Swimmer Katie Scott wasn’t recruited much back when she decided
to attend Marymount University in Arlington. Instead, as a high school senior
from New Jersey, she walked into the head coach’s office unannounced and said
she wanted to join the swim team.
“She was a good Division 3 swimmer but not on anybody’s radar at
the Division 1 level, and she was probably a little ambivalent about swimming
at the college level to begin with,” head coach Mike Clark recalled.
But Scott, a distance medley swimmer, figured something out in
college. “I fell in love with working hard,” she said. “It’s a different
atmosphere in college. Here, you get out of it whatever you put into it.”
It’s a formula that saw Scott excel in college. She joined the
Marymount program as an assistant swim coach after graduation, while taking on
the coaching job at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington. What’s more,
Scott’s work ethic set her on a path to Aug. 30, when, at age 25, she swam
across the busiest shipping lane in the world.
Scott finished the solo swim from England to France across the
English Channel— around 34 miles — in 13 hours and 39 minutes. Fewer than 2,500
swimmers in history have completed the feat. And if she needed any reminder of
the danger, another swimmer, Nick Thomas, died after being pulled from the
water with just a mile to go in his attempt three days before her swim.
Scott has been swimming for as long as she can remember. She grew
up in Cherry Hill, N.J., but swam at the beach during family vacations in Ocean
These days, when she’s not in the pool swimming or coaching,
Scott assists Clark with a program to help provide free swim lessons for
children whose parents can’t afford pool fees and lessons. On a recent Saturday
night, Scott and Clark had a class of 28 children. And nobody knows better than
Scott how a few of them might end up conquering the channel someday, too.
Clark said completing the English Channel is considered the
“Mount Everest” of open water distance swimming because of the strong currents
and low temperatures, which hover around 60 degrees even in summertime.
Scott’s preparation included long distance open water swim
competitions off the coasts of Cape May, N.J., and Florida. A few years ago,
she tried her first open water swim after a friend emailed her about a 13-mile
competition in Key West. Scott joined on a whim — and ended up winning.
In Cape May, she was one of only eight competitors out of 30 to
finish a race through four bodies of water: a river, a canal, an inlet and the
As her confidence grew, Scott began researching the English
Channel swim. But prospective swimmers do not just show up on one side of the
channel and start swimming. The swim is regulated by two independent
organizations that monitor swimmers and certify the results. Scott signed up,
but the wait list can take as long as two years.
Over the summer, however, two spots opened up unexpectedly. Scott
consulted with Clark, who told her to go for it. Thanks to Clark, other
supporters and community fundraising, Scott made the trip at the end of August.
First, she had to qualify with a six-hour swim in temperatures of 60-degrees or
Aside from temperature, time is the other big challenge, Scott
said. Swimmers do not go in a direct line across the channel. Mapped out, the
chart of a successful swim almost always resembles a giant letter “S,” Scott
said. That’s because the current moves out of the channel then, timed
correctly, it moves back out around halfway across.
“If you’re not in the right spot at the right time, you could
just get stuck,” she said.
Within days of Scott’s swim came word of the death of one
swimmer, while another had to be pulled from the water for hypothermia after
just three hours.
But Scott said she's learned a thing or two about faith in the
many hours she’s spent in the water. In Key West, she recalled swimming out in
the ocean next to her kayaker as ominous clouds formed off in the distance on
one side of her, while a waterspout moved across the horizon on the other side.
“The beauty of it is you can’t control everything and so if your
pilot says it’s OK and things are rough, you just go with it,” Scott said.
“Regardless, if it looks like there’s trouble, you just keep swimming. You do
what you can do. You control what you can control.”
McElhatton is a freelance writer from Alexandria.