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Marymount swim coach conquers the English Channel

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 City.


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 open ocean.


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 below.


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.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016