Jennifer Whitlock decided three years ago she wanted to swim the English Channel, and, after years of training, she will finally have her chance to make the famous open water swim in September.
Whitlock, 50, began her journey with endurance sports in 2017 when she, her wife and some friends decided they wanted to climb to Mount Everest Base Camp, which sits at an elevation of more than 17,000 feet. Whitlock had just quit smoking, she said in an interview, and wanted to pursue a healthier lifestyle that for her meant setting big goals.
"I'm really good at these massive goals, but I wasn't very good at like, 'Hey, I should go to the gym three times a week,'" she said. "So, it seemed logical to me to choose a big goal, and that was Everest."
After a couple of years of training that led to losing up to 80 pounds, Whitlock and her group made the Everest climb in 2019. Not long after they returned from their trek, the COVID-19 pandemic caused global shutdowns leaving Whitlock with few options for her next goal.
"Swimming in open water was one of the few things that was left during COVID," she said. "Couldn't go to the gym; it was closed, but the river was open."
So, Whitlock pursued the sport of open water swimming, she said. Her first endurance swim was in Istanbul, Turkey, where she swam from Asia to Europe. After the swim, she earned the gold Triple Crown of the Tennessee by swimming in three regional open water events in the same year on the Tennessee River — Bridges to Bluffs in Knoxville, Swim Hobbs Island in Huntsville, Alabama, and Swim the Suck in Chattanooga. She also swam the Straits of Mackinac between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan.
Additionally, Whitlock was put to the test when she swam from Anacapa Island to the California mainland. She swam for three hours and was further from the finish than when she started, she said, because she was caught in a current. After a 35-minute sprint, she was able to break free of the current and continue to the mainland; typically a 12-mile swim, Whitlock swam 17 miles.
"It was good mental work, it was hard physically," she said. "It wasn't the swim I wanted, but it was definitely the swim I needed to be prepared for the English Channel."
English Channel fast facts
— 21 miles: shortest distance in a straight line across channel.
— 57-64 degrees Fahrenheit: water temperature during swim season.
— 1875: year of first swim crossing, Capt. Matthew Webb.
— 6 hours, 55 minutes: fastest crossing time, Trent Grimsey.
— 11: age of youngest person to cross, Thomas Gregory.
— 73: age of oldest person to cross, Otto Thaning.
Source: Channel Swimming Association, Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation
Whitlock's job has benefited her training for the English Channel, she said. She works as a gastroenterology nurse practitioner in Chattanooga and works a week-on, week-off schedule. During her off weeks, she spends her time training in the water, she said, whether it is at the Baylor pool with her coach or in open water with her family supervising from a boat.
Whitlock is expecting the channel water to be about 64 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than her preferred temperature of 55 degrees, she said, and she is expecting the swim itself to take at least 16 hours and be 25 miles due to the current. However, she said it takes more than just physical ability to swim the channel successfully.
"You have to have the mental fortitude and the right attitude about the process," she said. "When you're in the water, you have to just have this bedrock belief that you can actually do it, and that's probably the single-most important thing."
According to Karah Nazor Rivers, race director of Swim the Suck and the first person from Tennessee to swim the English Channel, swimming the channel is an iconic and important feat for open water swimmers, but the work that goes into preparing for a channel swim is often its own reward.
"Once you arrive on that beach, and you're getting ready to start your swim, we like to say that you've already won," Rivers said in a phone interview. "And it doesn't really matter what happens in the water that day, you've already won by just putting in the training and making it to the start."
According to channel rules, Whitlock is allowed to have a swimsuit, swim cap, goggles, earplugs and channel grease, a lanolin-petroleum jelly combination to help prevent salt scour which causes skin to be rubbed off, she said. Every 30 minutes, she will feed on liquid food in the water. If at any point she comes into contact with a person or boat during her swim, she said, she will be disqualified.
Even if she completes the swim, Whitlock will not receive a trophy or medal, she said, but the experience of the swim is enough.
"This is the kind of adventure, like Everest, where once you do it, it changes who you are on a fundamental basis," she said.
Whitlock will travel to England on Sept. 1, and her swimming window in Dover will be Sept. 7-14, she said. During the window, she will wait until conditions are good enough for her to make the swim, she said, and once she makes the call, she will be on her way to achieving her goal.