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This swimmer is afraid of cold water - but she still crosses the English Channel

Deniz Kayadelen's dream is to swim the English Channel. To do this, she has to adapt physically and mentally.

Extracted from: NZZ

Deniz Kayadelen sees the chalk cliffs of Cap Blanc-Nez on the horizon. Kayadelen, 35 years old, has been in the 16-degree cold water for ten hours. She wants to swim the English Channel; this is her big dream. Or, as Kayadelen says: "Mount Everest for swimmers." She thinks she's almost there.

But the cliffs on France's west coast don't want to get any closer. On the one hand, this is because Kayadelen is dead tired. Her hips are blocked; she only swims with her arms. She can hardly feel her hands and feet anymore. Channel swimmers only wear a swim cap and bathing suit. This is according to the regulations of the British Channel Swimming Association.

In addition, the tidal current sets in; Kayadelen swims against the ebb tide. She is about to run out of time, the helpers on the escort boat spur her on. It has to get faster – otherwise, the current will eventually become too strong to counteract it.

"I want to show fear that I'm stronger"

Kayadelen thinks about giving up. In the days before the start, she caught a cold and lay in bed with a fever. In the English Channel, she is still tormented by a sore throat; Kayadelen can barely speak. The nose is stuffed up after hours in salt water. "It was difficult for me to breathe, I got scared," she says.

Fear and how to deal with it – that is Kayadelen's purpose in life. She first experienced this feeling 15 years ago. She passed out in an open water swimming competition in 2008; she suffered hypothermia, body temperature dropped below 35 degrees. After that, she would panic every time she stepped into cold water.

Kayadelen says it depends on how she deals with the fear. Does she avoid situations that cause fear? She made a different choice. "I want to show fear that I'm stronger."

She gains seven kilograms - which protects against the cold

Kayadelen studied business psychology and lives in Männedorf on Lake Zurich. The German-Turkish dual citizen works in Zurich for a consulting firm and supports companies with personnel issues.

In the past six months, she's gained 15 pounds and ate whatever she wanted, especially salmon, because of its high fat content. Kayadelen put on an insulating layer of fat; a "channel tummy", as she calls it.

It starts in the middle of the night - because of the tides

It was more difficult than endurance to get used to swimming for hours. Kayadelen says: "Whether you make it across the channel depends 70 percent on your psyche." Once, she swam in Lake Zurich for ten hours and got to know the feeling of being alone with herself and her thoughts. She hardened herself against the cold by bathing in mountain lakes. And she went to Dover a couple of times to swim in the sea. Most channel swimmers start in the English coastal town. It is 34 kilometers to Cap Blanc-Nez, it is the narrowest part of the English Channel.

One thing stayed the same throughout all the training sessions: whenever Kayadelen thought about crossing the canal, the fear of the cold water crept into her brain. In the weeks leading up to the attempted crossing, she, therefore, worked with a hypnotherapist. "He made me feel safe, I got over my fear of the cold," says Kayadelen.

At the start, it is dark over the English Channel. Midnight. Kayadelen tackles the longest swim of her life because of the tides around this time. It has stormed in the last few days.

Half of the escort crew is seasick

The sea is still choppy, half the crew is seasick, hanging over the railing. Kayadelen has greased herself to protect herself from the cold. For safety reasons, she wears a flashing light. She keeps looking at her trainer on the boat. She entrusted her life to him, says Kayadelen. In an emergency, the coach would have decided to stop the attempt. “I would never have gotten out of the water by myself. I'm too stubborn for that," says Kayadelen.

For the first few hours, she swims in the dark, it's freezing cold. After just three hours, she no longer felt her feet and hands. "I asked myself if I could even do it," she says.

She divides the swim distance mentally. Think from ration to ration. She gets bananas, energy gels, and a warm carbohydrate drink from the accompanying boat. Kayadelen overcomes the first crisis, then the sun rises. That gives energy. “It went uphill from there,” she says.

The brain in sleep mode

At some point, the brain goes into sleep mode. Kayadelen only thinks of one thing: arm pull, arm pull, arm pull, take a breath – and so on. Despite this, the French coast hardly comes any closer.

A companion jumps into the water with Kayadelen, accompanies her for an hour, this is permitted under Channel Swimming Association rules. But with the onset of low tide, there is now also a lateral current, and Kayadelen is being swept away. This extends the swim distance; in the end, she will have swum 57 instead of 34 kilometers.

Kayadelen had been in the water for 15 hours and 8 minutes when she finally made it. The chalk cliffs tower in front of her. She climbs onto the support boat, hugs the trainer. Arriving at the beach, she begins to dance. "It was crazy that I still had the strength to do that."

Two weeks later she will say that physically she has recovered well from crossing the Channel. “But my head is still tired. I have to process everything first." Kayadelen says she enjoyed the crossing despite the hardships. "The trust in me that I can do it: That was an overwhelming feeling," she says.

Perhaps she will write a book about the mental component of channel crossing. She already has a title in mind: “Fear is your best friend”.


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