The award was never meant to be taken literally. They were fun, silly awards like, “Most Likely to be Senator.”
As a junior at Shoreham-Wading River, Qing Li was the only girl in her grade who was a competitive swimmer. So when it came time for Ann Gianfalla to hand out awards to her AP U.S. Government and Politics class, Li received the title of “Most Likely to Swim the English Channel.”
She didn’t think much of it at the time. But it planted a seed.
Four years later, in “16 hours and 48 minutes of hell” after jumping in the water near Dover, England, Li touched ashore on the coast of France about 23 miles away, completing one of the most challenging and prestigious open water swims.
“I still can’t believe I finished,” Li said in a telephone interview Friday before her next class at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she’s a senior and member of the swim team. “It’s kind of crazy that I actually did the whole 17 hours.”
Li conquered the incredible journey Aug. 26, an endeavour she set out to complete with her teammate at MIT, Sydney Giblin. They took their plunges into the water about 15 minutes apart, but Giblin came up short in the end. About three miles from Cap Gris Nez, France, Giblin, after 12 hours in the water and her left shoulder in shooting pain that forced her into one-handed strokes, had to give up. It was estimated she would have needed another five hours in the water in increasingly difficult sea conditions to finish the final three hours.
Li knew the final five hours would prove to be the most difficult.
“I really thought about everyone who supported me and everyone who helped me through this journey,” she said. “When I finished I was like, this is what I’ve been dreaming of for a really long time.”
The first recorded swim across the English Channel dates back to the 19th Century when Captain Matthew Webb swam across in 21 hours and 45 minutes. By 1927 only a handful of people had duplicated Webb’s accomplishment. At that time the Channel Swimming Association was founded to authenticate swim times and assist people in the journey across the sea. More than 1,200 swimmers have successfully completed the swim since, including 16 in August, according to CSA.
While many splashed through the water on calm days with forgiving seas and weather, Li and Giblin faced no such luck. The water temperature was frigid. Their bathing suits provided no insulation from the bone-chilling water. All suits must be sleeveless, legless and without any thermal protection or buoyancy. “I have never been so cold for so long,” Li said.
Through the blackness of night, Li swam as a thunderstorm rolled through. Rain poured down and lightning struck around her. As the storm passed, the wind picked up. The swells grew larger, as much as 20 to 25 feet. On the accompanying boat that guided her across the channel, her mother lasted only an hour into the trip before succumbing to seasickness. The same fate befell her father shortly after.
On the other boat carrying Giblin’s crew, her mom, dad and sister all became seasick as well. Giblin later wrote on her blog that “the pilot, Eric, officially designated them the worst support crew ever.”
Luckily for both women, the crew for each boat were well accustomed to the rigors of the sea.
Even Li became seasick at one point just three hours in, vomiting after a half-hour tea break. An hour later, the feeling came rushing over again.
“When I was training for the channel I knew there were going to be very heavy currents,” Li said. “It’s a completely different monster than competitive swimming in a pool. You have to train for the worst, but hope for the best.”
When the sun dipped below the horizon and darkness set in, Li momentarily got confused. She took about 30 strokes in a circle that put her back on a course toward England. As someone who tends to swim with her eyes closed, Li said she’s susceptible to veering of course. As she noted on her blog, “in the middle of the English Channel, there are no lanes to stop me from wandering away.”
Once she straightened out she began swimming to the right of the boat, so the tide pushed her back toward it instead of away from it. And the crew shined a spotlight on her, which gave her a focal point.
“With the light, I washed away my thoughts of land, I forgot the bellowing wind, and I numbed my pain,” Li wrote.
In some respects, the ending is almost anticlimactic. In conversations with many people who had completed the swim before, Li expected that and mentally prepared for it. She also prepared herself for the prospect of not finishing the swim.
Although it took her about five hours longer than planned, that was a reality she never had to face.
Li first started swimming at 6 years of age and was doing so competitively only a year or two later. It was a way to keep busy during the summer.
She competed as an independent for Shoreham and trained at Three Village Swim Club in East Setauket. As a junior in high school she placed fifth in the 100-yard backstroke at the county championship and advanced to the state meet. The backstroke has been her main event at MIT. Last season she swam more of a sprint backstroke, helping the MIT women to their first conference championship.
When she arrived back at campus this week, there wasn’t much time to acclimate back to pool water. The team started captain practices Thursday.
Early in her career at MIT Li met a woman who completed the English Channel swim in 2008. She thought back to the award she had received in high school and for the first time gave serious consideration to what it would take to accomplish such a feat.
“I realized it was something I really wanted to do,” Li said.
By the start of her sophomore year in college Li began researching the details of swimming the channel and soon after started the grueling physical and mental preparation that accompanies it.
As part of qualifying to swim the channel, Li had to complete a six-hour open water swim. She did that swimming in the Long Island Sound, jumping in the water near Mount Sinai and heading toward Connecticut.
As for now, Li has no plans for more open water swims this year. With her final year in college in front of her, she’s thinking about grad school and future career.
But it doesn’t mean her open-water career is over.
She’s already completed one leg of the “Triple Crown” of open water swimming, which includes crossing the Catalina Channel in southern California and circling Manhattan.
Having already survived the grueling conditions of the English Channel, the worst may already be behind her.