A SWANAGE woman who did not learn to swim until she was in her 40s is set to take part in a swim across the English Channel.
Cathy Lewis is one of four Dorset swimmers gearing up for the gruelling relay this month.
Mark Bauer from Swanage, Anthony Walton from Wareham and Neil Ingle from Bournemouth make up the ‘Cathy & the Buoys’ team.
Cathy came late to swimming – until she was in her mid-40s, she not only couldn’t swim, she was terrified of putting her head under the water.
Cathy said: “I lost my nerve as a child after a boy ducked me. I inhaled lots of water and couldn’t breathe, thinking I was going to die.
“The trauma stayed with me, even after I’d had my own children.
“I would only go in the sea if it was flat calm – and no-one was ever allowed to splash me.”
The turning point was when Cathy saw an advert in a local leisure centre for free adult swimming lessons. She signed up, not knowing that it was going to change her life for ever.
She said: “In my first lesson, I was fighting panic attacks as the coach told me to dip my head under the water. But he persevered with me.
“Six lessons later, I could swim 30 lengths front crawl without stopping.
“Then I moved to Purbeck, discovered sea swimming and have been hooked ever since.
“I’m keen to use my Channel swim not only to raise money but to inspire others.
“I’ve spoken to many people who say they’d love to be able to swim but feel they’ve left it too late to learn.
“Yet here I am in my 60s, not only swimming, but taking on a huge challenge, physically and mentally.”
The swim between Dover and Cap Gris Nez, France, is 21 miles but the swims are longer due to the strong, swirling currents.
No wetsuits are allowed as they give swimmers the advantage of buoyancy and warmth.
The start is often in the middle of the night, and each team member swims for an hour. They have to stay in the same rotation – so if someone can’t take their turn, the whole swim is called off.
“My greatest fear is of going into a panic attack and letting the team down,” Cathy added.
“But we’ve been training relentlessly year-round and I’ve faced all kinds of conditions.
“So I hope I really have conquered those childhood fears.”
The team’s start date depends on conditions but will be between July 18-23. If the tides and winds are in their favour, it will take about 13-15 hours.
Mark has already done two successful relay crossings. For Anthony and Neil, it’s the first time.
Together the team is raising money for two good causes – Project Planet Earth, which raises awareness of plastic pollution in the seas, and the Mental Health Foundation.