Beth French entered the water to show her 8-year-old son, Dylan, what was possible. She got out to show him he’s more important than anything else.
The 39-year-old single mother from England, had her sights set on being the first person to complete the Ocean’s 7 Challenge in one year.
For those unfamiliar, the Ocean’s 7 Challenge means swimming across the following channels:
- The Irish or North Channel: between Ireland and Scotland, 21 miles
- The Cook Strait: between New Zealand’s North and South Islands, 16 miles
- The Molokai or Kaiwi Channel: between Hawaiian islands of Moloka’i and O’ahu, 27 miles
- The English Channel: between England and France, 21 miles
- The Catalina Channel: between Santa Catalina Island and Los Angeles, 21 miles
- The Tsugaru Strait: between the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, 12 miles
- The Strait of Gibraltar: between Spain and Morocco, 8 miles
However, with four of the swims completed, French decided to abandon the quest in early July, not because she couldn’t physically do it, but because she found the answer to why she set the goal in the first place.
A Greyhound Out of The Blocks
Although never a competitive swimmer as child, French grew up loving the water.
“Water is where the world makes sense to me,” she said. “I was the baby who used to pull off her diaper and climb in a bucket if it had water in it. If there was a puddle or if there was a stream, I would be in it.”
In fact, the water held even more significance for French because she spent periods of her youth in a wheelchair. At the age of 10, she contracted glandular fever and mononucleosis and never fully recovered. At 17, she was retrospectively diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME).
“All the way through my teenage years, I would have immune dysfunction,” she said. “I would have complete crashes to where my muscles would be completely weak, and I wouldn’t be able to walk. I would get cold and then have a temperature of 106. For much of the time, I was wheelchair- bound with periods of being bedridden. Just being in the water made me feel stronger; it made me feel really in control. It’s the one place where it was just me and my body and my mind, and no other outside influences.”
Because most of her teenage years were “wiped out,” she experienced periods of self-harm and bulimia with anorexic episodes.
Like many young people with severe illnesses, French looked to the future and made promises to herself to fulfill lifelong dreams if she ever got better. Traveling and swimming were at the top of her agenda.
When she turned 18, her ME calmed down dramatically, so she got to work on those dreams.
“I was like a greyhound out of the blocks. I just went nuts,” she said. “The first thing I wanted to do was get out of England. I wanted to see something of the world. So, I went to Ireland for a two-week holiday and felt so much better that I just didn’t go back home again until eight years later.”
French ran backpackers hotels in Ireland and met people from all over the world, which led to a three-year stint in Hawaii, where she studied indigenous health care.
When she got to the end of her training in Hawaii, she wanted to examine a comparative alternative. So, she went to Thailand to study Thai massage. While she was there, she visited a monastery and was invited to become ordained as a Buddhist nun.
“If I want to learn something, I want to learn about it from the inside, and get to know it,” she said.
French studied the formal teachings of what mindfulness has become today — Essentially, being completely present and maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of one’s physical, mental and emotional experience.
“When I was ill, being in the water was the one time my joints didn’t hurt and I could feel that freedom of movement, even if I couldn’t walk,” French said. “I was really present in the water, so when I learned to meditate like that, taking it back to the water just made absolute sense.”
Making The English Channel a Reality
While French was living in Hawaii, she regained her body and fell in love with sea swimming. In fact, she would often swim for four or five hours at a time without blinking.
She knew she had the open-water endurance, so when she was 30 and Dylan was born, she realized the one thing left on the childhood “bucket list” was to swim the English Channel.
So in 2012, when Dylan was 4, she plunged into the water for the 21-mile swim between England and France.
“If you’re going to start, start at the top,” she chuckled about her first big open-water challenge.
She put off swimming the English Channel for so long because when she was a child, she believed people who did things like climb Mt. Everest or swim for 15 hours straight were a “different breed.”
“I believed they must have been born with a different gene, or they were born into a family who did that,” French said. “There was always some reason why it wouldn’t be someone like me. When I had my son, I really wanted to show him that anybody can take on these feats. I decided I’ve got to show him I can do it because there’s no point in showing him amazing photos from when I was in my 20s. Kids don’t learn that way. They’ve got to see you doing something.”
French did all of her training while Dylan was asleep. It paid off. She finished the infamous crossing in 15 hours, 16 minutes.
“The first thing you’ve got to be good at is compartmentalizing,” French said about what it takes to swim for that long. “You’ve got to be able to compartmentalize fatigue and pain, but that’s not ignoring it. You also have to be really honest with yourself. You have to know how you react to different situations and be able to have an honest conversation with yourself. It takes someone who’s not afraid of themselves. It takes curiosity to push the edge to your known potential.”
A Travel Companion is Born
When Dylan was born, French always knew there was something different about him. She figured he had a sensory processing dysfunction, so she did her best to limit loud noises, bright lights and anything else from the environment he might interpret as a stressor.
“It wasn’t until he went to school that his differences impacted his life and made things difficult,” she said. “Up until then, we just found ways of making things work for us.”
That’s when they learned he had autism.
By the time he was 6, his self-esteem had plummeted due to learning difficulties, so French had no choice but to pull him out of school.
“He was wishing he was dead and he was calling himself a failure,” she said. “I took him out of school because I thought, I can’t do any worse than that.”
Because he’s home-schooled, Dylan gets more of a chance to partake in the activities he enjoys in an environment he can better tolerate.
“He loves adventure, and climbing is where the world makes sense to him,” French said. “He terrifies me on a daily basis because he’s usually half way up the climbing wall.”
He also gets to accompany his mother on her adventures, like taking on the Ocean’s 7 Challenge.
On to New Adventures
Before she officially started her history-making expedition in October, French had already swam two of the channels that were on the list in the course of her lifetime. Dylan had been positive and happy through each of those swims, but things took a turn with this particular adventure.
French completed The Catalina Channel, The Molokai Channel, The Cook Straight and The Straits of Gibraltar, but along the way, Dylan was becoming increasingly worried about his mom’s safety.
“That kind of anxiety spread and his stress levels never came down, even when I got home,” French explained. “Because we were doing so much traveling, he was feeling more isolated and he didn’t have any outlet for his stress-free stuff, which is climbing. He was feeling really insecure and thinking, if I didn’t make it back, he wasn’t safe.”
For nine months, Dylan couldn’t sleep alone, his confidence dropped and his sensory-processing symptoms worsened. French had no problem quitting despite being three swims away from the reaching the mark.
“It wasn’t something I had to be brave about. It wasn’t something that was hard to let go of, because the challenge wasn’t about just reaching the end of the seven swims,” she said. “I knew my body could swim all seven of them. That wasn’t the purpose of the project. The purpose was to go on an amazing adventure with my son and to show him that you can make a life out of doing what you love.”
Since the challenge ended, Dylan’s anxiety has decreased and the mother-son duo are already looking toward their next adventure.
“Dylan’s already said, ‘I’m happy you’re not doing any more swimming, but we’re still going to travel, right? I want to have my own adventures.’ So we’re planning on climbing the three highest peaks in England.”
Reaching the Destination
When French was swimming The Molokai Channel in the middle of the night in December, she was confronted by a seven-foot tiger shark.
“I thought, I must be a terrible mom because I’m putting myself in danger,” French said. “Then I realized, to be the best mom I can be, I have to be the best ‘me’ I can be. And being the best me I can be is doing what I do, but knowing why I’m doing it. I would say, as a parent, your needs have to be on the priority list. They just can’t always be at the top.”
French took on the Ocean’s 7 Challenge to see how far she could push her body post ME. What she got out of it was a far bigger revelation.
“I realized I reached my destination before I reached the end of my challenge,” she said. “I listened to my life, and realized my destination had nothing to do with the goal I had set for myself. I think that’s something I would love for people to understand. When we set ourselves a goal, we tend to think, I’ll be a failure if I don’t get there. But, if you answer your question about why you set yourself the goal, then the goal becomes irrelevant.”
So, as French trades in her swim goggles for hiking boots, the adventure will go on, and it will be more meaningful, because she’ll have Dylan by her side.