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Journey from water baby to record-setter

Sporting Lives: Rachael Lee

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‘It’s such a thrill seeing people who couldn’t swim becoming happy and confident in the water,’ says Rachael Lee

‘It’s such a thrill seeing people who couldn’t swim becoming happy and confident in the water,’ says Rachael Lee

‘It’s such a thrill seeing people who couldn’t swim becoming happy and confident in the water,’ says Rachael Lee

Dubliner Rachael Lee is a long-distance swimmer who holds the overall Irish record - for men and women - for crossing the English Channel.

With her husband Tom Healy and friend Ronan Joyce, she set a world record for a relay crossing of the treacherous North Channel between Ireland and Scotland last summer. Among her many other achievements are wins in the Lake Zurich and Lake Windermere long distances swims and - best of all - in the 2014 Liffey Swim.

"The kids were in a buggy then, and Tom would be pushing them up and down the beach. They'd wave at me and I'd have the tears welling up behind the goggles. You have to be very selfish sometimes in sport."

When did you start swimming?

My mam and dad moved to Australia when I was little so I grew up with my two younger brothers in the small mining town of Newman in Western Australia. It's in the middle of nowhere about a five-hour drive north of Perth. My father was working in the mines.

Since it was very hot, everyone swam and the town had a 50m, 25m and baby pool. I started training properly at the age of six and when I was eight, I came third in the Western Australia 50m front crawl, which was quite a big deal since so many swim in Australia. I was thrilled!

We came back to Ireland from Australia for a year, when we lived in Belgard Heights, and then returned to Australia for a further two years before coming back here for good. At that point, my parents bought a house in Leixlip so I could be near the King's Hospital swimming club and I started training twice a day, getting up at 5.0 am, which I still do. It was the only sport I did. I went to school at Coláiste Chiaráin, but they didn't do swimming so it was all in the club. My parents didn't have much money but they always made sure I kept up my swimming.

Did you win any titles in your pool swimming career?

I won national 200m, 400m and 800m titles, all freestyle, but when I left school and decided to do nursing at St James's and Trinity College, I decided to give up swimming. It was 1997 and by then my dream of competing at the Olympics was crushed - I had realised that I just wasn't good enough.

How did you start swimming in sea races?

While at Trinity College, I took up water polo. Many water polo players also do sea swimming, so that's how I got started. I still remember my first race at Bray. It was only about a mile, it was cold and I wasn't used to the sea, but I loved the buzz around it. After that, I did all the sea swims and then started looking for longer races over 5km and 10km because I knew I was good at that.

For that, I had to go abroad - there are very few long-distance open water swims in Ireland, apart from Enniskillen and Lough Dan. In 2002, I took a year out in Australia where I swam in a relay team at the Rottnest Channel Swim, one of the biggest open sea swims in the world.

When did you first start thinking of swimming the English Channel?

When I came back to Ireland, I applied to join the Fire Brigade and I was accepted. That proved pivotal for me, since swimming was huge in the fire service and from 2005 my involvement exploded.

I also met my husband Tom Healy after he joined the Fire Brigade's two-way English Channel relay team of six. In 2007, we made a first attempt and after five days waiting for good weather in Dover, the swim was called off. We came back a year later in September 2008 when there was no waiting: we got there, we swam a new Irish record of 21 hours 12 minutes and came home.

It was beautiful going over to France and we swam it in nine hours with Tom touching the rock. No sooner had we turned back for England than the weather changed, as if the gods had decided to punish us.

It was horrible, I was vomiting off the side of the boat. You learn resilience on relay swims - sitting in a boat with six other people, battling the cold, dealing with sea sickness. Still, you do get a little break when your hour's swim is over, but I was still thinking to myself that I would never put myself through a solo swim.

In 2010, Tom paid his £2,400 deposit to swim the Channel in 2012. You need about two years to prepare and it means a lot of hard work and long swims. I took a break and started running marathons and a few ultra races; I did about 12 in all. In 2011, I was back swimming and won the first Lough Sheelin 17km and then went to England with Tom for the Lake Windemere 17km swim, where I finished third overall and first woman.

A little later, I discovered I was pregnant and expecting twins. Tom nearly dropped dead with the shock! When it came to Tom's Channel swim in September, I was six months pregnant and had to hide my bump or they wouldn't have let me on the boat. He also had his mam and his best friend crewing but he had no luck with the weather.

It's always like that on the Channel, you book years in advance, you pick a week, you travel over and then you wait for the call from your pilot and sometimes it doesn't work out.

Although the sea was very choppy, Tom got across in 9 hours 51 minutes. A day later, the sea was flat calm, and Trent Grimsey from Australia swam it in 6 hours 55 mins - a phenomenal time and still the record.

What changed your mind about doing a solo Channel swim?

After the twins, Lex and Bruce, were born, I took eight months to get myself fit, although I was still doing the sea swims even when I was pregnant. I started training for the Lake Zurich swim, which is a most beautiful 26.6km swim, and isn't usually affected by the weather. After I won that and also the Liffey Swim, I decided to book for the Channel in 2015.

Tom was brilliant; he always thought I had a good Channel swim in me, and as for my parents, I couldn't have done any of it without them. There were still a few disasters along the way - to prove that I was fit to swim the Channel, I had to do a six-hour swim in water of under 14 degrees and so Tom and I went to Barcelona because I wanted to have it done early. I lasted three hours.

Since our work shifts are on a four-week cycle, we decided to come back in four weeks. This time, we flew in, I did the swim, and we flew out again so I could get to work on the Monday.

I did many other six-hour swims. The kids were in a buggy then, and Tom would be pushing them up and down the beach. They'd wave at me and I'd have tears welling up behind the goggles. You have to be very selfish sometimes in sport.

That first time, I had to abandon my attempt due to the weather. At one point, I was level with the boat the waves were so high. Tom's mam was on the boat and she was strapped into her chair to stop her falling in and my best friend Susan, who was also part of the support crew, was bawling crying. I wanted to keep going because I was so in the zone and I thought I'm not going to do this again, so I've got to keep going.

At first the boat's pilot Eddie Spelling was giving me the benefit of the doubt, but then he decided he had to pull me in. Come back in a month he said. Then Lex, my son, broke his leg; plus I was tired after the swim. Eddie told me to come back in a year.

So I returned to Dover in August 2016 and we waited for the call from Eddie. On the last day of our "window", the call came. This time everything went well and I got across in 9 hours and 40 minutes, which was an overall Irish record. Afterwards I thought to myself I'm never, ever going to do that again!

In 2019, you, Tom and Ronan Joyce set a new relay record for the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland. How did that happen?

In the past, very few people attempted to swim the North Channel - it's colder than the English Channel and there's a huge problem with the swarms of lion's mane jellyfish.

You hear about them but you don't believe it until you see them - their "crown" is yellow and very visible because the water is crystal clear, but what you don't always see are their tentacles which trail behind them for a few metres.

Even if you cut them off, they can still sting you. You don't notice one sting or even a few when you're in the water, but when you get out, you're in trouble. The pilot on the boat does his best to help you avoid them using a whistle and directing you to go left or right. We were determined to do a fast time and we completed it in 9 hours 20 minutes 40 seconds, which is a record.

What are the challenges of long distance open water swimming?

You have to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable. There's the chaffing on your shoulders, and under the armpits from the swim suit - you're only allowed to wear a swim suit, cap and goggles. You have to put on weight - I put on 4 to 5kg for my Channel swim. Your mouth can be affected - in Tom's case, a layer came off his tongue after his Channel swim.

It isn't just the cold and the distance that make it such a challenge; you've got to get used to the feeding because if you can't take in food, you won't survive. What's most important is to simulate your feeding routine in training - usually that involves high energy drinks in a bottle that is dangled into the water beside you on a string. You can have constant diarrhoea, which is a problem for me. Plus it's important that you pee - I find it easy, but some people find it hard to pee in the water.

What is your favourite swim?

The Liffey Swim. I've missed it a few years when I was away, but I love it and was delighted to win it in 2014. It's pencilled in for September 5 this year, but that may not happen.

Any further ambitions?

I'm 40 now and I find recovery after a long swim is a lot harder. Plus our work is demanding and the children are getting older and need more attention.

We had booked the week of August 26 for a relay attempt on the English Channel by our Oceanbreakers team and we wanted to give it a good lash. But we haven't trained properly since February and we can't travel over to Dover anyway. So we're hoping to do it next year. In ways, this has made us even more determined and at least our training is back to normal again.

Our goal is to highlight the huge problem of ocean pollution - only 9 per cent of all plastics get recycled and we want our kids to be able to swim in clean, clear water like we did.

When we're swimming at places like Low Rock on Portmarnock strand, we organise beach cleans, picking up bottles and bags. We want everyone using keep cups and bringing them everywhere with them!

I'm proud to be sponsored by Kingspan's project to recover one billion plastic bottles a year which they will use to make their insulation products.

Why do you keep going?

I swim because I love it and we're lifers. Look what it's given me - through swimming I met my husband, my best friend, and so many brilliant people. We offer coaching to people who have an interest in sea swimming and it's such a thrill seeing people who couldn't swim becoming happy and confident in the water.