Marian Cardwell recently swam the English Channel; a feat completed by less people than those who have successfully climbed Mount Everest. By achieving this monumental accomplishment, she was able to honor her uncle who is a lifetime type 1 veteran and raise money for the Chicago Diabetes Project (CDP). 

By: John Parkinson, Clinical Content Coordinator, DiabetesCare.net

Marian Cardwell was on her way to the airport leaving England and feeling highly disappointed that she was not going to be able to swim the English Channel—not for a lack of training or injury, but due to unfavorable weather conditions. Her highly anticipated swim from Dover, England to Cap Gris Nez, France was supposed to happen sometime during the week of July 10-18; yet due to unpredictable weather, the captain she hired to guide her across the Channel said they couldn`t do it. With her window of opportunity seemingly closed, Cardwell was prepared to leave.

This after spending nearly a year abroad living in France teaching English and aspiring to swim the Channel to raise money for the Chicago Diabetes Project  and her beloved Uncle Wally, a lifelong type 1 veteran.

Some DiabetesCare.net readers may remember Cardwell (pictured above) was profiled here a few months back in the lead up to her swim. 

While mostly accepting of her fate and utterly exhausted from the emotional turmoil of awaiting a whole week for an opportunity to swim, she decided to place one more call to the captain. Unbelievably, the captain gave her the news she was not expecting: the next five days looked good for crossing the channel if she still wished. While this news was wonderful, Cardwell would have to change her travel plans and her expectations. After changing her plane tickets and travel plans with her family, she decided to swim the Channel on July 20.

Cardwell set out at 8:35 am local time from the shores of England at nearby Dover and began her quest to swim to France. She then crossed the channel in 12 hours and 20 minutes.

Only a couple of weeks after her victorious swim, Cardwell talks with DiabetesCare.net about the emotional waiting game in the lead-up to the swim, her time in the water, what it means to have accomplished such an incredible feat, and raise money for the CDP.

DiabetesCare.net: Can you provide an overview of the waiting to go in the Channel the week of your window in which you were supposed to do the swim?

Cardwell: At first, the waiting was ok; I didn’t think I would be swimming at the beginning of my window because I was in the fourth position [three people had priority ahead of Cardwell]. But then I was suddenly nearing the end of my July 10-18th tide window, and everything kept changing: the 16th, it looked like it would take a miracle for me to swim; the 17th, it looked possible that I could swim in the days after my original tide window; and the 18th, I found out I wouldn’t be swimming at all. That was really tough.

It was the end of my tide window, and the new swimmers coming in had priority over me. The weather only looked good for two days and that wouldn’t be enough time for everyone to attempt to cross. If the people ahead of me chose to swim, I wouldn’t be swimming. Between that crushing reality, and the difficulty of changing our flights, my family and I decided it was over.

The next day we were all packed up and on our way to the airport when I called my captain to say I wouldn’t be able to stay. But then there was one last change. My captain said to me, ‘the weather has changed, and we will have no problem getting everyone in. You could swim tomorrow Friday, July 20, or on Saturday, July 21.’

By the time I got the chance to swim, I was emotionally exhausted. Even when given the go ahead, I was still wary because I didn’t want to face another disappointment. When I finally dove into the Channel, I smiled with relief and joy. All I wanted was a chance to swim, and I finally had it. I was really swimming.

DiabetesCare.net: Take us through the experience the morning of from the time you woke up that morning until you got into the water.

Cardwell: The night before the swim, my mom, my dad, and my sister were all superheroes and collected everything I needed so I could get more rest. When I woke up, I only had to worry about me. I ate a bowl of oatmeal, had a banana, put on my suit, and was ready to go. It seemed like everyone was more excited that I was, but I was focused on the start. That morning my mom and my sister excitedly said, ‘You’re swimming!’ but I just said, “ok.” I was excited, but very anxious to get to the harbor.

DiabetesCare.net: Do you think your mindset of not getting excited helped you to keep the nerves away?

Cardwell: Possibly. Even in swimming competitions, I didn’t get nervous until it was time to wait behind the swimming block. Then I was very nervous. Dover wasn’t any different, except there, I was jittery on a dock, instead of behind a block. I knew once I got into the water I would be fine, but I just wanted to start. The day was beautiful—the nicest day we had during the two weeks we were there, and I was ready to go.

DiabetesCare.net: And when you got into the water, what are some of your recollections? Surprises?

Cardwell: When I jumped in I had the pleasant surprise of not being cold for the first time. I had been cold each day I trained in the harbor and trained myself to focus on counting to 50 strokes. After 50 strokes, I was always fine. But this time, I wasn’t even cold at the beginning and that felt great.

I also remember telling myself to take it easy because I thought I was starting out too fast. But then I decided that I was prepared and that I could hold this pace until I got to France. I told myself to hold on, and go for it.

Throughout the swim, I loved seeing my family right alongside me. They hardly moved during the entire 12 hours and 20 minutes. Their support and joy watching me swim was an enormous boost.

My biggest, and least favorite, surprise came at the very end of the swim when I was headed toward the cliff along the French shore. It looked like a straight drop into the water. I thought I could go and touch the cliff and then come back to the boat. But when I got closer, I saw that it wasn’t just a straight drop off, but a lot of big boulders poking out of the water. The rules state that you have to touch something that is attached to dry land. So I had to make my way over and around the algae covered slippery rocks until I heard the horn signaling the finish. That might have been one of the toughest parts of the swim, but after getting a little cut up, I still made it.


 

Clockwise from upper left: Cardwell entering the water off the English shore; Cardwell swimming and nearly at France; Cardwell and some friends at the beach in France after she just finished up the swim; and the route Cardwell swam. The red line illustrates the path she swam. 

DiabetesCare.net: I know you have a bad shoulder. Was it giving you problems much of the time?

Cardwell: I had about a 3-hour window in the middle of the swim that it didn’t hurt, but the rest of the time it was more painful than I would have liked. Subconsciously, I tried to give it a break each feed, always cradling next to my body. I didn’t even realize I was doing this until my sister told me that whenever my arm would start to float away, I would grab it and put it next to my body.

The last hour, and especially the last 30 minutes, my shoulder wanted to call it quits. I was debating whether I would be faster with one arm, but I kept telling myself, “Just one more stroke!”

When I was done with the swim, and safely on the boat, I realized that my shoulder really was quite sore. It felt like I had just had surgery on it again. I couldn’t move it, but it I knew it would recover. It’s still sore now, but I’m happy to give it the rest it deserves. [Cardwell has had two surgeries on her left shoulder and was hit by a car and reinjured the shoulder.]

DiabetesCare.net: How was the tide and swimming in the cold water?

Cardwell: I didn’t notice the tide much because I was focused on following the boat. I did feel the tide in the shipping lanes though. They are about five miles across, and I kept drifting away from the boat. I had to swim straight at the boat to get back on track, and then I did my best to stay there because I knew the boat would take me to France.

When I look at the map of the swim, it’s easy to see how the tides were pulling me. My pilot informed me that I was always swimming straight, but it was the tides that were pushing me to the right or to the left. My point-to-point distance was about 22 miles, but I was counting my strokes, and had I been in a pool, I would have swum over 30 miles.

Going into the swim, the cold water was my biggest fear and I gave my family strict instructions that they weren’t allowed to ask me if I was cold, because I didn’t want to a reason to think about it.  

But I never really felt cold until about the last half-hour, and everyone on the boat knew it. They saw my back and shoulders turning blue, but as instructed, never said a word so I was never worried. In fact, the whole time I kept thinking how much better these conditions were than my 6-hour test swim in Calais, France. During the Calais swim, I was contending with big waves the entire swim and I was cold from the minute I got in until the second I finished. For the Calais swim, the water was 57-58 degrees, but for the Channel crossing it was a balmy 60-61 degrees.

That Calais swim turned out to be a great prep swim.

DiabetesCare.net: How does it feel to have swum the English Channel? What are some of the biggest things you have taken away from this momentous event almost two weeks later?

Cardwell: It seemed like the finish over rocks took longer than the swim itself. I kept looking back and seeing if the rock I touched counted as being the end of the swim. Everyone on the boat kept motioning me further until I finally heard the sound of the horn. When I did hear that beautiful sound, I threw my arms into the air and said to myself, ‘I made it!’ The week leading up to the swim had been so tough that it almost felt like the swim was the easy part. When I heard that horn I couldn’t stop saying, “I did it.” I was extremely happy and so relieved.

Two weeks later, I almost can’t believe it. It has been wonderful being home and hearing from and seeing all of the people who supported me. I don’t think I could have done it without them. 

I also feel like I still have a mission. I think I can raise more money and bring more attention to diabetes, and I want people to learn more about the Chicago Diabetes Project. I’m especially glad that I made it, because I think my success in the Channel can continue to spread interest for the CDP. 

DiabetesCare.net: Speaking of the Chicago Diabetes Project, how much have you raised for CDP, and can people still donate?

Cardwell: Right now I’m right at $17,000, and yes, people can still donate by either check or online.

DiabetesCare.net: How is your Uncle Wally doing?

Cardwell: My uncle has not been doing so well. The whole time I was in France, I was praying I would see him again. Even though he doesn’t seem to be getting better, he has continually proved to be like the Channel in that he is full of surprises. The doctors give him a grim diagnosis, and he proves them wrong. But I don’t know how many surprises he has left.

When I finally did see him, I gave him a little rock from the Dover shore in England. It felt really good to tell him, “I did it for you,” and it felt even better to hear him say, “I know.”

           Uncle Wally and Marian Cardwell


DiabetesCare.net: What is the next chapter for you? 

Cardwell: I’m beginning work for a company that develops, manages, and licenses medical vocabularies and software applications, and then uses the medical vocabulary for healthcare organizations. I think I will work there for a couple of years, and then if everything works out, I will go to medical school. Eventually, I would like to combine my passion for French and medicine and do something along the lines of Doctors Without Borders in Western Africa. 

For those readers interested in donating to the CDP, they can do so by going to Cardwell’s blog Dover and Over