Fionnuala Walsh: 'Long distance swimming is meditation'
The only Irish female holder of the Triple Crown of open water swimming is looking for a new goal
Fionnuala Walsh trains off the west Clare coast
Fionnuala Walsh: ‘I never, for one second, had any preparation done for what would I do if I failed because it was inconceivable to me that I would fail’
Fionnuala Walsh’s mother couldn’t swim, so she made sure her six children could. Growing up on the Shannon Estuary, the record-breaking long-distance swimmer cannot quite remember when she took her first stroke.
“Anything to do with swimming was always easy. It was always second nature to me. I could probably say that I could swim very soon after I could walk,” the 41-year-old says.
She and her two sisters and three brothers “just swam”, graduating to the Irish Water Safety Week’s swimming lessons and eventually teaching their mother to swim in turn.
“We always swam. The swimming lessons in Cappa were a massive part of our lives every summer. It was a rite of passage.”
Four decades later, she had to dig deep to break water in Dover at 5am on a chilly October morning last year. In what was her second attempt to swim the English Channel, more than 15 hours would pass before she would put on her next set of dry clothes.
The conditions and an unexpected tide and current combination meant she was being pushed far south of Calais and she finally finished an L-profile swim – considerably longer than the official 34km distance – in a gruelling 15 hours, 26 minutes.
Swimming the channel was a childhood ambition, she adds. “Some people want to be astronauts, some people want to climb Everest or be mathematicians and I wanted to swim the English Channel.”
Preparation for a big swim involves a big mental effort, physiotherapy, attending specialised training camps and clocking up between 25km and 40km of swimming in the pool and sea.
“Taking on something like that is absolutely massive. Not only does it affect you, it affects your family and your friends.
“On top of swimming, you need to be sure that you are also doing strengthening and conditioning, and you need to do yoga to make sure you are getting enough stretching.
“You have to eat well and you have to eat enough so that you have got enough energy.
“Basically your whole world revolves around swimming. And on top of that, you have to work.”
Long-distance swimming is a cold and lonely endeavour, where, as the hours go by, the only sound is the throb of the accompanying pilot boat and the regular splashing of the overhand stroke. Every half hour, there is a break, when the swimmer gets thrown a carbohydrate drink or some jelly babies “on a piece of string”. But under Channel Swimming Association rules, no contact with the boat is allowed, or physical contact with anything except the water until the swimmer reaches dry land.
The environment Walsh grew up in was a world before wetsuits, and with the nearest swimming pool 27 miles away, heated water remained a novelty.
She has embraced the elemental experience of traditional, open water swimming: a swimsuit, swim cap and goggles, and everything else coming down to the interaction of mind and body, a good support team and the elements hopefully playing out favourably.
“Like anything, if you acclimatise yourself to swimming in the sea, you get used to it.
“You can combat the cold, you can combat the elements, the same as people train to climb mountains,” she says.
Last year, she became the only Irish female holder of the holy grail of open water swimming, the Triple Crown that comprises the English Channel (34km), the Catalina Channel in southern California (33km) and circumnavigating Manhattan Island (46km). The individual distances are in reality a lot longer because of the drift effect of tides and currents and the impossibility of keeping a dead accurate course while swimming.
“Swimming is meditation,” she says, “if you work really, really hard, at the end of a 10 or 12-hour day, there is nothing more enjoyable than to go for a swim, ideally in the sea.”
Walsh first began doing long-distance challenges to local islands as a teenager and graduated to doing the annual Kilkee Bay swim and swimming with Lahinch Masters Swimming Club in her 20s.
“I come from a big family of high achievers,” she says, adding that her family and “hundreds of others” supported her over the years.
“Even now, the lifeguards at Cappa, my father giving me hot drinks, the pilot boats in Cappa looking out for me, people kayaking for me, the physiotherapists who have seen me out of hours. There has just been a huge amount of good will and support.”
She has always funded herself, saying she prefers being independent, with her sisters forming her support team. “The expense is great, but you are doing something you love.
“I love to give back if I can volunteer with anything or if I can help out with someone in need.”
Despite Manhattan being a third longer than the other two swims, the English Channel sticks out in Walsh’s mind as her greatest achievement, after she had been tantalisingly close to completing it on her first attempt in 2012. Dense fog forced the support team to call off the effort when they were little more than 150m from the French shore.
She describes herself as being traumatised after the unexpected turn of events.
“I never, for one second, had any preparation done for what would I do if I failed because it was inconceivable to me that I would fail,” she says.
Nine weeks later, as winter was closing in, conditions had hardly improved. But, she says, the pilot “wanted the monkey off his back and off mine”.
Her career of logged swims spans 16 years, culminating in a swim from Tarifa in Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco last October 15th, a distance of about 20km, taken to show she was a fast swimmer, she says.
“It was niggling at me that I didn’t really have a swim that represented how fast a swimmer I really was because Mother Nature had never really been kind. On paper, I looked like a much slower swimmer.”
In the event, she broke the overall Irish record by one minute, completing the swim in 3½ hours.
Like marathon runners, long-distance swimmers have their lows. “Hitting the wall” for her as a swimmer comes at about hour eight, when the mind and the body call time and a little voice asks her “am I nuts?” To come out of it, she talks and sings to herself.
“Or you scream at yourself; you possibly scream at your crew and you just keep swimming because you know you’ll swim through this and you’ll get over it.”
The crew support is also essential. “Something so simple as someone giving you a Cadbury’s mini-roll, that will pep you up again and make you so happy that off you’ll go again,” she adds.
She works as partner alliance manager with the Ennis-based software and electronics company, Tyre Check, a job that frequently takes her abroad. Her previous jobs have been in other technology companies, such as Avvio, the hotel booking engine provider, CaribbeanJobs.com, IrishJobs.ie, Nowcasting International – the weather services company – and Flextronics.
She puts a significant gap in her swimming record – from 2001 to 2010 – down to focusing on her sales and marketing career, “all-consuming roles” during that period.
“That was a decade working seven days a week, 24-7.”
She describes the same quality of determination in fulfilling those roles as in building up to her world-standard swimming challenges.
“I am really competitive. Anything I do, be it work or play, I don’t do it by halves.
“If you have got set goals and you want to achieve them, then you work night and day to get them.”
Her next challenge might be a round Ireland swim, she says, a feat never accomplished by a single, open water swimmer but something, she says, that would take years of commitment: “There are lots of people who talk about swimming around Ireland, but they don’t talk about doing it under Channel Swimming rules. It’s never been done as a solo. I would love to do that.”