Jennifer Whitlock, a Chattanooga gastroenterology nurse practitioner and open-water swimmer, successfully crossed the English Channel this month after three years of training to prepare for the open-water swim.
Whitlock started her swim early Sept. 8 on the beach of Samphire Hoe in Dover, England. As she stood on the beach in the moments leading up to her start, Whitlock questioned if she was ready to attempt the crossing, she said.
"It's a very unusual feeling," she said in an interview, "because I had been told many times before going to England that it doesn't matter if you feel ready in August; it doesn't matter if you feel ready in July; it matters if you feel ready when you're standing on the beach getting ready to swim."
She told herself she was as ready as she was ever going to be and it was her time, she said. And so, she started swimming.
In the beginning, Whitlock swam in the darkness of the early morning with spotlights shining on her so her support crew on an accompanying boat could keep an eye on her in the water. As the sun rose and illuminated the "silky and glassy" water, the channel's conditions were clearly some of the best seen this year, far better than what she had expected and prepared for while training, she said. A neap tide, a lower movement tide than usual, made the swim easier, Whitlock said.
The conditions were so good, a German swimmer, Andreas Waschburger, was able to break the world record for fastest channel swim that same day, Whitlock said. Waschburger completed the channel crossing in 6 hours and 45 minutes, 10 minutes faster than the previous record set by Australian Trent Grimsey.
With such ideal conditions, the real challenge was the abundance of jellyfish in the water, Whitlock said. With a history of anaphylactic reactions to stinging insects, she and her crew were nervous about the jellyfish, so she premedicated before her swim and had more medicines on the boat in case she needed them. She compared the jellyfish sting to that of a bee and said she stopped counting stings after her eighth.
"Aside from having some discomfort and some pain, we had no major issues with the jellyfish," Whitlock said. "Maybe a few tears ... but otherwise (I was) OK."
At every half hour during the swim, Whitlock would take a feeding break to fuel up on liquid protein, medicine or other small, consumable products to keep up her energy. The goal would be to consume everything in about 15 seconds, she said, but it could take longer depending on what and how much she was consuming.
While completing the crossing was the primary goal, Whitlock didn't want to finish the swim without taking the time to appreciate it, she said. Comparing it to a previous swim from Anacapa Island to the California mainland, in which she got caught in a current that pushed her farther from the finish than when she started, she said the English Channel was welcoming.
"It was calm, and it was beautiful," she said of the channel. "And it felt so much easier than Anacapa; it just felt like I was meant to be there on that day, because it was such a perfect day."
At around the 12-hour mark of her swim, Whitlock had to sprint for an hour to break through the current to make sure she would not be swept past the coast of France, she said. She swam for about another hour and had to sprint again for a half-hour as she neared the finish.
After swimming about 24 miles and for 14 hours and 41 minutes, Whitlock landed on the beach of Wissant, France, thereby completing the English Channel crossing, a goal that had been years in the making. On the beach, she took a pebble as a memento of her accomplishment, a tradition among channel swimmers, she said.
"I was elated, thrilled, extremely happy," Whitlock said of crossing the channel. "Just ... it was really, really exciting, and then I realized I had to get back to the boat and swim through the jellyfish again; and I burst into tears."
Swimmers do not receive medals or trophies, or even T-shirts, for successfully crossing the channel, Whitlock said, but they may receive a commemorative certificate if they want one. The day after her crossing, however, Whitlock went to a swimmers' beach in Dover, at the recommendation of her coach, where the local open-water swimmers presented her with a medal honoring her achievement.
Whitlock swam with the local swimmers, and, with her wife, Kristin Evans; and support crew chief, Allison Crush; she participated in the swimming portion of a local triathlon. After her channel swim, she had trouble lifting her arms, so those additional swims helped alleviate some of the soreness, she said.
"It sounds like I'm a crazy person, and I just can't stop swimming," she said. "But the truth is, the swimming helps tremendously with swimming pain."
Whitlock returned home early Sept. 14 with little fanfare aside from celebrating with family, she said. Upon returning to Baylor, where she trains, everyone celebrated her accomplishment, and at work, she had co-workers tell her they were keeping up with her swim and were excited for her success, she said.
After a couple of weeks back in Chattanooga, Whitlock can feel the difference between who she was before and after the channel swim, she said.
"In some ways, it feels like ... I almost was watching someone else do it," Whitlock said, "but then I think, 'Wow, I worked for this for three years, and it paid off. My hard work absolutely paid off, and it was easier than I thought it would be.'"
While she hasn't decided what her next swim will be, Whitlock is considering several options, she said. There's, among others, the North Channel, a swim from Scotland to Ireland; a 28-mile swim around Manhattan; and SCAR, a four-day, four-lake swim in Arizona.
With no intentions of slowing down or taking a break from open-water swimming, Whitlock hopes others look at her achievements and recognize they can do the same themselves, she said.
"In 2017, I weighed 310 pounds, and I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day," Whitlock said. "And I wanted to be someone who was a good example and wasn't telling people to do what I say, not what I do, and I decided to make a change. And I would like for people to understand that if I can do something like this, then whatever it is that they choose to do, if they work hard enough at it, they can be just as successful as I am at whatever they choose to do."