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Sonora's Wells revisits English Channel swim

Vongni Yang / Union Democrat. Teri Wells, 20, of Sonora, charts her swim across the English Channel, beginning at Samphire Hoe, West of Dover, England and finishing at a sandy beach in Wissant, France.
It took Teri Wells 12 hours and one minute to accomplish a formidable feat that just under 2,000 swimmers have completed.

Wells, 20, swam across the English Channel on Aug. 3 beginning at Samphire Hoe, west of Dover, England and finishing at Wissant, France. In an interview with the Union Democrat’s Vongni Yang, the 2011 Sonora High graduate shared her experiences before, during and after the daunting endurance swim. — Editor’s note.

UD: When did you first make the decision to swim across the English Channel?

TW: I decided I wanted to do it, I would say February or March of 2012. I was swimming everyday at that point already. I was swimming five days a week, and I kept doing that until October. In October, I started adding a couple of days in doubles, which I started swimming in the morning and the afternoon. Beginning in March of this year, that was when I started my main training program.

UD: Who inspired you to swim the English Channel?

TW: My coach (Erica Waelty) swam it when she was a couple of years older than I am now. I was always really inspired by it. I just felt like this is the time in my life, that I could take a semester off of school, to train. I was at Columbia College, which was fine. But I just felt like I wanted something else to focus on. Something to kind of inspire myself and something to work towards.

UD: How did you prepare for the English Channel swim in England?

TW: We were supposed to get there 10 days early, but our flight got canceled. We didn’t end up getting there until eight days before my window started. I had a seven-day window. In those days before my window, I would go down the beach everyday, swim for two hours and kind of hang out. We went to a bunch of castles and sites. I swam every morning for a couple of hours up until my swim for two weeks. I took one day off. The day right before my swim, I only did a 20-minute swim just to stretch out. I just stayed in the harbor.

UD: Did you get to select your own captain and guide for the swim?

TW: It’s first come, first serve. I ended up signing up a year before my swim, but some people sign up a couple of years in advance. I ended up with a really good captain and good boat. They were both, between them they had 70 years of being out on the boat. It was a father and son. They knew what they were doing and it was really helpful.

UD: What were your thoughts before your swim? Were you nervous?

TW: I was so nervous before I left here. But once I got there and got in the water, I actually calmed down a lot. I did a lot of my training at San Francisco Bay and that water’s cold. I was expecting the water in the Channel to be at least that cold. At my training in the bay, the water was 55 to 59 degrees. The first time I got into the Channel, it was 62. It made a  huge difference and that really helped me relax, and ‘OK, I can do this.’

UD: Were there any complications?

TW: I ended up going on the last day of my window because of weather. I didn’t know I was going until 6 o’clock in the evening on Aug. 1. That whole day, I was just really nervous because if I missed my tide, I wouldn’t be able to swim it and it would have been really frustrating. ... It was just really nerve-racking the whole waiting thing. I didn’t know if I was going to get to go at all. And all my training would have been done for nothing.

UD: What was the weather like on the day of your swim?

TW: It was amazing. It was sunny. It rained a couple of times, but the majority of the time it was sunny and the water was calm. There was hardly any wind. It did get pretty choppy towards the end — the last four hours. 

UD: How did you begin?

TW: You start on the boat, and you have to jump in and swim to shore. Once you touch dry land, you go. I swam for like five minutes to get to the shore. 

UD: What were you thinking throughout?

TW: I was focused on getting to the shipping lane. I knew it should only take me around three hours. After that I was focused on getting to the halfway point, which was about six hours. I sang songs in my head and thought how I tired I was. I thought about how awesome it would be to finish.

UD: Did you drink or eat anything during?

TW: After the first hour, and every half hour after that, I would flip over on my back, they would signal to me from the boat, and they would hand me stuff on a pole. We had an extendable pole with an aquarium fish net on the end and they would hand me food. I ate a lot of GU, energy gel. I drank a lot of water and Gatorade. At four hours — and pretty much every food after eight hours — I ate some solid food. I was eating peanut butter and honey sandwiches, canned peaches, oatmeal, JELL-O and M&Ms.

UD: Did you encounter any problems throughout your swim?

TW: I don’t think they’re any major things. It was more mental at the end. After eight hours, my chest started getting tight. ... I do remember being scared about that, but I didn’t tell anybody on the boat because I thought they would make me get out of the water. I remember focusing on taking a deep breath. It was fine, there was never a point that I didn’t get enough oxygen. It was kind of scary, though.

UD: Did the captains give you any tips or advice at all during the swim?

TW: They set the course and I set the speed. I just had to follow them the whole time. One of the captains, the son, was really, really helpful. He knew exactly what he was talking about. There were times when I was just so tired and I hated it. He would just tell me, ‘Every single person who has ever swam the Channel knows exactly what you’re going through and they got through it. Imagine just what it’s going to feel like when you’re done, it’s all going to be worth it.’ The stuff he would say was very helpful. I couldn’t have done it without them.

UD: How did it feel to finish?

TW: It was awesome. I finished on this sandy beach in Wissant, France. That was fun. ... I sprinted the last 500 yards and ran up the beach because I was trying to break 12 hours.

UD: How tired were you after your 12-hour ordeal?

TW: I was exhausted. I was so tired. Everything hurt — my arms, shoulders, neck — it was bad. 

UD: What did you do immediately after the swim? 

TW: We actually went right back on the boat. It was a three-hour boat ride back to England.

UD: How long did it take you to recover?

TW: It took a good week for me to feel 100 percent again. 

UD: Did you learn anything at all during your swim?

TW: I think the thing I learned throughout this whole experience is that — I can do anything if I put my mind to it. I never have swam in the ocean, as an open-water swimmer, before I decided to swim the Channel. I did my first open-water swim last July in Santa Cruz, a two-miler. That’s the weekend that I booked my boat. I was talking to people who had swam the Channel — this one woman who lived down in San Francisco, she told me, ‘You shouldn’t even try it. You’re so inexperienced. You have no chance of making it.’ That kind of just spurred me on even more. That made me want to prove her wrong and prove that I could do it if I really put the time in. I think I really did put the time in — I swam for 30 to 40 miles every week.

UD: What are your plans for the future?

TW: Right now, I’m just going to focus on school (UC Davis). I took that whole semester off, I haven’t been in school for almost a year. I’m super excited about Davis. So, I’m just going to focus on that for at least a year and we will see what happens after that.

UD: How was your entire experience?

TW: It was amazing. I don’t regret anything. If I had to go back and make the decision again, I would make the exact same decision. I’m so glad I did it.

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