May 22, 2011
Our Coach and Mentor - Marcia Cleveland
Quintessential Barrington:The year you swam the English Channel, 1994, doesn’t seem like a long time ago. But the years pile up. What most do you remember about the day you swam the Channel? What do you still feel in your mind when the moment comes back to you?
Marcia Cleveland:Remembering that is one reason I wrote the book (the “Bible” of Channel swimming, “Dover Solo”) because I wanted a memoir so that I could remember everything. People always ask about it and this summer it will be 17 years. It’s just that life was so different then being at a world caliber level. What I remember vividly, of course, was the pain in my shoulders and the cold. But I mostly remember what it felt like when my hands touched the rocks (on the French shore). It was this feeling of complete relief.
QB: Why relief?
MC: You say to yourself: This is one of those days when you really feel like you’ve done something in life. When you’re over there, all of these people are involved in the same thing and it seems almost usual. My life had been focused on that for such a long time. It was just my life. But the further you are removed it, the more you realize how big of a deal it was. Not everybody can get it together to do this. So in reflection – and even now – it sort of amazed me that I could get myself to do this. Doing the training, everything, every day. It’s even innovation of the training. I had a fulltime job at the time, I was married, I was tired a lot, and I was just able to have my big girl pants on every day. It took me five years to write the book. But it gave me perspective.
QB: Was the experience of the Channel swim what you thought it would be?
MC: Much better, a thousand times better. Before you swim you think it’s going to be hours of agony and misery, but you get yourself so physically and mentally prepared. First, my first hour in the water was in the dark, and I had not prepared for that; so I was scared out of my mind. But then you realize you are in your element. You are rocking and rolling. So you never whine or cry. My husband and a friend were in the crew boat and they were in their element, too. You begin by thinking it’s going to be 150-foot waves and 10-degree water. But you get so really, really ready. And once you start doing it, you don’t pay any attention to that.
QB: Is this the hardest swim in the world?
MC: Actually not. Lynne Cox swam the Bering Straight and there was her swim to Antarctica. And the Irish Sea is really hard, 55 degree water and huge jelly fish. Most humans can’t do that. So K2 is a harder to climb than Everest. But not nearly as famous. It’s just that the Channel is the most famous swim.
QB: You were a great kid swimmer in high school (her school was undefeated her junior and senior years) and college. So was this long distance swimming the obvious next thing for you? Were you built for this?
MC: I think when I was a kid, I “left a lot of money on the table” as they say. I did OK. I never had much speed; sort of the ball and chain. I never really blossomed. Coaches then just had a high decibel level. But when I swam my last race for Yale, I was more interested in how good the glass of beer was going to taste. I didn’t have the right approach. So when I started swimming Masters level, I did eight lifetime bests in 10 years. That’s a lot.
QB: But you prepared as a kid by swimming in the ocean off Connecticut?
MC: Not really. I saw the movie “Jaws” when I was 11. And I didn’t go into the ocean for 12 years. It had really scared me to death. I didn’t even start this open water swimming until I was 23. I was suddenly around older swimmers who were brave and they just tugged me into the water. And before I knew it, I was doing marathons around New York. It makes me a little more understanding of swimmers’ fears now (as a teacher) and how they can have a thousand fears and phobias in the open water. Like a blade of grass touches you, and you think it’s a jelly fish. Then you gradually start to learn that you are going to get through this.
QB: So, besides being physically prepared for open water, how did you change your mental approach?
MC:When I got out of college, lots of things started to go wrong and get complicated. I was having to be a grownup. And swimming became my security blanket. When you have a good day or a bad day, you get into the water and let out your joys and sorrows. It was better than the drugs of choice others had. That is very typical of swimmers. You can always say to yourself: I swam today and everything is OK. So I moved to New York, got a job in six days and decided to go swimming at a YMCA on the Upper West Side. I just happened to walk into a Masters Class. I started to realize I was on my own. My own boss. I was in charge and it was all on my own terms. I was both the prisoner and the warden.
QB: Is long distance swimming a human athletic talent, or is a question of mostly consuming will power?
MC:It’s the first option. You have to be good swimmer to do this.
QB: In your book, you describe the level of repetitive work required to be fit enough for these open water events as if you were describing a recipe for lemon meringue pie. But I would guess not a lot of people can do that work – 40,000 yards of swimming in a week for two years – or would even want to do it.
MC: When it comes to preparing to swim the Channel, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In this society, everybody wants to be the red race car. Some weekend warriors may do really well against the cold once, but then the next day they don’t want to get out of bed. When I started working with Don Macdonald and Doug McConnell (in Barrington), I sent them the workouts for every day, and they are expected to do it. I’m not forcing anyone. But they both know what’s at stake. The fact they have many other things going on in their lives is OK. These workouts are designed for real people.
QB: Doug McConnell and Don Macdonald seem serious about this. I would guess there’s no other way to make this swim than to be serious about preparing for it.
MC: Yes, as teacher and coach I have to know what your real story is. But I can smoke out people quickly. Don and Doug have yet to give me any excuse. Like, “Ooo, I broke my toenail.” But they are in it for the real reasons. I’ve had people who are not committed. Some want the dream and the ideal, like a knight on a white horse. But real life doesn’t go that smoothly. If I decide you’re not able to do this, I’ll say you need to think about it and then call me when you decide what to do.
QB Do your children know what swimming the English Channel means? Do they want to “beat mom?”
MC: I think my daughter has read “Dover Solo” but I don’t know if Sam has. My husband hasn’t read it because he lived through it. It’s not exactly required reading in the house. (Chuckling). Sam swims for the Michigan Shore team. Julia swims for the New Trier club, and she’s doing very well. We did a swim together last summer off Long Island Sound. She is in the middle of this group of my friends who are like her extra moms. She has a lot of people in swimming who care about her. I’ve told them that if they ever want to stop, it’s fine with me. It was not to be mean. They aren’t swimming for me. But there isn’t much pressure to “show up mom.” She’s already beaten 11 of my lifetime bests.
QB: How does that make you feel?
MC: She takes delight in that, and so do I. It’s fun to see her kick my butt. Of course, if she wants to inherit Aunt Mildred’s couch pillow, that’s OK with me, too.
QB: What’s your best estimate of how ready McConnell and Macdonald are for the swim?
MC: Good as long as they do the training. But there are no guarantees, and I would be a fool to give any. They know that totally.
QB: What happens when swimmers don’t succeed?
MC: It’s a lack of preparation obviously. Or the weather deteriorates. Or the swimmer gets sick from what they eat when they swim. You get tired. You get cold. Or some just give up. That’s a bad omen in life. Sometimes the pilot does call off the swim because he has the final say. Obviously when this happens, everyone is tremendously disappointed. Not so much the swimmer right away. Because when you get out of the water because of hypothermia, the boat has been looking really good to you for a long time.
QB: Do they fit the training experience model of your other students who have made it?
MC: They are doing what they need to do to be successful, to give them a chance to be successful.
QB: How many have you tutored for the Channel?
MC: It’s more like advised. About 25. Maybe 10 have made it. Some have started the training but dropped out because they couldn’t do it.
QB: Are there other successful Channel swimmers in the area?
MC: Maybe two dozen or so total in the Chicago region, although no one who is super young because that doesn’t help. Older swimmers are more patient. Maybe two or three in the Chicago area.
QB: Does the event change you?
MC: I think what it did was showed me the value of real hard work, and it was totally up to me to succeed. I could decide when to end it at any time. Nobody was holding me to this. But being able to put together a big project – there are lots of people who cared and helped – was something special. It helps on those horrible days when you can get it together. It’s helped me be a better parent.
QB: Can a person really know what it took to swim the Channel without having done it? Is this one of those human events with a closed enrollment?
MC:That’s part of mystique, and it’s true. This thing is not a dime a dozen. Sometimes someone will say they want to swim the Channel and even when they take baby steps, they say “Oh my God. I didn’t know what was involved.” That’s what brings the fraternity closer together of those who have done it. The mutual respect. When they come back, they don’t need medals or attention. You can just see it in their faces.
QB: I have never read an account of your exploits that goes long without noting how important a person you are in the sport worldwide as a teacher and leader. Are you comfortable being called one of the half dozen most significant persons in your sport?
MC: I never expected to be important. But there are several of us women at the top. Every year, we go back to England for a party. It’s great to see everyone and see what they’ve done in the last year.
QB: How much time do you spend in water each week in warm months and cold?
MC: Right now about 25,000 yards a week, about 14 to 16 miles. That’s seven or eight hours. When I did the Channel, it was 45,000 yards in 20 hours a week, and then up to 25 hours a week. In the summer it’s about 50-50between the pool and open water (usually Lake Michigan). I often use the pool to work on speed. But you don’t waste time, like with polar bear activities or goofing off like that.
QB: Tell me something about you that almost no one knows.
MC: I like to knit. I’m totally mediocre at it. But I just love it. I’ve knitted my husband lots of sweaters. Right now, I’m working on a washcloth. It helps keep my expectations low.
QB: What will you do next? Do you fear the Alexander the Great Syndrome: crying because there are no worlds left to conquer?
MC: Nah, that’s not me at all. Maybe (swimming the Straits of) Gibraltar. My husband loves Spain.
Marcia Cleveland, 47, has lived with her husband of 20 years, Mark Green, in Winnetka for the past eight years. Their two children are Julia, 13, and Sam, 11.
She is a professional long-distance swimming coach, coach for Vision Quest Triathlon Group on the North Shore, Master Swimming organizer, a Girl Scout Troop leader and member of The Women’s Exchange. She grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and graduated from Yale.
She is serving a four-year term as the national chair of the United States Masters Swimming Open Water and Long Distance Committee.
In 1994, she swam the 23.69-mile English Channel in nine hours, 44 minutes. She was the 445th to swim the Channel.
In 1996, she established the American women’s record for the 28.5 mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in five hours, 57 minutes. It was her fifth Manhattan Marathon.
In 2003, she swam the roundtrip English Channel route as part of a relay team.
In 2005, she swam the 23-mile Catalina Island Channel in the Pacific Ocean and reached California’s coast in eight hours, 56 minutes, virtually all of it at night.
As a 30-year-old, she averaged 45,000 yards a week swimming for a year before her English Channel swim.
As a 40-year-old mother of two, she averaged 25,000 yards a week before the Catalina swim.
As she swam the Channel, her head filled with the B-52's version of the Flintstones theme song, a singing rendition of the ABC's stroke by stroke, and the British pop song, “I Saw the Sign.” Cleveland was also fueled by feedings which consisted of 30-60 second stops where liquid would be handed over the side of her support boat. She would tread water while gulping either chicken broth, watery oatmeal or Nutrament – and then begin swimming again.
In 1994, Marcia Cleveland is joined by her husband, Mark Green, to savor the ultimate finish for a swimmer – completing the English Channel swim.