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Cancer survivor becomes first woman to swim Channel four times non-stop

Sarah Thomas proves what fellow athlete Eliud Kipchoge believes; no human is limited. The 37-year-old ultramarathon swimmer and breast cancer survivor from Colorado, made history as the first person to swim the English Channel four times without stopping. Thomas competed the first three legs in around 37 hours, which is blazing fast by the admittedly absurd standards of marathon swimming.

Her final lap took more than 17 hours as she fought off fatigue and heavy currents. Officially, the distance to cross the channel four times is about 84 miles. Given the current and tides, Outdoor Swimmer estimated that she traveled more than 130 miles over 54 hours and 10 minutes.

With its cold, choppy water and notoriously variable conditions, crossing the English Channel is often compared to climbing Mount Everest for open-water swimming. A successful crossing must meet several conditions per the Channel Swimming Association.

Among them, swimmers may only wear a cap, goggles, and a “standard swimming costume” that is armless and legless with no thermal protection. Food and hydration may only be provided from the support boat with no direct contact. In other words, from a cup or a bottle mounted on a pole.

Thomas has had her eye on this feat for more than two years. In August 2017 she set a record with an unassisted 104.6 mile swim across Lake Champlain that took over 67 hours. In an ESPNW profile, Thomas said she had a mantra that she used whenever she was tiring: “Do my arms hurt? No. Am I sick? No. So what’s your excuse for quitting? Nothing.”

Sarah Thomas marathon swimmer
Considering herself at the peak of her athletic powers, Thomas then set her sights on becoming the first person to complete the four-way English Channel crossing. Three months later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thomas underwent a grueling treatment plan that included chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. With her channel attempt already booked, she swam whenever possible and used that as motivation.

“It was really important to have a goal and dreams that existed beyond cancer,” she says in a trailer for the documentary The Other Side. “So that cancer didn’t define me.” In February of this year, just seven months after finishing active treatment, Thomas completed a crossing of Cook Strait in New Zealand. It was a brutal swim that tested her fitness and resolve.

Sarah shared that she had “demons to conquer.” The cancer made her slower and she questioned whether she still had the drive to recover her mental edge. She followed that up with a strong 32-mile swim across Blue Mesa in Colorado that gave her renewed confidence.

The first successful English Channel swim crossing was completed by Matthew Webb in 1875. It would be 59 years before Edward Temme did it twice back-to-back in 1934 and it wasn’t until 1981 before anyone managed three consecutive crossings. Now Sarah Thomas, who dedicated her effort to cancer survivors worldwide, is the only person to do it four times.