In the autumn of 2016 Leeds Beckett lecturer, Vicki Gilbert, took on the Aspire Channel Swim and swam 22 miles over 12 weeks. An extraordinary feat, even more so considering Vicki has an above the knee amputation. Early on in Vicki’s adult life, whilst studying at university, she was diagnosed with bone cancer and, on top of the gruelling course of chemotherapy, underwent three major operations to remove her shin bone and parts of her knee. The shin bone was replaced with a titanium implant which went on to cause stress fractures and a lot of pain, eventually (several years and surgeries later) Vicki had to have an above the knee amputation. Crushingly, a year after the initial diagnosis Vicki got the devastating news that the hospital had misdiagnosed a harmless cyst for bone cancer; the chemotherapy and all the surgery had been unnecessary.

Vicki Gilbert in wetsuit

It’s fair to say that the Aspire Channel Swim challenge cannot have been as easy for Vicki as it was for other swimmers and, as a result, Vicki’s challenge began to be followed by the press and by Aspire. This ended up leading to an even bigger swim: “my challenge was televised on Yorkshire TV and when Aspire’s Director of Fundraising & Marketing, Paul Parrish, saw the footage he approached me to apply to swim the real Channel as part of a relay team in 2018. I would be invited to the Aspire Relay Channel Swim selection day in 2017 and take it from there.”

Everything was set for Vicki to begin training up for the selection day and then, two weeks after having been approached by Paul, she was diagnosed with aggressive stage III breast cancer. What followed was an incredibly exhausting and difficult road to recovery. Vicki comments: “after the diagnosis I underwent three surgeries to remove the cancer, some lymph nodes, and to reconstruct my breast from my abdominal tissue. Unfortunately it didn’t go quite as planned and I needed an extensive skin graft from my left thigh and more surgery.” This was all in addition to five months of gruelling chemotherapy and then 15 sessions of targeted radiotherapy treatment.

Months later, when she was nearing the end of a punishing battle with cancer, the assessment day she had been invited to rolled around. This left Vicki with a difficult decision. With swimming in mind she had deliberately opted for breast reconstruction using abdominal tissue from her stomach, rather than the back muscle she relies on so heavily for front crawl. Even so, having had a portion of her abdominal muscle removed so recently (which is also important for swimming) it was hard for her to know whether or not to attend. She eventually decided to go: “having finished radiotherapy less than a month earlier I decided I had nothing to lose. I even completed the 400 metre swim, which was a huge achievement for me as I had permanent lines in my chest and arm for most of the previous year. I had not been able to go near a pool.”

To even consider a 400 metre swim so close to such serious treatment is not just a phenomenal physical achievement but also an incredible demonstration of mental willpower. Vicki later explained how she had used the swim to help her physical and emotional recovery. “I needed a challenge to get back on track and I felt it would help me psychologically as well as physically - as the swimming would not only help me regain my fitness but some of my ‘lost’ identity too. And then there’s always that well-known ‘feel good’ factor after exercising.”

Vicki sitting in water with young son Joe

She admitted “At first I was very wary of tumble turning (when training in the pool) as I had been literally sliced from hip to hip. It was even difficult to pull myself in and out of the water. The swimming proved really good for stretching out my scar tissue though, and it felt really good. I got used to swimming again and I am now almost back to how I was before.”

However, this April’s infamous ‘Beast from the East’ proved to be a real obstacle to Vicki’s training. The Siberian winds driving the cold snap meant temperatures at outdoor swimming venues plummeted, making it incredibly difficult for Vicki and the other Aspire Relay Channel Swimmers to train outdoors. Nevertheless, when we spoke to Vicki in mid-April she and her team, the Aspire Hammerheads, had managed to brave the frigid conditions.

“When I did manage a cold water swim with my team, despite it being short (as the water was below five degrees) it was exhilarating and gave me a real sense of achievement. At first I thought I couldn’t do it as it made my hands and foot so painful but then I told myself I’d been through far worse pain in the last year so just get on with it, and I managed some decent front crawl for a few lengths! It certainly can be a case of mind over matter.”

The open water training Vicki is undertaking ahead of the challenge is inherently physical, but the mind is also heavily impacted, and impacted positively. Vicki confirmed this saying that “open water swimming can help a person’s mental wellbeing in so many ways, you have to be determined to undertake a harder challenge than just visiting the local warm pool.” On top of this Vicki highlighted the sense of achievement and the connection to the natural world that comes hand in hand with outdoor swimming: “you are swimming in places that not many others do which is truly freeing and you are immersed in the outdoors; you feel much closer to nature.”

Vicki is due to do battle with the Channel, alongside her team, in August. Keep an eye on the Aspire website, and Vicki's blog, for updates of how it goes.

If you feel inspired but aren't quite ready to swim the Channel, have a look at our tidally assisted River Arun swim.

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