Can you tell us about what inspired you to swim the English Channel?
Over a period of about thirty years, Guernsey women volunteered to take part in a study carried out by The Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now known as Cancer Research UK) that investigated the causes of breast and other forms of cancer.
The research program had come to an end and I wondered whether there might be new techniques that could be applied to these samples that might be able to detect changes in the blood of cancer sufferers and differentiate them from the blood of volunteers that did not get cancer.
I got together with a lecturer in molecular biology at Southampton University called Paul Townsend. Together we studied samples using a mass spectrometer that was housed in a private laboratory in Guilford. We needed £15,000 for this study, so I decided in 2006 to swim the English Channel to raise the money that we needed. I had no idea of the difficulty of the task or of the exciting times that lay ahead.
I successfully completed my first swim in August 2006 and vowed never to do anything like it ever again!
With a great deal of help from Healthspan and the generosity of local donors we far exceeded our fund-raising goal. The results of this initial study were spectacular and set us on course of innovative medical research for years to come and a path of no return to achieve the Guinness World Record for the oldest swimmer to complete a solo swim of the Channel.
What impact did your swim have to the cause?
It provided funds that enabled Southampton University to purchase a state of the art Mass Spectrometer, (£500K) which was installed in the Life Science Department. This machine has been in service day and night ever since and is available to a wide range of scientists from all disciplines.
If you could go back on your swim would you have done anything differently?
No. The Channel is so unpredictable. I had to wait in Dover for 11 days in the rain and the wind before we could set off. It was touch and go as to whether the pilot would let me swim in the conditions. I was so lucky that he agreed to the swim. It was the same pilot that had helped me on my first swim and I think that helped. We had confidence in each other.
Have you been in the water since?
Certainly. I can now really enjoy swimming without feeling the pressure. I train with the Guernsey master’s Group twice a week and it is a joy to see the younger swimmers progress. We also have a group of sea swimmers of all ages who swim the year round. It can be very challenging when the weather is awful, but everyone feels great once it is over! Last year I successfully completed the Lake Coniston Swim.
Anything else that keeps you busy?
Lots. I am involved in a club for swimmers with disability. We swim with them every week in the pool reserved solely for them. We are able to share in their enjoyment. I serve as a non-political member on out Health Committee. I am still involved in fund raising for medical research in Southampton and in Manchester. I try to say yes when asked to do things, so my timetable is always full.
Any tips on health and wellbeing for aspiring “super agers”
There is very good evidence that lifestyle is very important in determining health and longevity. It is probably true to say that up to half the chronic conditions and illnesses that we develop as we get older are preventable or at least can be prevented for many years.
Smoking is an absolute no. Keeping active and staying slim is very important. A good diet is essential. Suffice it to say that whole grain as opposed to highly refined is good. Fruit and vegetables are good and too much sugar and alcohol are very definitely bad.
There is good evidence that keeping busy and mentally active is important and it is vital that as we age we try to maintain a positive attitude to our own condition. Negative thoughts about getting older have been shown to act as a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Any tips for someone wanting to try open water swimming?
Open water swimming has become much more popular over recent years. There are now clubs all over the world. There is great benefit in joining a club. No one need feel shy or afraid. If not, a club just join a group of friends. Our group of friends keeps growing by the year. The universal advice is not to swim alone, especially in the sea. It is easy to underestimate the dangers of the sea particularly in the winter.
For someone starting it is better to start when the water is relatively warm. Once hooked it is then possible to swim later and later in the year as one’s body acclimatizes to the conditions.
Open water swimmers in my experience are always nice people who go the extra mile to help new swimmers. It is worth making the effort, take the plunge (slowly if it is cold) and really live life.