Centre student training to swim the English Channel

gkocher1@herald-leader.comJanuary 20, 2013 

DANVILLE — Danielle Wahl comes from a family of goal-setting athletes, and her latest quest is in keeping with that legacy. The Centre College student is training to swim the English Channel, the 21-mile-wide strait between Great Britain and France.

Wahl, 20, a sophomore from Colorado Springs, Colo., said she structures her life around goals.

"The English Channel has been a long-term goal of mine for a while now," Wahl said in an interview at Centre's indoor pool. "It's something I've always wanted to do."

Although hundreds of people have swum the channel solo or in relay teams, it is still considered swimming's equivalent of climbing Mount Everest.

Distance isn't the only obstacle. The water is cold — less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit in mid-summer — and wind conditions can create waves that make the swim more difficult.

In addition, swimmers can encounter seaweed, stinging jellyfish or an occasional plank of wood, according to the Channel Swimming Association, an 85-year-old organization that assists and advises those who intend to make an attempt.

Furthermore, tides can shift a swimmer off-course and make the trek longer than 21 miles. Finally, the channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with 600 tankers and 200 other vessels plying its waters each day.

Wahl hopes to make the swim between June 28 and July 5.

As part of her preparations, she did a continuous six-hour swim in the Gulf of Mexico near St. Petersburg, Fla., during a Centre College swim team preseason training trip.

"The last hour of the swim, 15 of my teammates came in and finished up the swim with me," she said. "It was just really cool because I wasn't expecting anyone would want to swim in the ocean with me, and furthermore, get in that cold water. I had just a great support group from my team."

She hopes to complete the Channel crossing in 11 hours or less. The fastest swim was a little more than seven hours; the slowest was nearly 27 hours.

"I think the biggest challenge I'm going to have is the cold water," Wahl said. "I'm going to have to gain 10 pounds before I swim just to keep me insulated more. ... That may be hard for me because I'm very cautious in what I eat as an athlete."

She'll lose that 10 pounds in crossing the channel. "Your body starts to burn fat for energy because it's got nothing else to run on," she said.

Wahl, a member of Alpha Delta Pi sorority who studies behavioral neuroscience, comes from a family of goal-setters.

Her father, Michael, and brother, Devin, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet), the highest mountain in Africa. They also do triathlons, those grueling contests that involve swimming, biking and running.

Wahl's coaches at Centre said she has the determination and strength to accomplish her goal.

"She's hard-working. Great attitude," said Dean Brownley, head swimming and diving coach. "She's got a perseverance that very few have."

"Her drive is pretty impressive," said Assistant Coach Nick Thompson, a former Centre swimmer. "It's kind of refreshing to see someone who's so young and still has so many things she wants to accomplish."

When Wahl attempts the Channel crossing, an observer with the Channel Swimming Association will watch from a boat to ensure that she complies with association rules. The observer will submit a report to a committee that ratifies the swim.

For now, Wahl's training is in the controlled conditions at Boles Natatorium, where she swims three to four hours a day. But once the swim team's season ends in March, she will begin open-water swimming in Herrington Lake and other spots around Kentucky.

As an added motivation, Wahl is organizing her swim as a fundraiser.

"For every mile I complete, I'm going to donate a certain percentage for a non-profit organization called Save the Children," Wahl said. Save the Children is an international aid group that deals with hunger and other issues involving youngsters.

"I wanted to take this time and help people who are less fortunate than I am," Wahl said. "I want to make a mark and make a difference. If I could just touch a few hearts of children who are not as privileged as me, that would mean so much to me."

Greg Kocher:(859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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