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A cancer survivor’s historic swim: Four non-stop English Channel crossings

Sarah Thomas completed her English Channel swim Tuesday. (Jon Washer/PA/AP)

On Sunday morning, Sarah Thomas plunged into the water at Dover, setting out to swim across the English Channel. And then back. And then again. And again.

Fifty-four hours and a few minutes later, the breast cancer survivor from Colorado had accomplished a remarkable feat, becoming the first person to swim the channel four times in succession, covering 84 miles without a break while treating the body of water like a huge lap pool.

“I just can’t believe we did it,” Thomas told the BBC. “I’m really just pretty numb. There was a lot of people on the beach to meet me and wish me well and it was really nice of them, but I feel just mostly stunned.”

Thomas, a 37-year-old open-water ultra marathon swimmer, finished cancer treatment a year ago and dedicated her swim to “all the survivors out there.” She wrapped up the journey Tuesday at 6:30 British summer time (1:30 a.m. Eastern) at Dover’s Samphire Hoe nature preserve. Because of strong tides, she ended up swimming closer to 130 miles, according to the BBC.

“This is for those of us who have prayed for our lives, who have wondered with despair about what comes next, and have battled through pain and fear to overcome,” she wrote Saturday on Facebook. “This is for those of you just starting your cancer journey and those of you who are thriving with cancer kicked firmly into the past, and for everyone in between. This is for our family and friends who held us in their arms and provided the strength and support we needed in the hardest times. This is for those who struggled alongside us, feeling our pain as if it was their own. I’m holding you all in my heart and swimming for our health and futures. We are stronger together, each and every one of us.”

Thomas, who grew up in Texas, started planning her swim before her diagnosis. “We honestly didn’t know if I’d make it to this point,” she wrote on Facebook.

On Saturday morning, less than 24 hours before she began, she wrote: “Yes, I’m scared. The Channel can do a lot of crazy things and for this to happen, we’re going to need some luck. …

“Everything has to go right when so much can go wrong. We promise to be safe, but I also promise to give it everything I can. I’ve been waiting for this swim for over two years now and have fought so hard to get here. Am I 100 percent? No. But I’m the best that I can be right now, with what I’ve been through, with more fire and fight than ever.”

Thomas carried with her a pebble from a pond in Colorado, saying she couldn’t wait to swap it out after accomplishing her mission. As expected, there were treacherous moments. While Thomas neared landfall late in the swim, the final stretch was marred by “dark, windy and choppy conditions,” according to Elaine Howley, who is working on a documentary about Thomas’s feat. In a post to Facebook, Howley wrote, “Inspirational isn’t a big enough word for what’s happening here today.”

Hundreds of fans rooted for Thomas on social media and followed her progress via an online tracker, her twisting journey mapped by a blinking dot that stretched across the Strait of Dover. Many stayed up until the early hours Tuesday morning to be with her when she finished.

The English Channel, referred to as the busiest maritime route in the world, sees more than 200 ferries and 600 tankers pass through daily, according to the Channel Swimming Association. The group warns of frigid waters that are too cold for sharks, as well as “jellyfish, seaweed and the occasional plank of wood.”

Like thousands of swimmers, Thomas had swum the Channel before, in 2012 and in 2016, but no one had ever swum back and forth four consecutive times. Thomas said her immediate plan, after celebrating with champagne and chocolate, was to sleep all day.

“I’m pretty tired right now,” she said.

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