Ellery McGowan, 72, an extremely accomplished long-distance swimmer, will be entering the Lake Geneva Classic on 13th July 2019. Although she restarted swimming only in 2005**, she has a string of firsts, long-distance records (including winter swimming records) and a number of cold water gold medals to her name.
The Classic, staged by the Lake Geneva Swimming Association since 2017, is a 13 kilometre swim across Lake Geneva, amid the spectacular scenery of the Jura Mountains and the Alps. The event starts on the northern side of the lake, in Lausanne in Switzerland, and finishes in France, almost opposite on the southern shore, in Evian les Bains. The LGSA Signature event, a 70km crossing from the east to west end of Lake Geneva, takes place over several weekends between June and September. See more about the Lake Geneva Swimming Association.
How did you get into long-distance swimming?
Ellery McGowan: In 2005 I did a “Swimtrek” holiday in Turkey, which included a 10km swim to the island of Bozcaada and the Hellespont swim, the crossing made by romantic hero Lord Byron from Canakkale to Sestos. I found I loved being back in the open water**, so later that year I also completed a six person relay English Channel crossing.
After a three person relay of Lake Zurich in 2009, in splendid conditions, I was keen to do a solo of the 26.4 km course. This I successfully accomplished in 2010. Then I was invited to swim the Toroneos Gulf in 2014, a 26 km crossing where everything is provided and everyone is treated like a champion. Coming out of the water surrounded by local children, with a huge olive wreath placed over my head and music from Vangelis playing loudly was very emotional.
In 2015 I had a failed solo attempt of the English Channel, being pulled out after 11 hours. Although it was a disappointment as I don’t like to “fail”, I was not sorry to be removed from the water. To date I have done six successful relays across the English Channel, including being part of the oldest 6 person ladies team.
2016 saw me doing “Five Swims in Five Countries for a Five Star Son”, in which I raised money for C-R-Y (Cardiac Risk in the Young) in memory of my youngest son, James, who died suddenly of Sudden Adult Cardiac death in December 2015. One of these swims was in Kalamata, Greece, a 30Km swim done between sunrise and sunset. It started off in perfect weather but late in the afternoon it deteriorated and the seas became rough. Fortunately I persevered and finished but some did not! It’s possible that I some hold records for being the oldest female to complete some of these five swims. However, I definitely hold the record for the Robben Island to Cape Town crossing, which I completed in February 2018.
I also hold several age group world records for Winter Swimming, all swum in zero degrees water, with distances up to 200m. My aim in 2020 is to increase this to the 450m event!
**I taught myself to swim in an estuary aged 5 in Tasmania where I grew up. When my twin sister and I could actually swim across this estuary, we asked our father to come and see us. On our farm we swam in a dam, built our own platform and made lane ropes out of “bind a twine”.
Why The Classic? Why now?
I first heard about The Classic three years ago when a swimming friend entered and said positive things on Facebook. Also I know Jamie Monahan, an inspirational swimmer who has done the 60km event. And I have swum in Lake Geneva - over 30 years ago, when I was on holiday visiting friends in Lausanne - so I decided the Classic would be a great event to do, especially after my successes in Lake Zurich. Why now? I know life is short and mine is getting shorter, so now is the best time!
What training have you done?
I keep a fairly rigorous weekly schedule. I find indoor swimming in a warm pool rather boring, so I have been doing plenty of cold water swimming over the winter: at least once a week in 3-9 degrees in the unheated, outdoor pool at Tooting Bec Lido; also in my local river! Over Christmas I was in Brazil for two weeks and I swam in the sea every day there, and I spent a week in Cape Town in February. Now I am back to pool swimming, 10-15 km a week, which I will increase to 20km at the end of April when our local outdoor 50m pool opens. I have a 10km fresh water swim in London to do in June which will be good also.
Each week I do two sessions of Pilates, two 45-minute spin classes, one yoga and one Gyrotonics session, a two hour session of tennis plus my swimming sessions. I find this cross training keeps me fit and injury free.
I love the cold water and in January 2019 I competed in the UK Cold Water Championships at 3 degrees. Then I was in Murmansk, Russia, swimming in zero degrees. In both of these competitions I came away with three gold medals.
What other preparation will you do?
I have a good feeding regime during long swims, but with the Classic I will have to rely on stuffing gels down my swimming costume and just grab water from a support boat. Normally I have a carbohydrate drink after an hour and then an isotonic gel on the half hour, plus half a banana every few hours, but this will not be possible on this swim.
Mentally I am strong. If I want something badly enough I should be able to accomplish it. I will be thinking of my son James who was a great sportsman and he will get me through!
Do you enjoy the competitive format?
Not at all. I see distance swimming as a challenge, not a competition. I am realistic and know I will be in the back half of finishers but I do very much want to achieve this. I do worry that at my age, no matter how good my technique is, I am getting slower.
I don’t like mass starts with hundreds of swimmers, but I settle into my stroke once the field spreads. If someone is close by and swimming at a similar pace, then a competitive streak does set in and I do want to keep abreast of them!
What constitutes success?
In my case, success is doing a realistic amount of training, keeping fit and healthy, having a positive mind-set and enjoying each day.