Swimming the Channel for the BHF: Nicola's story

Natalie Massey took on the challenge of swimming the Channel to support the BHF. She tells Rosalie Starling how she prepared and what inspired her.

Natalie Massey with her Channel swim team

I started swimming when I was eight. My dad’s a swimming coach, my mum’s a former swimmer and my brother used to train with me too, so it’s always been a huge part of my life – one of my nicknames is Nemo! 

I love the feeling of happiness swimming gives you, whether it’s a training session or winning a medal. It gives you such a huge boost of confidence and sense of achievement, and anyone can learn – swimming can be for everyone. 

We have a family history of heart disease, losing both my grandad and my mum’s brother at a young age

I retired from competitive swimming in 2013, after being injured in a car crash. Before this I’d competed internationally for Great Britain, and swum at the London Paralympic Games. After I retired, my training buddy Jane McCormick snapped me up to join a swim team with five other women, which held the world record for swimming two times across the English Channel in 2013. 

Sadly, during the 2013 swim, before I’d joined the team, they witnessed the sudden death of a lady called Susan Taylor, 34, who was taking on an endurance test. Since then, another team member, Dee Llewellyn-Hodgson, has got a grant from Sport England for the Channel Swimming Association to get all Channel swim support boats equipped with defibrillators. 

Taking on new challenges

After I joined, we decided to beat our own record with a three-way (75-mile) swim. Every step of this swim was for all those suffering with heart disease, including my mum, who has severe heart failure following five heart attacks. We have a family history of heart disease, losing both my grandad and my mum’s brother at a young age. 

Dee also had a stroke in 2009 and then surgery to repair a hole in her heart, and Jane was diagnosed with heart block [an abnormal heart rhythm, caused by a problem with the electrical pulses that tell your heart to beat] several years ago. At the time, Jane was told she wouldn’t be able to swim competitively again, which fortunately turned out not to be the case. Our boat pilot Andy King has had a heart attack too, so it’s important for us all. 

We trained indoors in the winter and in open water from May to October. I was used to swimming indoors, so it was a new challenge learning to train in cold, choppy waters without a wetsuit (wetsuits are not allowed for official Channel swims). 

A relay swap during the Channel swim

Natalie's team took turns to swim and rest for 30 hours at sea

Battling through and breaking records

On the day of the swim, 4 July 2017, we waited to set off from Dover at 7.40am, nervous and excited. 

Each of us spent an hour in the water followed by five hours’ rest on the boat, rotating continuously, day and night. Dee had to express breast milk while on the boat to take back for her five-month-old son. 

We created a buddy system, so the swimmer would always have someone encouraging them

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, being at sea for 30 hours alongside shipping tankers and boats, eating very little, having no sleep, and swimming through jellyfish, but that’s when the amazing team spirit comes in. When you come out of the water you can’t stop shivering, but teammates made sure a hot drink, a dry towel and costume were ready. We created a buddy system, so the swimmer would always have someone encouraging them. 

We completed the swim in 31 hours 20 minutes at Wissant, near Calais, beating the women’s and all-comers’ world record. When we finished I felt amazing. All the pain and tiredness went away. 

So far we’ve raised £3,500 from the swim, but I’ll never stop raising money for the BHF. Sadly there is no cure for heart failure, but with the amazing work the BHF is doing, one day there could be.

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