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Swimming The English Channel: Cari’s Inspiring Journey That Started In The Pool

Swimming The English Channel: Cait's Inspiring Journey That Started In The Pool Cari Kauffman Hollie Sick Run Tri Bike

Today, we’re getting into the inspiring swimming journey of Cari, whose passion for the sport has gone from growing up at the neighborhood pool to D1 collegiate swimming to open water marathon swimming. She’s not only a competitor but a true ambassador of the sport, continually seeking new adventures. Learn how she went from pool to Channel. What led her to conquer one of the toughest open waters swims: The English Channel?

Early Beginnings: Diving into the Deep End

How did you get into swimming?

We had a neighborhood pool when I was growing up. When I was either 2 or 3, I decided I wanted to swim and just jumped into the deep end (it was about 8ft deep) with no swimming skills whatsoever. The lifeguard had to get in and pull me out. She then told my parents I needed to be in swim lessons. The next summer, I joined the neighborhood swim team and never stopped. I started year-round swimming in middle school and high school, then continued on into college and now masters swimming and open water marathon swimming.

Dreaming of the Channel: A Spark Ignited

How did you decide to swim the English Channel? Going from pool to Channel is a big step!

In 2017, my then-husband and I were relaxing in our hotel room on a race weekend…he was doing a trail run, and I was doing an olympic triathlon. I was scrolling through Facebook and read an article about a 66-year-old grandmother of three who had just become the oldest woman to swim the English Channel. She has since lost that record, but after reading the article, I said, “I think I want to do that.” My husband said, “I think you should,” and that is when the dream began. I immediately started researching through the Channel Swimming Association. I found a coach (the only American coach recommended by the Channel Swimming Association), reached out to her, and began preparations. In March of 2018, I was able to secure a pilot and a swim window for my first attempt in September 2020.

Training for Triumph: From Triathlons to Open Waters

Was there special preparation you needed to do? What did your training look like?

Being a lifelong swimmer, I was always really comfortable in the water, and after four years of NCAA D1 swimming, I knew how to work hard in the pool. I switched my focus from long-distance triathlon (I have two 140.6’s under my belt and a handful of 70.3’s) to open water swimming.

In 2018, I signed up for a 10k open water swim race Β and began increasing my open water sessions. These were in addition to pool swimming. I swim with the Chicago Masters swim club and regularly swam 3-4 days per week with them. On the weekends from May till October, I swim in Lake Michigan. (As long as the water is at least 50 degrees, I will swim in the lake without a wetsuit.) Training was going great until March 2020 when the world shut down. I was unable to swim from about March 16 until mid-June because all the pools were closed and Mayor Lightfoot had closed the lakefront.

Nevertheless, I flew out to Lake Tahoe in June 2020 to do my 6-hour qualifying swim. All English Channel solo attempts require a 6-hour qualifying swim in water 60 degrees or colder within one year of your swim attempt. (You also have to undergo a medical exam.) Even with little training, I was able to complete the 10.5-mile swim across the width of Lake Tahoe (from Cave Rock on the Nevada side to Emerald Bay on the California side, called the “Viking” swim).


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Facing Challenges: Overcoming Setbacks and Seasickness

After that swim, the pool opened back up, and I maintained my 3 pool swims during the week and lake swims on the weekend. I flew to England in early September 2020 and spent two weeks training in Dover Harbour before making my first swim attempt on September 28, 2020. The weather leading up to my swim was less than ideal, and Channel conditions weren’t what we had hoped for. My swim was unfortunately aborted after only 3 hours and 16 minutes due to severe seasickness.

Unfinished Business: The Journey Continues

It only took a couple of months before I knew I had unfinished business and had to try again. In 2021, I was able to engage my same coach and boat pilot for a September 2023 attempt. And I got back to the same general training plan…3 days in the pool and weekends in the lake. This time around, I took precautions for seasickness and went prepared with a Zofran prescription. I again flew to England for a two-week training window before my swim. I completed my 6-hour qualification there in the Dover Harbour.

On September 7, 2023, around 3:30 am, I jumped off the boat at Samphire Hoe in Dover, England to begin my swim. After 12 hours and 25 minutes, I landed on the rocks at Cap Griz Nez, France to signal the end of my swim. Over the course of this swim, I cried once, threw up twice, got stung by one jellyfish, and quit swimming forever at least 6 times in the last hour. Spoiler alert: I didn’t follow through with quitting…I’m still swimming regularly and looking for the next challenge.

The Love for Water: Finding Serenity and Strength

Are you training for anything now?

The biggest swim I have scheduled for this year is a 15k lake swim in Michigan. I am scoping out some other famed marathon swims, but have made no decisions on what exactly is next or when I will do it. Securing a boat and pilot isn’t cheap, so I have to build up the swim savings again.

What has your swimming journey been like? Have you always loved it? Hated it?

For the most part, I have always loved it. Of course, there were always days where I didn’t want to be at practice. Or we had really tough sets that made me want to quit. Or I had disappointing performances at a championship meet. But every time, I found myself going back to the water. It truly is my happy place. I do my best thinking while I am in the water…it’s meditative.

Has swimming helped you in other areas of your life?

High school and college swimming gave me excellent time management skills. When you have 5:30 am and afternoon practice coupled with classes, a job, and other extracurricular activities, you learn really quickly how to prioritize. The physical exertion of it helps calm me down when things get stressful. Working hard day in and day out for a championship meet sometimes 6 or more months away fostered determination and commitment. And I have had some amazing coaches throughout my swimming career (some of which remain very close personal friends) that taught me way more than just swimming skills.

Community and Camaraderie: Swimming with Masters and Friends

Do you swim with others? Where do you swim?

I swim semi-regularly with the Chicago Masters swim team (trying to get more consistent with that). We are privileged to have use of the competition pool at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In the summer, I also have my open water swim group (we call ourselves the Point Swimmers) that swims at Promontory Point on the south side of Chicago. We are a strong group of men and women ranging in age from early 20’s to 60’s and 70’s with ability levels from recreational swimmers to highly accomplished elite swimmers. But we all share a love for the water and the camaraderie of open water swimming. It really is a special place.

Encouragement and Advice: Taking the Plunge

What would be something you’d tell someone who is just getting into swimming?

Go for it! I know a lot of adult-onset swimmers and their biggest fear has always been taking the first step to getting started. Don’t be embarrassed that you never learned to swim. There are resources out there for everyone. US Masters Swimming has coaches certified in adult learn-to-swim. Private lessons and coaching can be incredibly helpful.

Start small and work at it. When transitioning to open water, spend some time just getting in the water. Don’t worry about actually swimming…acclimate to the temperature. Float on your back. Learn your surroundings. As you get more comfortable, increase the time you are in the water and start doing some back and forth swimming in a small area. Eventually, you’ll be swimming comfortably. As far as fear of creatures in open water, I have no real advice…just keep going. I freaked out when I saw the first jellyfish in the Channel, but I just kept swimming. I eventually got stung but knew I had to keep going and finish regardless.

Thank you Cari for your time. We look forward to seeing what marathon swimming challenges you conquer next! You can find Cari on intagram where she posts photos from her swimming journey as well as her dog.

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Hollie is a runner, hiker, swimmer, residing in California. She has worked in run specialty for nearly 8 years and has fit hundreds of people for shoes. Outside of the running world, she enjoys the general aviation world, her two cats, and spending time with her spouse.