Conquering the deep

The “triple crown” of marathon swimming tests body and spirit

Photo credit: Mark Edward Atkinson

There are easier ways to get to France. But if you like things easy, you aren’t Courtney Paulk.

Last summer Paulk, a 44-year-old Richmond attorney, waded into the water in Dover, England, and started swimming. She didn’t stop until her feet touched bottom at Cap Gris Nez, France, 14 hours and four minutes later. With a few steps up the beach to dry land, she turned and raised her weary arms in triumph. She had successfully completed the famed English Channel swim.

That accomplishment might be enough; in fact, more than even comprehensible for most people. The distance alone is more than 21 miles. The swim crosses one of the world’s busiest shipping channels. Water temperatures average below 65 F during the “warm” months.

For Paulk, though, swimming from England to France was only part of her journey, the second in a three-stage quest that began in 2011 with a 28.5-mile swim around the island of Manhattan. It concluded this past fall when a tired but jubilant Paulk clambered up the rock-strewn shoreline of Rancho Palos Verdes, California, 11 hours and 50 minutes after setting out from Catalina Island, to claim her place as only the 79th swimmer (and 29th woman) ever to complete the “Triple Crown” of open-water marathon swimming: the English Channel, the Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.

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