She Did It! La Jolla cancer survivor swims across the English Channel

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■ For more information about Allison DeFrancesco and First Descents, visit

By Linda Hutchison

Of the approximately 1,500 people who try to swim the English Channel every year, only about 300 make it. This year, the fortunate one in five include local long-distance swimmer Allison (Alli) DeFrancesco.

DeFrancesco completed the grueling 28-mile swim on Aug. 28 in 11 hours and 14 minutes. A dual citizen of the United States and Italy, DeFrancesco is the first Italian woman to successfully swim the Channel. (Four Italian men have.)

The 25-year-old DeFrancesco plunged into the water at 3 a.m. at Samphire Hoe, near Dover, England, and made her final landing at Cap Gris-Nez, France at 2 p.m. Before putting her tired feet on French soil, she had to swim in place for an hour, waiting for the currents to cooperate. And before that, she had to fight high waves, wind and three hours of sickness. But DeFrancesco was determined to finish.

A year ago (

La Jolla Light

, Sept. 13, 2012), she was prepared for the plunge and the swim, but bad weather made it impossible and she had to return home to Del Mar. “It was daunting knowing I had to come home and train for another year,” she said.

The extra year worked in her favor. She continued her vigorous training; swimming up to 40 miles a week, including one 8-hour, 18-mile swim from Cardiff to Pacific Beach. She also increased her long swims in colder water, off the central California coast and in Lake Tahoe.

The English Channel water temperature averages 60 degrees and swimmers are not allowed to wear wetsuits — only swimsuits, caps, goggles and grease. A tall and slim 5 feet, 10 inches, DeFrancesco also had to eat more to keep extra weight on and make sure she got enough sleep and rest.

“My health also got a lot better,” she said.

In 2010, DeFrancesco received a bone marrow transplant to combat Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A year later, when her favorite NYU swim coach Lauren Beam died of colon cancer at age 32, DeFrancesco decided to swim the English Channel in her honor, and to raise money for First Descents, a non-profit organization that supports young adults with cancer. Her recent swim helped raise money for the organization, but DeFrancesco would like to raise more.

Despite all her training, DeFrancesco still had a major challenge ahead. The English Channel is only open to distance swimmers from June until September and is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. In addition to the cold water and ships, swimmers often must get though debris, diesel fuel, jellyfish, kelp, high winds and waves and strong currents.

“My biggest fear was jumping into the water and not knowing how my body would react,” said DeFrancesco. “Swimming with the sun on your back and dolphins jumping over you is not the same as plunging into the cold water in the dark.”

Her swim on Aug. 28 was scheduled for 3 a.m. to take advantage of a slack tide, mid-way between high and low.

Her other fear was learning to swim so close to a boat. Fortunately, her training paid off and she attributes much of her success to the British support team — the captain of the boat and three crew members (two women and a man) — as well as her American trainer Brian Finn. They fed and encouraged her the whole way. “Your body never gets completely replenished and you have to make sure to prevent hypothermia.” Even with a support team, however, “at the end of the day, there is no one in the water but yourself,” she added.

Back here in San Diego, DeFrancesco works as an assistant registrar for the Museum of Contemporary Art. (She majored in art history at NYU.)

Recently, she was named Woman of the Year by the San Diego-based Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

On her horizon, she sees graduate studies and possibly more swims, for example, from Molokai to Oahu (26 miles), or across the Strait of Gibraltar (approximately 10-15 miles between Spain and Morocco).