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Carol Sing

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Divorced and with her children grown, Carol Sing found a new reflection of herself in the ocean. It's a journey that will take her to the English Channel.
by Terry Rodgers
Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

Sunday, Aug 15, 1999

Carol Sing

It's 2 a.m. on Aug. 12, 1997, and Carol Sing is swimming under a moonless sky off Santa Catalina Island.

She has just completed the first mile of her 21-mile journey, and so far the conditions are ideal. The wind is merely a rumor; the ocean, as flat as a bed sheet.

In the vast living soup that covers 75 percent of the Earth, Sing moves across the water like a zipper, her tanned arms gently piercing the surface.

Stroke, stroke, stroke-breathe.

To reach the boulder-covered beach below the Point San Vicente lighthouse on the Palos Verdes peninsula, in Los Angeles County, she'll have to repeat roughly 38,000 strokes.

Her 60 strokes per minute propel her a mile every 30 minutes; two miles every hour. It's the pace she trained to perfect, but she's never attempted to push herself so hard over this distance.

Sing's smooth strokes give no hint of the turmoil inside her.

Long-distance swimmers routinely push beyond physical pain. But negative thoughts can turn strong arms into broken chicken wings. Sing begins rehearsing scenes in which she gracefully calls it quits.

She imagines how her coach will console her, saying he's proud that she tried. The eight-member crew aboard the pilot boat, the 58-foot Golden Doubloon, will understand, too.

After all, she is 55 years old, the oldest woman ever to attempt to swim the Catalina Channel. Even the famous San Diegan Florence Chadwick, who crossed the English Channel four times, faltered in her first attempt to swim Catalina in 1952.

Stroke, stroke, stroke-breathe.

Sing doesn't feel it yet, but the historic pull of the English Channel will take hold of her, too. In two years-August, 1999 -- she will try to repeat what Chadwick and seven other San Diegans have done.

For now, though, she is simply thinking about keeping her arms plowing forward. If she sticks with it for 2 miles, the distance she covers on her morning training swims at La Jolla Cove, maybe she'll find her "Zen zone," where her body switches to automatic pilot and her mind becomes a detached observer.

Fewer than 100 swimmers have made it across this Southern California channel since a 17-year-old Canadian first did it in 1928.

Distance swimmers nowadays use it as a test of guts and stamina before tackling the English Channel.

Both channels stretch approximately 21 miles, but the English version is considered more treacherous because of pollution, heavy ship traffic and extreme tidal swings that push swimmers off course.

The waters of the Strait of Dover also average 6 to 10 degrees colder, rarely exceeding 65 degrees even in late summer.

Approximately 600 swimmers have crossed the English Channel, compared to more than 800 people who have climbed to the summit of Mount Everest.

Sing has seen first hand the toughness required.

In 1996, she joined the support crew for Robert West, a fellow member of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club who, at 61, became the fourth oldest person to swim the English Channel.

After watching West battle seasickness and rough seas for 15 hours, Sing declared she would never put herself through such an ordeal.

Once she was back home, however, she found herself yearning to take on at least the Catalina Channel.

It was here, in January 1993, that she was initiated into the eccentric fraternity of marathon swimming.

Considered too green to participate as a swimmer, Sing was recruited to be the official observer for a relay race.

From the relative security of the observation boat, Sing watched the sea suddenly turn ugly.

Thunder, lightning and water spouts made the scene surreal and scary.

One of the two teams quit, pulling its last swimmer aboard the support craft. The other squad struggled to the finish.

Sing was awed by the swimmers' bravado and captivated by their camaraderie.

When it was all over, she confided to a friend: "You know, this is for me."

Stroke, stroke, stroke-breathe.

Sing pushes on, guided by the dim green light of a chemical glow-stick dangling from the kayak her coach, Kevin Eslinger, is paddling alongside her.

Eslinger, 37, a tanned, Tarzan-like man with a quiet demeanor, constantly pumps up his protege's confidence. "Carol, you are awesome!" he tells her.

His knowledge of aquatic topics, from surviving in heavy surf to the intricacies of the swim stroke, is encyclopedic. Swimmers say he's also a sage psychologist.

From his kayak, Eslinger studies Sing's every stroke for any change in tempo. They make eye contact roughly every six seconds. Using hand signals, he flashes encouraging messages or tells her when it's time to eat.

Night swimming is too spooky for many open-water swimmers, but not for Sing. Swimming after sunset allows her to begin her distance swims in the calmest conditions.

On this night, the sea is psychedelic.

The reason: Millions of bioluminescent plankton, microscopic creatures that glow when disturbed.

Their florescent-like light surrounds Sing's body like an aura. To Eslinger, it looks as if stars are spraying from her fingertips, a comet's tail spouting from her mouth as she exhales.

Three hours into the swim-just as her body switches to burning fat- Sing settles into her "Zen zone." The mental anguish is over, at least temporarily. With 15 miles to go, this is when steadfast training pays off.

Sing puts her body through daily workouts that would exhaust a prize fighter.

In roughly five years, she has evolved from a better-than-average master's pool swimmer into one of the world's strongest long-distance swimmers in her age group.

She acquired much of her technical expertise during the late 1960s and '70s, when she taught water survival skills in her backyard pool in El Cajon. Later, she coached junior varsity swimming at Valhalla High School and instructed novices for the Heartland Swimming Association, a private swim club.

Learning to swim under the protective wing of "Mrs. Sing" became a rite of passage for hundreds of East County children.

She became an open-water swimmer in earnest after turning 50, a point when her personal life collapsed.

Her marriage of 25 years ended in divorce. The youngest of her three daughters left home for college. Her mother, who was also her friend and confidant, died suddenly.

Throw in a little post-menopausal blues and her life felt dehydrated- lacking an essential element.

For comfort, she turned to the water and in the process discovered her gifts: a perfect stroke and a fierce tenacity.

"You kind of disappear as you get older," she says. "This is my way of not quite disappearing just yet."

Stroke, stroke, stroke-breathe . As she swims, Sing's body rolls from side to side, a motion similar to pulling herself up a rope.

Beneath the water, her hand twists slightly like the sculling blades of a boat propeller, a movement aimed at maximizing thrust.

She's a bi-lateral breather, alternating breaths as her head swivels from right to left.

"Breathing is the hardest thing you'll ever learn in swimming," she says.

"That's where you get your comfort and speed."

Some long-distance swimmers have to stop to urinate, but Sing saves time by relieving herself in transit.

She refuels on the go, too. The Catalina swim rules prohibit her from touching her coach's kayak or the pilot boat, so she is fed from a plastic bottle thrown to her while she treads water.

Every 20 minutes, she drinks 12 ounces of diluted apricot nectar. For variety, every third bottle contains a diluted electrolyte-rich drink such as Gatorade.

Eslinger watches her closely as she eats.

He knows she feels strong when she guzzles her juice in 10 seconds or less.

If she lingers, it could mean she's seasick or fatigued.

Stroke, stroke, stroke-breathe.

Dawn breaks at 5:30, four hours into her swim.

Despite her jittery start, Sing is cruising at a steady 60 strokes per minute.

Each time she pauses to refuel, her crew claps and cheers. But silicon ear plugs, combined with her skin-tight bathing cap, cocoon her in a soundless world.

In her pink cap and one-piece black-and-turquoise bathing suit, Sing looks like a flashback to an Esther Williams movie.

At 5-foot-10, she would be described by men of her generation-she was born in 1941 -- as "a tall drink of water."

She's had to deal with the tall-woman stigma throughout her life.

"It's hard to be a big woman because all you want to do is hunch over and be small," she says.

To become a long-distance swimmer, Sing has had to suppress her vanity. She weighs 175 pounds, but notes that muscle weighs more than fat.

She's also carrying 15 to 20 extra pounds of "channel fat," weight she intentionally put on to increase her stamina and maintain warmth during her marathon swims.

"When you're an athlete, you can feel so much better about yourself no matter what you look like," she says.

Out in the ocean, the water buoys both her body and spirit.

"It's sensuous, actually," she says. "It's a total-body feeling. It's very freeing. Once you get out there churning and burning, the endorphins kick in.

"If I go in like a cranky sea lion I come out like a smiling dolphin."

Stroke, stroke, stroke-breathe.

At 6:40 a.m., just over five hours into her swim, Sing swallows a couple of pain relievers to ease her aching shoulders. Suddenly, she's also feeling cold.

For the swimmer, every degree of temperature is crucial because water draws heat from the human body 20 times faster than air.

But the 69-degree water is balmy compared to the colder water she's used to. She tries to suppress the false signals her mind is sending to her body.

Once in a while, creatures she cannot see brush against her.

Sardines, flying fish or whatever, she doesn't fear them.

She is so at one with the sea that coach Eslinger has nicknamed her "Mother Ocean" inspired by the Jimmy Buffett song "A Pirate Looks at 40."

"I've never been afraid of the ocean," she says. "It's something I love.

It's my second home."

Even as girl growing up in Point Loma, Sing embraced the water as a kindred spirit. Her earliest swimming memories are of lying prone in the shallows of Mission Bay, practicing her kicking while her hands sank into the silty ooze of the shoreline.

"Distance swimming was something that was there, that was in me," she says.

Maybe she's a classic late bloomer.

In the '60s, she was too busy sewing Easter dresses for her three daughters and helping her husband build his contracting business to get involved in bra burning or social revolution.

"I was June Cleaver all over again," she recalls.

Times changed. Television's June Cleaver turned into the Bionic Woman, who in turn became Xena Warrior Princess.

Sing changed, too.

"I was totally into my home and my kids," she recalls. "When I started emerging from that, I started to realize there were feminists out there- and I was one of them."

Stroke, stroke, stroke-breathe.

At 8 a.m., 7 1/2 hours into her swim, Eslinger flashes hand signals telling Sing she's within 7 nautical miles of Palos Verdes.

Her response: "Hot damn!"

Sing is fun-loving and upbeat. Once, in a fit of exuberance, she water skied in her birthday suit down the Colorado River.

"She's got an adventuresome spirit," says her ex-husband, Richard Sing.

Before her first daughter was born, her drink was scotch on the rocks. She even smoked cigarettes. For years, she drove a pickup truck and wore cowboy boots. She's an expert with a pistol and a shotgun.

Now she drinks cups of hot water rather than coffee. Her diet is mainly vegetables, salads and fruit, but she'll enjoy a steak or a burrito when the spirit moves her.

She reads romance novels and books about self-healing. She tries to keep life as simple as her swim stroke. She doesn't own a computer, watch much TV or wear a pager.

Her favorite phrase: "You go girl!"

Stroke, stroke, stroke-breathe.

At 11:30 a.m., 10 hours into the swim, Sing speeds up to 63 strokes per minute.

Her friend and training partner, Peter Urrea, says she's the fastest swim marathon finisher he's ever seen.

"On the home stretch, she's like a horse that smells the hay in the barn."

Some swimmers learn to stay focused through self-hypnosis.

But Sing's style is less disciplined, more free-form. Eslinger calls her method "organic," because she readily adapts to whatever conditions arise.

She meditates, sometimes focusing on the flame of a candle.

She also uses homeopathic remedies. Her favorite energy-boosting concoction is composed of caterpillar fungus and royal bee jelly.

To elevate her "chi"-her spiritual energy-she visits a San Diego acupuncturist.

"I'm not a doctor person," she explains. "When you're over 50, if you go see a doctor, they'll find something wrong. For me it's like the sharks: If I don't see them, they're not out there."

Stroke, stroke, stroke-breathe.

Shortly after noon, Sing carefully wends her way through a kelp bed and approaches the shore below the lighthouse. After warning her to beware of spiny sea urchins in the shallows, Eslinger paddles ahead and lands his kayak.

Nearing the shore, she sees several enormous crabs the size of dinner plates scurrying for cover at her approach. She thinks maybe she's hallucinating, a common occurrence at the end of marathons.

Sing wobbles onto the beach, crawling on her hands and knees over the slick boulders. Her face is puffy. Her body, pickled by the salt water, looks bloated.

Eslinger drapes a towel over her shoulders; a queen with her robe.

On Aug. 12, 1997, twelve days shy of her 56th birthday, Sing has become the oldest woman in history to swim the Catalina Channel.

Her time: 10 hours, 38 minutes. That's more than three hours faster than Chadwick's swim in 1952 at age 34.

As the support boat carries the triumphant swimmer and her elated crew into San Pedro Harbor, Eslinger senses that Sing's destiny won't be fulfilled until she gives her all to the English Channel.

He keeps his thoughts to himself, but he spots something in her wrinkled smile that supports his intuition. "That day she had the eye of the tiger."

Monday, August 16, 1999

Damn the seasickness.

Carol Sing had worked too hard to let that stop her.

The rhythmic swells rose up at her like a matador's cape. The cramps in her belly climbed up her ribs, connecting with the swirling pain in her brain.

Sing put her face down in the ocean off La Jolla and kept charging.

It was early May, and in a few months Sing, 57, would try to become the oldest woman ever to swim the English Channel.

But first she had to complete a six-hour qualifying swim in water 60 degrees or colder. To fulfill that requirement here at home, she had to do it today, before the ocean became too warm.

But an abeam sea-when the swells rise and fall perpendicular to the swimmer's direction-had ambushed her.

After just two hours, Sing rolled over on her back like a wounded sea lioness.

"My head cracked," she said. "I just kind of lost it." Tilt. Game over.

"Come on," her coach, Kevin Eslinger, said from his kayak. "I'll take you in."

Sing flopped onto the front of the kayak and lay across its narrow bow.

When they got to Torrey Pines beach, she crawled up onto the dry sand. Face down, she shivered for about 45 minutes.

For all of history, the sea has been an unpredictable force that devours human frailties as easily as it erodes the edges of continents.

Historically, only one of every 10 attempts to swim the English Channel has been successful. At least three swimmers have died trying, the most recent in 1988.

The 21 1/2 miles across the channel are a torture trail of jellyfish, choppy seas, pollution slicks and punishing bow waves from fast-moving freighters and ferry traffic.

The channel has always been a crap shoot.

Swimmers have churned away for half a day in the bone-chilling water only to be turned back by a sudden gale-force storm or swept miles off course by extreme tides.

Olympic champions, sprint swimmers, have tried it and fizzled in the first hour.

The most persistent swimmer, Jabez Wolff, tried and failed 22 times, including once when he hired a Scottish bagpiper to keep his stroke on pace.

Penny Lee Dean, a physical education professor at Pomona College who holds the record for the fastest crossing by a woman -- 7 hours, 40 minutes- said Sing can expect to hit the "pain wall" four or five times before finishing.

"To be able to get through that is probably the biggest high you can get in your life," she said.

When Dean began to falter, her support crew hooted, clapped and made comical faces.

"I saw the hope and enthusiasm in their faces and thought: How could I dare not give 100 percent?" she recalled.

David Yudovin, a seafood broker from Cambria, in central California, was thwarted by bad weather in three attempts spaced over 19 years. He finally prevailed in 1996.

His theory is that swimming the channel becomes a lifetime encapsulated into a day.

Swimmers typically begin with apprehension, gain confidence, falter with fatigue, experience a satori-a moment of truth-and then stagger, euphoric, on a sandy shoreline in France.

"What you're doing is learning to put together something, stacking up little successes until you've made a pinnacle," said David Clark, a San Diego physicist who swam the English Channel in 1988.

Non-swimmers who glibly refer to the feat as "conquering" the English Channel are off base, Clark said.

"The sea is not susceptible to human vanity. When I got out of the ocean, stood on the shoreline in France and looked back across the channel, it did not look defeated to me. What we conquer are our own limitations."

Sing, an accomplished marathon swimmer, has a pretty clear idea what to expect. In 1997, she became the oldest woman, at 55, to swim the 21-mile Catalina Channel. She did it in 10 1/2 hours, a remarkable time that made her one of the all-time top-10 female finishers.

A year later she became the oldest woman to swim the 28 1/2 miles around New York's Manhattan Island. These swims only whet her aspirations for the English Channel.

To participate, she will spend $8,000 to $10,000 for entry fees, air fare, hiring a pilot boat and other expenses.

That's a hefty tab for the El Cajon woman who works three part-time jobs in a position as an aquatic therapist or pool exercise instructor.

"It's the same price as a tummy tuck and a face lift combined, which is what women my age do," she said. "By doing this, you feel just as good about yourself and you don't have to do the surgery."

Neither fame nor money await her as a reward.

The media all but ignore the 20 to 30 swimmers who attempt the channel each year. The English Channel Swimming Association doesn't even give finishers certificates of completion. But it will sell you a hand-lettered parchment version for $100.

In the weeks after her aborted training swim, Sing tried to heal the cracks in her confidence. She'd complete her cold-water qualifying swim in England. Until then, she'd have to train her mind to be as strong as her body.

It was hard, though, and the smallest of problems annoyed her.

At the peak of her frustration, she joked: "I need a wife!"

The remark was an ironic echo of her past. Until she turned 50, Sing was the Betty Crocker of wives and the Maria Von Trapp of mothers. Divorced and with her children grown, she channeled her passion to marathon swimming.

Now, though, her moods seemed attached to a bungee cord.

She didn't know it at the time, but she was working her way to the crossroads most marathoners reach: Life is wretched-and then you keep training.

Sing did much of her training in the protected bay between La Jolla Cove and the 300-foot-tall bluffs at Torrey Pines, which are reminiscent of the White Cliffs at Dover.

In La Jolla, open-water swimming is revered as a religion by a hearty tribe of locals who still talk about the legendary channel swimmer Florence Chadwick.

The San Diego native swam the English channel four times between 1950 and 1955. When she became the first woman to swim the channel both ways, San Diegans feted her with a downtown ticker tape parade that rivaled the one for Charles Lindbergh.

Chadwick, who died in 1995, preferred to train alone. Sing, however, had the companionship of cove regulars when she swam all winter in water cold enough to keep a bottle of Chardonnay tastefully chilled.

It was the best way to acclimate herself to the Strait of Dover, where, even in late summer, the sea rarely rises above 65 degrees.

Hypothermia, the dangerous lowering of the body's core temperature, accounts for 80 percent of all aborted English Channel crossings. It is a greater threat to older swimmers because of their diminished ability to withstand the cold.

Quicker swimmers aren't as susceptible, and Sing is probably the fastest female marathon swimmer in her age group in the United States.

Defying logic, she can swim faster in the undulating sea than she does in a pool.

About five years ago, exercise physiologist Alan Voisard-Sing calls him "the guru"-taught her to streamline her motions. Long-distance swimmers, for instance, don't kick. They use their feet as rudders rather than for propulsion.

Voisard also got Sing to quicken her tempo and make other subtle adjustments that allowed her to go faster for longer periods.

"Her eyes started lighting up as (her new stroke) began to feel more natural to her," he recalled. "Then she started whipping everyone's butt."

Sing was a bundle of jagged emotions in mid-July, when she began her final long-distance training swim, an 8-hour jaunt from Del Mar to Ocean Beach.

Entering the water at 4 a.m., she noticed a bluish halo around her body from the bioluminescent plankton, the same microscopic escorts that illuminated her triumphant swim across the Catalina Channel two years ago.

On this swim, swells from clashing directions combined with a cross wind to turn the sea into a washing machine.

Just 30 minutes into it, Sing detected the telltale queasiness in her stomach. Coach Eslinger, who was paddling alongside in his kayak, was getting sick, too.

Unwilling to concede defeat, they persevered by using an old marathoners' trick: mentally dividing the swim into little segments that separately seem easy.

They ground it out for six miles. As they approached the La Jolla Cove, the special place where Sing goes to "talk to the ocean," her nausea began to ease.

The swells continued to lift and roll, but she felt strong again, strong enough to sprint the final two miles to the Ocean Beach Pier.

"She has solved the last unknown," Eslinger said. "She knows now that she can start her swim feeling like garbage and her body will carry her through if she just keeps taking one stroke after another."

Other crucibles await Sing in England, where she arrived last Wednesday. She still has to complete her 6-hour cold-water qualifying swim. And veterans of the channel say she must mentally prepare to endure a number of false starts before the weather cooperates. The Strait of Dover is a meteorological Bermuda Triangle where a half-dozen weather systems collide.

Thanks in part to her victory over seasickness, Carol Sing has overcome most of her doubts.

"I can feel it already," she said. "It's going to be a life-altering experience."

She's already planning how she'll reward herself. A tattoo might do it.

Perhaps a dolphin with a devilish smile, swimming just above her ankle.

Or maybe the names of her three toughest marathon swims in a series of rings around her leg.

Whatever the design, she's determined to get her tattoo, even if it raises a few disapproving eyebrows. It will be a symbol of the new woman she's become.

Perhaps the channel is her destiny. After all, her birthday, Aug. 24, is the same day that Capt. William Webb in 1875 became the first to swim across it.

On the memorial stone at Webb's birthplace, his admirers left a message for those who would follow. The words also might wear well as a tattoo.

"Nothing Great is Easy."

San Diego residents who have swum the English Channel

1. Florence Chadwick was the first woman to swim both ways: from France in 1950, 13 hours, 20 minutes; from England three times: 1951, 16 hours, 19 minutes; 1953, 14 hours, 42 minutes; and 1955, 13 hours, 55 minutes

2. Sandra Keshka, 1974, 10 hours, 30 minutes

3. David Stevens Clark, 1988, 9 hours, 47 minutes

4. Bill Dick, 1989, 10 hours, 49 minutes

5. Stephen H. Frantz, 1990, 16 hours, 57 minutes

6. Cyrise Calvin Sanders, 1994, 10 hours, 50 minutes

7. Peter Urrea, 1996, 14 hours, 38 minutes

8. Robert West, 1996, 15 hours, 35 minutes

The English Channel facts

Distance: 23.69 miles from the White Cliffs of Dover at Shakespeare Beach in England to Cap Gris-Nez in France

Ocean temperature: Between 57 to 64.5 degrees

Successful swims: Through 1997, 819 crossings by 511 people

Cost: Channel Swimming Association application fee of about $150; escort boat about $2,000.

Attempts a year: 20 to 30

Qualifications: 10-hour swim in 60-degree water

Preferred swim stroke: the crawl

Obstacles: big ships; about 500 vessels pass through and across the channel every day

Average swim time: 12 to 14 hours

Rules for crossing the English Channel:

The swimmer starts on the natural shore and enters the water from dry land.

The swimmer finishes on the natural shore, unless the finish is against steep cliffs, when it is sufficient to touch them with no sea-water beyond.

The timing begins the moment the swimmer enters the water until the swim is complete.

The swimmer receives no help and must not be touched by anyone, but may be handed food and drink.

The swimmer may wear only one standard swimming cap; only one standard swimming suit (not made of neoprene or rubber or any other material designed to contain body heat or aid buoyancy); goggles; nose-clip; ear-plugs; grease; and a light-stick at night.

Once the swim is completed, the swimmer must immediately return to England on the pilot boat or, with a month of advance planning, be taken to designated French port to enter that country properly.

The Channel Swimming Association acts as the governing body for swimming the English Channel.

Saturday, August 21, 1999

(For the record: Because of an editing error, a story Aug. 21 about swimmer Carol Sing said she started training for the English Channel crossing in 1997. In fact, she started in October 1998. Also, her training partner Janet LaMott was misidentified as June LaMott. The story also said channel crossings are restricted to August. In fact, attempts are made between July and September. The Union-Tribune regrets the errors.)

DOVER, England-Arms thrust over her head, marathon swimmer Carol Sing pumped her legs in a victory dance on the sandy French shore yesterday and yelled, "Yahoo!"

She'd made it. She'd swum the English Channel. Her physical and spiritual quest was complete.

Sing, 57, of El Cajon, made history by becoming the oldest woman to swim the 21 1/2 miles from England to France. She did it in 12 hours and 32 minutes.

Her coach and the people on her guide boat offshore laughed and cheered during Sing's minutes on the French shore. Just 30 minutes earlier, they'd watched her struggle to find a place to land along the rocky point of Cap Griz Nez.

Once ashore, Sing stood talking with June LaMott, her training partner, savoring the achievement she had trained for since 1997.

"I'm never going to do that again," she said. "That was hard."

The two walked into the water and swam 200 yards back to the escort boat.

Bloated, shivering and suffering from jellyfish stings, Sing was helped aboard and covered with towels and blankets. She lay down. A wool cap was pulled onto her head. She closed her eyes and dozed during the three-hour trip back to Dover.

Just before 6 a.m., Sing had stood on the rust-colored cobbles at Shakespeare Beach in Dover, waiting for her boat captain's signal to start. She wore only a black-and-purple swimsuit, a black swim cap and earplugs.

Her body was lathered with grease.

It was one of those rare days along the Strait of Dover when the weather, always unpredictable, was almost hospitable. Sing had waited through four days of rain and wind for the chance to swim. Because of the channel's extreme tides, crossings are only possible in August.

Recorded attempts to swim the channel date back to 1875. Swimmers today are able to go only from England to France. The French government banned channel crossings originating there two years ago.

"We went out today based on gut feeling rather than the forecast," said the captain of her pilot boat, the Aegean Blue. Mike Oram, 53, has escorted swimmers across the channel for 19 years.

Sing was one of six swimmers who attempted the channel crossing. Fellow San Diegan Mike Stanton was among them, but it was not known late yesterday if he completed the swim.

The fleet of six escort boats recognized by the Channel Swimming Association set out, each leading its swimmer into the Strait of Dover, which is notorious for fickle weather, cold water, heavy shipping traffic and occasional slicks of pollution.

Only five of the swimmers would return alive.

Sing's crew said nothing to her about the death of a young woman from Mexico until the return trip to Dover. They didn't want to distress Sing. As it was, she would spend the first six hours of her swim fighting seasickness.

On the way back, Sing overheard Oram talking on a cellular phone about the death. Sing was stunned. This was the woman she had passed hours before.

Right from the start, strong northeast winds whipped up "white horses," the English expression for whitecaps.

Despite her queasiness, she was able to zip across 3 1/2 miles in her first 1 1/2 hours in the water.

"She's doing a bit of surfing now with the wind. It will be a fast day today," Oram said. "The wind is helping her."

Pausing to refuel, Sing guzzled 10 ounces of diluted peach nectar in six seconds.

Kevin Eslinger, Sing's coach, raised his arms like a football referee signaling a touchdown.

The strategy was for Sing to drink at least 6 ounces of fluid every 20 minutes. She drank the nectar, diluted Gatorade and a brownish concoction containing Royal Bee jelly and caterpillar fungus, her favorite Chinese herbal energy remedy.

Her training for the channel swim was as much mental as physical. It was essential that Sing reach a state of total concentration.

"She's not in her zone yet, but she's doing a lot better," Eslinger announced at 7:40 a.m. As the tide swept both the Aegean Blue and its swimmer northeast toward the North Sea, dozens of freighters passed within 100 yards of them. The ships' propellers created streams of water far colder than the 63-degree water at the ocean's surface.

The swim itself was as much a spiritual journey as a physical challenge.

Every hour, Eslinger pulled out a vial of "holy water," gathered at the River Jordan by one of Sing's aquatic therapy clients, and sprinkled it into the channel.

"It seems to be working," he said.

After 2:30 p.m., Sing could see the French shoreline. She increased her pace.

"She's got the bit between her teeth," Oram said. "The trouble with them (swimmers) now is that sometimes they go too fast."

Soon after, LaMott jumped into the water, swimming parallel to Sing and about 10 feet away. LaMott, wearing fins, accompanied Sing the last mile.

Though the shoreline seemed close, the two swimmers suddenly got stuck in an eddy, a clockwise motion of water caused by the changing tide bouncing off Cap Griz Nez.

It swept the swimmers east.

For 30 minutes, Sing swam parallel to the shore.

Eslinger, blew a whistle, motioning her to keep swimming past the rocks.

For swimmers, the last 100-yard stretch of the channel is called the graveyard of dreams. Sing said she thought of that as she looked for a place to land, afraid she'd be swept three hours out. She knew she didn't have it in her to reclaim that distance.

The swift-moving tide forced Sing to miss the closest point of land below the lighthouse at Cap Griz Nez.

But she managed to pull onto a beach below the white facade of the La Sirena restaurant.

She placed her knees on the shallow ocean floor, stood up and walked briskly up the beach.

Thanks to John Penberthy for creating this webpage. penberthyj@aol.com.

Happy swimming,

John Penberthy (6:15 and have never done an open-water swim)

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