Stronger and stronger

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If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

That’s a lesson that Pat Gallant-Charette took to heart in her attempt to swim the English Channel, considered by many in open-water swimming to be the standard for channel crossing.

After failing in her first attempt in 2008, when currents forced her back just 1.7 miles from the French coast, and her second attempt, which was canceled in 2009 due to weather conditions, the 61-year-old Westbrook grandmother succeeded in her third try last August, becoming the oldest American swimmer to defeat the Channel.

But compared to what Gallant-Charette will attempt in a few weeks, that England-to-France crossing could be called day at the beach.

Gallant-Charette will leave for Japan on Sept. 4 with the intention of swimming across the famed Tsugaru Strait, the 12-mile-long body of water that separates Japan’s main island of Honshu and its northern island of Hokkaido. Gallant-Charette will attempt the Tsugaru crossing sometime in the week of Sept. 7-14, whenever conditions seem to be the best.

The swim is the fourth part of Gallant-Charette’s attempt to complete the Ocean’s Seven, a group of seven long-distance swims scattered across the globe. In addition to the English Channel, she has already crossed California’s Catalina Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar, between Morocco and Spain, where she was the fastest American woman ever to complete the swim. She trained before that crossing at the Casco Bay YMCA in Freeport.

As hard as those swims were, Gallant-Charette says the Tsugaru, with its extraordinarily strong currents, will be her toughest test yet.

“It’s a very difficult swim,” she said. “People might say, ‘Oh it’s only 12 miles,’ but it’s 12 tough miles. I would consider this to be tougher for me than the English Channel.

“I’m a slow swimmer, and slow swimmers tend to get pushed by currents more because of low stroke rate. I’m not expecting to be Michael Phelps, but I don’t have to be.”

As a testament to the Tsugaru’s level of difficulty, Gallant-Charette tossed out the name of Irishman Stephen Redmond, who became the first person to complete the Ocean’s Seven when he crossed the Tsugaru on July 14 in 12 hours and 45 minutes.

However, it took Redmond just one try to cross the English Channel, while it took four times for him to successfully navigate the Tsugaru’s tricky currents. On one of those attempts, Redmond had been swimming for 10 hours when the currents changed and a headwind popped up, pushing him all the way back to the start.

It’s likely success will come down to elements outside of Gallant-Charette’s control. Mother Nature, in all its unpredictability, will be the determining factor in her becoming just the 11th person to cross the straight, in the process setting a world record as the oldest person to do it.

As Gallant-Charette says, there are a lot of ifs heading into the swim.

“I have to have Mother Nature on my side to succeed, and if she’s not, I won’t, it’s as easy as that,” she said. “But that’s all part of marathon swimming.”

Late start

Though Gallant-Charette has become world-renowned for her swimming, she didn’t take up the sport until just 15 years ago, at the age of 46, when her brother Robbie, a star swimmer at Westbrook High School who went on to be the captain of Northeastern swim team, unexpectedly died of a heart attack at the age of 34.

About a month later, Pat’s son decided he would swim the annual Peaks to Portland race as a tribute to his uncle, who had won the race twice.

“I said, ‘Oh that’s so sweet, I wish I could do the same,’” Gallant-Charette recalled. “And he said, ‘You know mom, you could if you tried.”

So she went to work, saying that on the first night of practice she wasn’t sure if she could complete two laps in the pool. After a year she entered the 1999 Peaks race, but even on race day she remained unsure of her chances to complete the 2.4-mile swim across Casco Bay.

“I just kept building up my endurance, but even then I was hoping I’d be able to swim the Peaks,” she said. “For me back then that was quit a distance and I was filled with a lot of self-doubt. Even the day of the Peaks to Portland I can remember saying to a lot of friends, ‘What did I get myself into?’ I see all these young athletes and here I am gray-haired and overweight.

“But I decided I wasn’t going to be first of the pack, I was going to be at the pack, but I was just here to do it as a tribute to Robbie.”

She completed the race in 1999, and again the following year. After that she swam across Sebago Lake, about twice the distance of the Peaks race, and then did a two-way crossing across Sebago the next year. That’s when she knew she had the potential to do even longer and more arduous swims, such as the English Channel.

“In my early years I never in a million years thought I would go on to be a marathon swimmer,” Gallant-Charette said. “I started off with the goal of just the Peaks to Portland. And after that I realized how much I loved swimming, but I still never thought of marathon swimming because I didn’t think I was of that caliber.

“But I kept on building up my endurance and I felt that I was getting stronger and stronger.”

Gallant-Charette does most of her training at Pine Point in Scarborough, swimming close to the shore where the currents are the roughest to simulate what it will be like out in the open water. Her training sessions last anywhere from a couple of hours up to five or six, and she also puts in time training at the Westbrook Community Center.

However, that doesn’t mean swimming is Gallant-Charette’s full-time job. At 61, she still works 32 hours a week as a nurse at the Barron Center in Portland, as well as regularly taking care of her grandchildren, ages 3 and 1.

“I think the working gives you endurance because I’m on my feet and it’s a busy job,” she said. “So after work when I come down here my body feels like it’s had an eight-hour work out, and then I do a two-hour swim.”

Gallant-Charette is dedicating the Tsugaru swim to her neighbor, Sherri Kelly, who has been battling cancer. Also along to help her swim on the day will be her training partners, Yoko Aoshima and Patricia Whitney, who will serve as crew in the boat that will accompanying her. The two will time her, count strokes, keep track of the amount of time she spends eating and will watch for changing currents and weather.

“We’ll do everything we can to make sure she makes it,” Whitney said of the job description.

The rules of the crossing permit her just one day, from sunrise to sunset, to complete the crossing, an estimated 14 hours. The time restriction, as well the ever-changing elements, will make this the toughest swim of her career, Gallant-Charette said.

But no matter if the attempt across Tsugaru is a success or not, it won’t stop Gallant-Charette on her quest to swim across all of the Ocean’s Seven. She already plans to swim New Zealand’s Cook Strait in February and the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland next September, with Hawaii’s Molokai Channel planned for sometime after that.

“I’m going to see what I’m capable of doing,” she said. “I haven’t hit the wall in swimming. I know one day I will, but not right now. If I can get this one, I know the other ones will be much easier.

“But if I fail, that’s OK, at least I’m trying.”

With the mountains of Africa in sight, Westbrook’s Pat Gallant-Charette swims across the Strait of Gibraltar on June 16, 2010.    

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