a bit surreal, you know, at school it was 'What are you doing in the school holidays?' and I was like 'swimming the English Channel'."

But far more surreal was the swim itself.

"Mum and I flew to London, then we hired a car and drove to Dover and we booked into a hotel and waited."

For a crossing to occur, all the planets have to align, the tides must be right, the weather conditions suitable, and previous swimmers must have cleared certain markers.

She says they remain in constant communication with their pilot boat, which relays messages such as, "the wind is looking better", "the weather is good, no it's not", "you're going, no you're not …"

Brianna Thompson during her Channel Crossing. Like Dory in Finding Nemo, Thompson tells herself to just keep swimming.
Brianna Thompson during her Channel Crossing. Like Dory in Finding Nemo, Thompson tells herself to just keep swimming.

And then suddenly, she was.

On September 28, Thompson got the go-ahead and on September 29 she found herself standing on the shore of Samphire Hoe, waiting for the signal.

"It was about 2.30am, totally pitch black, with the light from the boat shining on the water.

"You have to meet the boat at the marina, and then they take you around to the Hoe, put you in an IRB (inflatable rescue boat) and then you have to jump out and swim to the shore.

"When you are ready you put your arms up in the air to signal you're good to go. I was expecting some kind of horn to sound, but no, I was standing there and I thought I heard someone yell, 'Go!' and I was like, 'Wait, was that go?' and then I thought, 'Oh crap', and went."

As per CSA guidelines, Thompson was wearing standard, sleeveless and legless swimming togs and covered from head to toe in what is known as "Channel grease", a concoction of fats and grease - in Thompson's case vaseline and zinc cream, which keeps swimmers warm.

Thompson entered the waters, watching the guidelights on her pilot boat with her mother and Denyer on it calling out constant words of encouragement.

Also swimming the Channel that day was her training partner, Ben Jimmieson, 21, another Brisbane-based swimmer.

 

A nervous Thompson approached the Channel champion with: “Hi, I’m Brianna and I really want to swim the English Channel.”
A nervous Thompson approached the Channel champion with: “Hi, I’m Brianna and I really want to swim the English Channel.”

 

"Ben was with the only other boat to go out that day, and I could see the light from his boat also which made me feel less alone out there," she laughs.

And like Thompson, Jimmieson made it as well, making the crossing in 13 hours 12 min.

"I was really happy we both made it, and I can't speak for Ben, but for me, it felt surreal.

"I ended up swimming 47km, not 32, because you always swim over, and that damn coastline of France is so misleading."

"I kept thinking I was nearly there, and then it just keeps on sort of disappearing from my view.

"That first crossing, my technique wasn't great, so my arms were really hurting, my throat was so swollen, my feeding went out the window because I kept throwing up because of the waves, and I supposed the first feeling I felt when my feet touched France was just exhaustion."

Later though, in the wheelhouse of the pilot boat, in dry clothes and laughing with her mother and Denyer, the enormity of what she had just done began to sink in.

"The only time I asked how far we have got to go was about an hour-and-a-half from finishing."

Thompson laughs.

"So I guess for me it really is about the journey, not the destination."

Originally published as Young swimmer conquers English Channel, now for Loch Ness



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