Robin Davis was about jump into the English Channel and begin the first of six one-hour legs of a relay swim from Dover, England, to France.
It was just after sunrise, and the water was running at 62 degrees, 1 degree for every year she’s been alive. She was smeared with grease to prevent heat loss and chafing from the salt, and she had no wetsuit.
Before the plunge, she thought about the person to whom she dedicated this “crazy” project of hers: her daughter’s friend, Whitney Wynn, who is undergoing chemotherapy. She also thought of her life in the two years prior. A fall had caused her to hit her head on a curb, causing a massive concussion, and she hadn’t been able to keep her job because of the effects. She had become an “empty nester,” living alone, and was going through a divorce.
The swim, and all the intensive training leading up to it, was her way of “getting through a tough year,” she said.
She jumped in.
In her South Hill home, Davis flips through a series of cartoons she is creating depicting scenes of the trip. She’s compiling them into a book for Wynn, who has been battling a rare adrenal cancer for a year and a half and is living in Bellingham.
One of her cartoons is titled “The Idea,” and shows her lounging in the sun with a bubble cloud floating above her. In the cloud, she’s swimming the channel.
While Davis was recovering from her head trauma two years ago, she was deep in a state of depression, she said.
One day, her daughter told her that she needed to come up with an idea for a project within a week.
Davis grew up as an adventurer in Seattle. She sailed with her dad and competed in triathlons as a kid. She was comfortable with water, and also knew that swimming is physically more gentle on the body than running.
“I thought ‘What’s the most famous swim?’ ” And she thought of the English Channel.
Crossing the English Channel is most often done without a wetsuit, a tradition spanning back to 1875 when Capt. Matthew Webb first made the crossing.
At about the same time, Davis learned of Wynn’s cancer diagnosis and decided to dedicate the swim to her by calling her duo’s swim team name Whitney’s Wynners.
“I was like, why would you do that?” Wynn said, but she felt honored. “It seriously meant the world to me.”
“(Wynn) was given a five-month prognosis,” Davis said. She’s now in year two of treatment. “She’s got steel in her.”
Davis flips her drawings to a picture of her shivering near a lake next to a snowy ski resort. Icicles are hanging off her limbs and she’s shaded blue. It was a scene from her training regimen, during a visit to the Seattle area.
Months before that, in Davis’ first move to kick off the project, she joined a group called the Channel Swimming Association, which would guide her through the training and permitting. It was September 2017.
The group set her up with a coach, based in Sacramento, California, named Carol Breiter. After hearing the story about dedicating the swim to Wynn, Breiter “forgot to charge me,” Davis said.
Davis also joined a Facebook group to find a partner to tag-team the channel crossing.
Zena Courtney “bravely responded” to the post, she wrote in her own account of the trip, which was later published in a blog.
Courtney, from Tacoma, had just finished a swim across the Strait of Gibraltar.
The instructions for training began before the two met. Davis expected a gradual increase in mileage while swimming in cold water, but Breiter “wanted me to train like an Olympic pool swimmer,” Davis said.
She would practice swimming at Spokane YMCAs and would swim in Lake Coeur d’Alene in the cold months and in Whitefish, Montana.
She also lifted weights and practiced shoulder stabilization exercises. Her trainer made her push herself every time she was in the water, then get out and lie still in the cold for an hour, which would simulate the channel crossing.
In December, three months into training, Davis traveled to Seattle to meet a group of tough, cold-water enthusiasts called the Notorious Alki Swimmers who swim in 48-degree water.
“They’re all crazy,” she said.
Davis learned valuable techniques from the group. She shared her experience of getting into cold water and being slammed with a headache, similar to a brain freeze. One of the members of the group told her to scream into the water.
“I thought he was kidding, but it works,” she said
Training wasn’t going entirely in the right direction for Davis. She broke her hand and cracked a couple of ribs. The concussion symptoms came back in July; she had to take three weeks off, but she powered through.
Time rolled on, and two weeks before the Oct. 4 swim, she flew to Dover, England, to acclimate.
Davis flipped to her comic drawing of the last-minute training in Dover, England, an old coastal town in the southeast. Its surrounding white cliffs are world famous. There’s no closer point in the country to continental Europe.
The drawing depicts her inside a washing machine, floating near the white, coastal cliffs. The washing machine represents an eddy of swirling channel water that the swimmers had to struggle though.
In the picture, people are swimming and splashing, and each shows a smile.
But for Davis, fearful of sea sickness, the cold and the waves, there wouldn’t be so much smiling for what would come ahead until she finished.
The night before the big day, she boiled white rice figuring that if she was going to get sick, she could at least get that down.
She “loaded tunes” into her head for the swim to keep her mind on something, she said. She chose Irish fiddle tunes, fitting for Davis, who grew up as a musician. At one time she played for the Spokane Symphony and occasionally plays the Irish fiddle for crowds in Spokane.
Davis had brought with her a swimming cap with “WW” drawn on the front – Whitney’s Wynners. The symbol also mirrors a tattoo inked in Wynn’s arm, the WW sign of Wonder Woman, a symbol of strength.
The day before the swim, Davis walked to the ocean and tossed a mermaid coin in. She wanted to pay honor to the “spirit” in the channel.
“I respect you,” she told the English Channel. “She was kind to us,” she said.
Davis pulls out her cartoon of the swim, which looks like a scene from The Odyssey.
Waves curl into the ocean, rain falls from the sky and icicles drift by Davis, swimming, and a speech bubble saying, “WTF have I done?”
The pictures of the swim wouldn’t make the channel look so dangerous, but Davis didn’t quite know what to expect.
She and Courtney met with the captain of the guide boat in the early hours of Oct. 4. Stuart Gleeson would accompany the swimmers in his 33-foot craft, Sea Leopard. He would make sure they were safe, not hypothermic, and on course.
At 5 a.m., the swim started.
Courtney plunged into the water first while the sky was still dark. Lights were strapped to her back and head, and the Sea Leopard shined a spotlight on her as she stepped into the water from the English shore.
“I found the 62-degree water cold but not unbearable,” she wrote.
The 21-mile trip began.
Courtney swam for an hour, while Davis sat in the boat, worried about getting seasick.
The hour passed and the sun rose over the horizon. The swells that day were reaching 4 feet, more than she was expecting.
It was time for Davis to get in, and she thought of Wynn.
Upon hitting the water, the tunes that she had “loaded” into her head disappeared, but she started swimming.
“The first thing the pilot said was, ‘Oh we have a zig-zagger,’ ” she said. She hadn’t trained swimming next to a boat, so, trying not to battle the waves and lose energy, her course become erratic.
“Swimming with the boat was so hard with all the waves,” she said. “That was my biggest swimming challenge.”
While swimming, Davis refused to look at France or England. “If you look at the cliffs of Dover, they never get any smaller,” she said.
In the cold waves, time began to warp.
“You’d be swimming with 10 minutes left and it felt like you’d been swimming for two hours.”
Her first leg ended an hour later.
She remembers getting on the boat after the first leg. She heaved herself up the railing, toppled over the side of the boat and fell – “a slow roll” – into it, she said.
“I was a little dizzy from the head injury,” she said.
But the air temperature chilled her more than the water, so the fight for body temperature began.
She was shivering, and the boat’s crew checked her for hypothermia. She passed.
And she wasn’t seasick, to her pleasure.
The salt had irritated her throat, and she couldn’t eat her rice.
“It was like little gravel pieces,” she said.
Instead, she drank a slurry of caffeine, sugar and protein.
“We made great time,” Courtney wrote, “before encountering the dreaded tide change. Then it was eight-plus hours of four- to five-foot swells…”
Courtney’s herbal seasickness patch failed, and she was vomiting. The crew was, too. But Davis held it together, thanks to ginger pills to settle her stomach.
Davis grew tired as the trip progressed, and the cold wasn’t any more tolerable.
Before she entered the water for her last leg, Davis yelled, “This is for you, Whitney!”
“There was no way I was not going to finish,” Davis said. “There’s no way.”
By the time both had each done six one-hour legs, the shore was close, and Courtney jumped in the water for the last 18-minute leg in the shallows of France’s coastline.
Courtney’s feet touched the sand and she started to walk in the thigh-high water.
“Pure happiness for sure,” she wrote, “as evidenced by my ear to ear smile!”
During the trip, the boat had a GPS attached to it, so online viewers could track the progress of the swimmers.
In Bellingham that day, Davis’ children decided to have a wine and cheese party to track their mom. It was late at night, and they ate French and English cheeses.
“We were all watching a little dot” on the GPS, said Nora Harren, Davis’ daughter. “We imagined her being in England in the water. I was so proud that she did it.”
Davis called Wynn after she completed the crossing.
“I felt so incredibly privileged to be a part of it,” Wynn said. “I just really want to say thank you to (Davis) and her teammates. It’s certainly given me a boost through treatment.”
Wynn, whose dad is also battling cancer, said they’re doing well as of now.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time,” she said.
Wynn has been taking eight oral pills a day for chemotherapy and hopes to be done with it in about two years.
Already having earned two degrees, Wynn dreams of earning a master’s degree in climate science or medicine.
“I have no idea if my brain will work after chemo,” she said, “but I do have hope that I’ll be able to pursue goals and dreams.”
Wynn wears a Whitney’s Wynners sweatshirt almost every day, she said, and it’s an inspiration for her.
For Davis, the inspiration comes from Wynn.
Davis said she doubts she would have gotten through her training if she didn’t have the daily reminder of thinking about Wynn’s battle with cancer.
“I don’t know how I would have had the discipline otherwise,” Davis said.
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