Swimmer Tracy Clark: Channelling her ambition for charity
PUBLISHED: 16:21 12 August 2019
She has faced sharks and jellyfish and powered through icy water and agonising injury. Norfolk endurance swimmer Tracy Clark shares her extraordinary story
Mesmerised by the story of a fellow New Zealander's quest to swim the English Channel, a teenage Tracy Clark declared that one day she would do the same. Her family thought she was mad, that it was unattainable and told her so. Yet for the 13-year-old girl growing up in a rough part of Auckland, that ambition never left her.
Some 30 years later Tracy decided the time had come - and she did achieve her childhood dream. It was to be the first of a number of daring, gruelling and life affirming swims in oceans around the world.
Along the way, Tracy, who lives in Norwich, has raised thousands for charity and shares her extraordinary experiences as a motivational speaker to corporate clients, schools and other organisations, encouraging others to never give up on their ambitions whatever their age.
Next month, she will embark on her latest challenge, the punishing North Channel swim between Donaghadee in Northern Ireland and Portpatrick in south-west Scotland, raising money for another cause close to her heart, her son's rugby club, the Crusaders, at Little Melton. It is a similar length to the English Channel swim, but the sea temperature is usually three to five degrees colder and it is full of hundreds of jellyfish in the summer months.
"One of the reasons I am doing this swim for the Crusaders is that I know first hand how important sport can be for children. Some kids are not lucky enough to have the sort of safe environment that they should have growing up. At a sports club they are exposed to support and a sense of love and encouragement; they feel they belong and have a purpose."
She says her difficult upbringing was very much part of what has driven her on.
"I grew up in Auckland, parts of it are very nice but the part I was in wasn't so great. I didn't have a very straight forward upbringing; my brother died in an accident when we were both very young and I was with him when it happened. It was a terrible time. My parents pretty much went to ground with the grief and it changed absolutely everything, the whole dynamic of our family.
"I had two older half siblings and to be frank, they were awful, and completely went off the rails. I knew very early on, I didn't want to be like them, I wanted something very different from my life."
She says she was lucky to have a strong group of friends, whose families often took her under their wings and encouraged her interest in swimming.
"When I was about 11, my friend's dad saw me swim and said I should join a club. I started winning races; it was always the distance swims, funnily enough.
"We couldn't afford goggles, so my eyes were always red from the over-chlorinated water, and my swimsuit was baggy and second hand, but I didn't care. I loved it. I felt a sense of peace in the water, away from my siblings and my difficult family life."
By the age of 13, she was training twice a day, every day and competing at weekends. It was then she heard about New Zealand swimmer Sandra Blewett's attempt to swim the Channel.
"It seemed incredible to me that someone could swim from England to France. When it came on the news that she had done it, I remember telling my dad 'Sandra Blewett made it'; then I said 'I am going to swim the English channel'. I remember it so clearly.
"My dad just said 'don't be so bloody stupid, pick a goal you know you can achieve.' I stood, hand on hip, and said 'I am going to swim from England from France one day'. That was that."
Fast forward almost 30 years. Tracy was amicably separated from the father of her two sons, and says at 42, like a lot of women in her situation, she felt a little lost.
"One night I thought back to that dream, and Sandra Blewett, and just decided why not do it? I was up until 3am, googling how I could swim the channel and within a few days I had booked a boat for 16 months time. Then I started training."
On September 1, 2013, Tracy swam the Channel in a time of 12 hours 46 minutes, facing a force six wind and two metre waves, conditions which later saw her win the 'Swimming in the most arduous conditions' award from the Channel Swimming Association.
"Three and a half hours in, I started to projectile vomit but I didn't want to give up. So I started saying my sons' names, Connor and Alex, over and over in rhythm with every stroke. I think I did that for 20,000 strokes. Then, with four hours to go, I started getting pains in my shoulder. So I started chanting my two friends' names, whose families encouraged me to swim all those years ago in New Zealand. They had breast cancer, and have sadly passed away now, but I felt their strength inspiring me. When I got onto the boat, I couldn't lift my arm above my shoulder - something I couldn't do for eight months afterwards. I had torn my bicep tendon. I lost seven kilos swimming the channel. I believe the challenge is 90% mental and achieving it was an incredible feeling.
"If you run a marathon, which I have, you can look at the changing scenery, talk to people, stop to stretch, but swimming the channel is very isolating and you feel sense-deprived. You stop every 30 minutes in the water, have a warm liquid carbohydrate feed and carry on. You are looking at non-stop nothingness, well actually you hope all you see is nothingness," she laughs.
She has completely fallen in love with Norfolk since moving here four years ago with her teenage sons and says the coastline is perfect for endurance swim training. Once the water warms up a little, she heads to Sea Palling most days at around 4am where she does up to four hours of swimming up and down the coastline.
In the past five years, Tracy has completed a number of gruelling swimming challenges, including an Ice Mile in 3.6 degree water, the Strait of Gibraltar, Catalina Channel in California, Robben Island to Cape Town and circumnavigating Manhattan Island. She is the first and only New Zealander to achieve the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming (the English and Catalina Channels and Manhattan Island swim) and, in her work as a swim coach and as a crew member on Channel swim support boats, encourages others to achieve their own dreams.
"In South Africa, if you see a big fin, you do get a bit of a scare, but usually its just a sailfish or dolphin. Once in California, I got back on to the boat and was showering on board and afterwards the team said they had just seen a 15ft great white around the boat eating a seal, it was probably close by when I was swimming. But, strangely, the fact that it ignored me actually gave me comfort."
"Sometimes it is terrifying, but I have witnessed some beautiful, incredible sights. I've had a huge mama whale and her calf alongside me, a humpback whale swimming underneath me and have been joined by a pod of thousands of dolphins. It is always a shock to see these things after miles of nothingness, but I feel incredibly privileged."