La Jollan makes roundtrip English Channel swim

La Jolla’s Anne Cleveland recently became the 17th and oldest person to successfully accomplish the grueling 44-mile double crossing of the English Channel. That’s twenty-eight hours and 36 minutes of non-stop swimming, covered in grease, no breaks, no wet suit, no sleep, only liquid nourishment and an unflappable resolve to continue.

A yoga and swim teacher, the 48-year-old WindanSea resident is the eighth woman and fifth American - and only the second female - to accompish the feat.

Beyond individual accomplishment, Cleveland’s marathon swim had a higher purpose.

“She hoped her swim might inspire some patients undergoing cancer treatment,” said UCSD Cancer Center’s Nancy Stringer, “because she saw similarities between the commitment it takes to attempt a feat of this scope and the commitment it takes to stick with cancer therapy. She also wanted the swim to be more than just a personal challenge, wanted a higher level of good to come from it. So, she approached the center about making it a fund-raiser to support research, education and outreach activities.”

Cleveland didn’t become a serious long-distance swimmer until after turning 40 and quitting smoking. It was then she decided to steer a new course: fulfilling a teen-age dream of fording the English Channel, famed for its cold water, choppy seas and wicked winds.

For Cleveland, who’d already done a one-way crossing of the English Channel, swimming it back-to-back was like a mountain climber finally scaling Mount Everest.

“I do it ‘cause I can,” she said. “People need to feel the stretch ... push themselves, see where their limits might be, whether that is the quarter-mile buoy at the Cove or a two-way crossing of the English Channel. The more you do it, the better you get and the more you want to take it a step further.”

Crossing the English Channel was as challenging mentally as it was physically for Cleveland.

“You learn to keep your thoughts positive because your body follows suit,” she said.

Cleveland’s training regimen included daily laps between the Cove and La Jolla Shores lifeguard tower, as well as speed and mechanics training at La Jolla High’s Coggan Aquatic Complex.

Cleveland performed the double crossing of the English Channel on July 31, several days earlier than expected because conditions appeared favorable.

“The prediction was flat seas and no wind,” she said, “which is unheard of in the channel, which is usually like a washing machine with a few knots of wind.”

Her luck changed early on, as calm conditions gave way to near gale-force winds.

“The last half of that second leg, I was very cold and uncomfortable, but not so cold and uncomfortable that I needed to get out.”

She forged ahead, concentrating on pulling as much water cleanly with each stroke.

Cleveland’s trainer, Dan Peck, knows what a herculean task she took on.

“Twenty-eight hours of constant effort doesn’t come lightly,” he said, “as well as just keeping on going, not letting yourself stop.”

What Peck did with Cleveland in the pool was work on her mechanics, helping her develop a more efficient stroke to save energy. “As she progressed, she got more and more ocean training and speed work with us so she could finish faster. A lot of people just end up swimming long and slow.”

Failure for Cleveland was never an option.

“When you get to really feeling uncomfortable ... you want to get out and stop,” she said. “But, if you did that, you’d know you didn’t give it your all. You would have wasted all that training. If you stay in and finish ... there’s nothing like really achieving something that you really had to work hard for. It takes a lot of dedication and determination to do something like this. But, there’s a lot of satisfaction afterwards.”

Peck spent two years working with Cleveland. “The thing that keeps most people from completing the channel swim is it’s super cold. You have to prepare yourself for it properly with conditioning and acclimating yourself to colder water.”

Cleveland spent hours swimming in La Jolla Cove in the middle of the winter.

“She started out small,” Peck said, “increasing her time until she was out there for six or seven hours. You’re always going to get cold at some point. You have to learn how to deal with the uncomfortableness of what you’re going to go through.”

Cleveland joins an elite group of international swimmers who’ve successfully braved the English Channel. The first known conqueror of the channel was Matthew Webb, 27. The merchant Navy captain swam the channel in 1875 in 21 hours and 45 minutes. He drank brandy, coffee and beef tea to maintain energy.

For Cleveland, crossing the English Channel wasn’t nearly so much of a watershed event. More than anything else, she said marathon swimming has taught her how to live in the moment.

“It’s not so much how much you do or how well you succeed,” she said, “but how much awareness you have when you’re doing it. If I planned and trained consistently, I knew I could do it.”

Cleveland is mulling over what to do for an encore.

“I have some people needling me to (swim) a three-way,” she said. “We’ll see.”

Peck feels privileged to have played a role in helping Cleveland achieve her goal.

“As much as I could give her as far as training goes, all my props and awards and kudos go to her,” he said.