Swimming the Catalina Channel to shine a light on suicide loss

The Catalina Channel from Santa Catalina Island to Long Beach, Los Angeles in California

The Catalina Channel from Santa Catalina Island to Long Beach, Los Angeles in California

Drum roll please…it’s with great excitement, but also some trepidation, that I announce that I will be swimming the Catalina Channel on 8-9 August 2019.

After passing my medical on Friday and booking my pilot boat, Magician captained by marine biologist Carl Mayhugh over the weekend, I have just recieved official notification from the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation that my application to swim the 20-mile (32km) stretch from Santa Catalina Island off the Californian coast to Long Beach, Los Angeles has been approved. So ladies and gentlemen, it’s game on!

It’ll be my first swim in the Pacific Ocean, and as with the majority of crossings of this iconic stretch, I’ll be starting at around midnight in a bid to avoid the worst of the blustery afternoon winds. 

This will be my first major swim since I was medivaced from the middle of the Menorca Channel in 2016 due to extensive jellyfish stings. That experience prompted some deep soul-searching in a meditation retreat over a number of months as I weighed up whether it was worth putting my life on the line in the pursuit of any sporting challenge. It was a difficult decision, as so much of my identity was tied up in endurance swimming, but I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth it. As the urge to prove myself in that way evaporated, I felt a newfound sense of self-worth based on ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. It was a major liberation, and for three years I haven’t felt compelled to push myself to the limit in that way. I haven’t since put myself in harm’s way in the name of pursuing a swimming goal, and I see that as a huge positive.

It's not a decision I've taken lightly, especially given the anguish caused by my last outing, which left my immune system seriously compromised allowing an army of rare parasites to have a go at eating me from the inside out. As I documented a month of brutal daily treatment at the London Hospital for Tropical Diseases in the Poison Diaries in 2017, I realised I'd pushed it too far.

So for a while I've focused on other projects and earlier this year I was thrilled to find out that I’d been awarded a Churchill Fellowship by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust UK to research how we can best support children who lose a parent to suicide. This is a topic close to my heart as my dad took his own life when I was nine and that experience has had a profound impact on my life.

As I planned my travels to Australia, Denmark and the USA to visit projects supporting kids after losing a parent to suicide, my life force flowed strong as my mission and values aligned. I felt fired up knowing that I’ve got the backing of a prestigious organisation to enable me to make a real difference.

It was then that I started to look at the possibility of swimming the Catalina Channel when I visit California to carrying out research in August. What started as an inquisitive Google search, soon started to form into a plan. As I began working on the logistics and organising my support team, it reminded me of how alive I feel when I’m on a mission to do a big swim. Whether it’s across an iconic channel, between countries or continents or around a whopping great big island, I never feel more vital and more connected to everyone and everything, than when I’m on a mission to do a swim like that.

It feels like it’s what I was put on the planet to do, and although I now have much healthier boundaries and a newfound sense of self-preservation and self-care, I’m ready to get back into the water for another big one. The only swim I’ve done in the last three years is a crossing from Corsica (France) to Sardinia (Italy) last year with almost zero training due to a shoulder injury, but that was half the distance of the swim I’ll be tackling in a few months in the far more hospitable waters of the Mediterranean.

It’s going to be interesting to see how I fare with this new mentality, and it remains to be seen whether I’ll still push myself hard enough when self-care overrides ‘victory at all costs’. It’ll be an interesting experiment, and I don’t know until I’m out there whether I’ll revert back to my old ways, but it feels like a healthy starting point, and any outcome that’s based on self-preservation will be a victory in my eyes, whether that’s reaching the other side or living to fight another day. I’m hoping I can find a happy medium, where I train hard and push myself, but not past the point of no return, and not to the point that I reach shore in a lifeboat again.

In the past I’ve done swims to raise funds for causes close to my heart, including the Samaritans' suicide helpline in memory of my dad, Ralph. In fact I’ve raised enough for their volunteers to answer more than 24,000 calls, which is the source of great pride, but this time I won’t be raising money for charity.

Instead I’ll be using my swim to raise awareness for my Churchill Fellowship research to help break down the stigma faced by those bereaved by suicide. In my view the most damaging factor faced by children after the loss of a parent to suicide, is not a lack of resources, but rather the stigma, the shame and the judgement. The impact of the loss is lifelong and can prove fatal – a Johns Hopkins’ study found that children who lose a parent to suicide are three times more likely to take their own life than the wider population.

I want to use my swim across the Catalina Channel to shine a light on how we look after children bereaved by parental suicide, to give this invisible group a voice and to encourage more compassion, both to those experiencing suicidal thoughts and also those left behind after a suicide.

This is a big motivation for me, but more than anything I’m swimming for my own wellbeing, my love of the ocean and a meaty challenge. I’ve realised that doing swims like this makes me come alive in a way that nothing else does, and as Howard Thurman said:

“Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

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Anna Wardley