Channel Champ

Kennebunk’s Susan Knight swims her way into the record books in the English Channel.

Long-distance, open-water swimming is a solitary sport — hour after hour, mile after mile of lonely paddling in vast waters. It attracts people possessed of quiet grit, not to mention muscled backs and arms. As Susan Knight nears Pine Point Beach in Scarborough, she’s just finished a 3-mile swim. Still in the water, she moves easily through the sluggish surf, stepping over gentle rollers, her skin glistening and freckled in the morning sun.

Susan Knight

Photo by Mark Fleming

Knight, who lives in Kennebunk, recently returned home after conquering the chilly currents of the English Channel, swimming from England to France in 9 hours, 26 minutes, a time about four hours faster than average for a Channel crossing and the best American mark in seven years. As far as official books indicate, she also set a new record for any woman over 45 years old.

The narrowest stretch of the Channel, from Dover to Calais, is 21 miles wide. What occupies a swimmer’s thoughts when she’s 10 miles from land on either side, with hundreds of feet of ocean beneath her, traversing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, moving at record pace? Knight says she had only one thing on her mind: bacon rolls. A smile flashes across her face just talking about them. “The bacon in England is more like Canadian bacon,” she explains, “and they have these rolls” — she shapes her hands into an international sign for “big sandwich.” She gets quiet for a beat, as if in reverie, and says, “All distance swimmers think about is food.”

Knight had the right credentials for a Channel crossing. She raced in the 100-meter butterfly at the 1988 and 1992 US Olympic trials, and in college she swam for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But when she started dabbling in long-distance swimming, southern coastal waters proved far too warm for her tastes. The key to her Channel swim was training in cold waters, and for that she says, “Maine is perfect.” She logs about 500 miles a year, and can swim in the ocean and lakes around Kennebunk and Scarborough from May through October, when the water temperature is usually about the same as in the Channel.

That training paid off when, after more than 9 hours in the water, the French shore suddenly loomed close. When she reached land, she had to scramble up a cliff. At the top, she raised her arms in momentary, solitary triumph. Then she tucked a couple of stones into her suit for keepsakes and took a two-hour boat ride back to Dover. At a local pub where successful Channel crossers scribble their times on a wall, she added her name and ordered a Coke and a cheeseburger, reward enough for what she had just accomplished.

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