By Cath Harris

It is just as well that endurance swimmer Tracy Clark works so hard in training. 

Among her many accolades is the Channel Swimming Association’s 2013 "Swim in the Most Arduous Conditions" award which all but towers over the rest.

"It’s 15 kg and made of marble and granite," Tracy chuckles, recalling her gruelling English Channel swim five years ago. "You have to have done an arduous swim just to be able to hold the trophy up!"

Tracy reached France in 12 hours 46 minutes after battling 27 mph winds and six foot waves. 

When she finally neared France at Cap Griz-Nez breakers were bludgeoning the rocky French coast and she tore a bicep tendon. With her arm in incredible pain and her stomach empty from nausea she finally touched land. 

It was 20 years since her father had dismissed her dream of swimming the English Channel when she had sneaked a radio into bed to hear coverage of fellow Kiwi Sandra Blewett’s successful crossing in 1983.

"I was 13 and he had told me not to be ridiculous and to chase a goal I could achieve. His face came to mind when I was fighting the waves."

"I suppose, in a way, he helped me get there."

Getting there also helped launch an impressive swimming and coaching career for Tracy, 48, who is now three swims into conquering the fearsome Oceans Seven, the seven toughest sea swims in the world.

She had been a keen pool swimmer at school in Auckland but had never tried open water swimming, being "too afraid of sharks."

Much later, her husband’s job took the family to The Netherlands by which time she hadn’t swum for 20 years. "I didn’t even know where the local training pool was, only the kids’ pool. And I’d never done an open water swimming race."

But swimming the English Channel still drew her – "I booked the pilot before swimming a length" – and in reaching France against the odds "l learnt that I was stronger than I thought. I probably learnt more about myself during that swim than in a lifetime."

Tracy has also learnt that "90 percent [of successful English Channel swimming] is in the mind – if you’ve done the training." She knows how crucial it is to turn negatives into positives. "In the sea, it’s just you and the water and you have to come up with solutions."

Tracy completed her second Oceans Seven swim, the Strait of Gibraltar, in 2015. Three months later she swam her third open water swim, the Catalina Channel, between Catalina Island and mainland Los Angeles.

Tracy Clark swimming in Gibraltar

"When I started panicking about sharks in the Catalina Channel my solution was to shut my eyes unless I was turning to breathe, which I did until the sun came up."

"And when lion’s mane jellyfish were stinging me in the North Channel last year, I started thanking them rather than being annoyed. After 45 seconds their stings started to burn and then I felt warm. In 13°C water, that warmth was very welcome."

Tides, currents and buffeting winds forced Tracy to abandon that attempt on the North Channel, which links Northern Ireland and Scotland, just two kilometres from the finish. "I arrived back at my accommodation at midnight and by 5am had booked my second attempt."

She hopes to tackle the North Channel again when a slot becomes available this year or next, followed in 2019 by the Tsugaru Channel between Honshu and Hokkaido in northern Japan. 

The Cook Strait separating New Zealand’s North and South islands, and the Molokai Strait between the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Molokai are scheduled for 2020.

Tracy smiling after a long swim

If those crossings are successful she will have swum the Oceans Seven.

Crucial to her open water swimming success will be cold water training, which she enjoys in the North Sea from her current base in Norwich. 

"People don’t spend enough time in cold water, but it makes eight to ten degrees feel really warm. You also need to train hard, and in harder conditions than you hope to get on the day."

Swimmers "must work on the mind" and practise their nutrition during swimming, and ensure they have an experienced crew. "You need people who are really, really strong, who can take away the decisions from you and change plans if something’s going wrong. It’s not a day trip out."

Tracy’s remaining Oceans Seven open water swims will be no more like days out than those she has already completed. To date, only four women and six men have managed the full set.

She is already the only Kiwi to have swum the Triple Crown – swimming the English Channel, Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, a 48.5 km circuit of New York’s Manhattan Island.

And the swimming challenges won’t stop there. "There are so many other amazing open water swims around the world and the feeling you get when you have been swimming for hours and you are hurting and feeling sick and tired, then seeing kelp below and feeling sand and rocks…"

"I never look ahead until then, and then the sense of achievement is really amazing."

Tracy adores her "swimming family" giving special mention to two fellow swimmers – business partner Roger Finch with whom she runs channel swimming camps at Varne Ridge near Dover and Robben Island off the South African coast, and Aspire Relay Channel Swimmer and fellow Kiwi, David Dawson, who appeared on the Dover shore to perform the Haka as Tracy prepared to wade into the water in 2013.

"I was in tears and thought the Haka was only for athletes. I didn’t see myself as an athlete even after I’d made it and it took a day or two to sink in that maybe I was."

Tracy says open water swimming for charities such as Aspire "really spurs you on" and that "as long as I am physically able I will be taking part in swimming challenges and tackling channels and straits."

"I have found my passion and it is completely different from anything I have ever done."

Keen on open water swimming but put off by the idea of six-foot waves and the tide working against you? Try our tidally assisted River Arun Swim.

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