Channel swimmer Beth French on jellyfish, living with ME and her autistic son

Beth French calls herself the “proverbial water baby”.

Water was her refuge as a child, the only way of making the pain of her ME disappear. A bucket, a stream, a river or the sea, it didn’t matter – so long as there was water.

As a teenager, French felt her body had failed her after being diagnosed with the condition, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Yet in the 20-plus years since, it’s proven anything but a let down. It’s fitting that being in water is the very reason for that.

Swimming the English Channel is a challenge most would flinch at. French, now 41, did it in 2012. Two years later she became the first person to swim the 26 miles from Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly.

That, she says, was like “being a human pinball in a jellyfish machine”.

“I must have had more than 40 stings through that night. I’d sweep my hand through the water in a stroke and come up with one in my hand, and then as my other hand went in, one would wrap round my wrist,” she recalls.

Yet it was the start of a journey that has taken her to all corners of the globe – and the very limits of human endurance.

This is her story.

  • Listen: Beth French on swimming the seven seas

‘Floating helps me’ – living through the pain

“Once an hour, you flip on to your back and they drop a bottle in front of you,” French tells BBC World Service. “You drink your fuel then throw it back on to the boat, and that’s the only human contact you have.

“The rest of the time you are face down with no horizon, no sounds apart from the splash of your arms and the sound of your breath. You can’t see anything at night, it’s so pitch black you can’t see your hand in front of you, and in the daytime, it’s just blue.”

Attempting the Oceans Seven, a marathon swimming challenge consisting of seven channel swims, is lonely. For hours at a time, sometimes up to 24, it’s stroke after stroke, breath after breath, pounding through the murky seas.

Whether it’s in the waters off Hawaii, Japan, New Zealand or Gibraltar, it’s a challenge of both physical and mental doggedness as swimmers encounter sharks, jellyfish and perhaps the most frightening of all – the unknown.

But French has battled, and conquered, challenges all her life. At the age of 10 she was struck down with a then-mystery illness that would plague her adolescence.

“I woke up one day and I couldn’t get out of bed,” she says. “It felt like molten lava had been poured through my veins.”

Lengthy spells of these “slumps”, sometimes lasting three months, marred French’s teenage years – a period in which she lost faith in her body with self-harm and bulimia with anorexic episodes following.

She became a wheelchair user for a year at 17 before a retrospective diagnosis of ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) was finally made.

“Floating was the one thing I could do,” she says. “Floating in cool water actually took away the pain and the aches in my body. It was the one time when I was really ill that I felt better.”

‘I pulled a jellyfish tentacle off my face’

Swimming became French’s saviour, and for a decade she was asymptomatic. That was until an “adrenal surge” during an encounter with a shark triggered her immune system, and since then she has not been “in perfect health”.

But at last, she knows what is her trigger – “emotional, hormonal and psychological stress”, something she now has the tools to cope with after ordaining as a Buddhist nun in Thailand and studying “intensive forms of meditation”.

“The swims, I have discovered, really allow me to explore what is possible and that is why I felt driven to swim in the first place,” she says.

After finding herself unexpectedly pregnant with son Dylan, who is 10 and has autism, French feared the “test” of being a single parent would make her ill again and so she knew she had to challenge herself to prove that she was well.

After swimming the English Channel – the final thing to tick off the bucket list she wrote when in a wheelchair all those years ago – she felt she hadn’t yet reached her “edge”, her absolute limit.

That’s where the Oceans Seven came in. “People consider channel swimming to be 80% mental, and that’s because I think you’ve got to be 80% mental to do it,” French says.

During such channel swims, competitors are not allowed the touch the boat that accompanies them, and once they are in the water, not stop until they reach the other side.

“There is no insulation, no propulsion, no flotation devices of any kind, so no fins, no paddles, no snorkels, no wetsuit,” French adds.

French has completed four of the seven – a journey documented in a film called ‘Against the Tides’. In addition to the English Channel she has conquered the Catalina Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar and the Kaiwi Channel in Hawaii, where she was forced to deal with jellyfish stings of an entirely different level to those off the Cornwall coast.

“I did get some little strands of Portuguese man o’ war tentacles,” she says. “I had one that stuck to my face and I had to pull the tentacle off and swear a bit, and then carry on swimming.

“I thought it would really scar, something to show the kids, but when I got out it looked like a little kitten scratch.

“You flip over and say ‘jellyfish’ and they pass you antihistamine tablets. If you want, you can take some paracetamol, but that’s it, you’re on your own dealing with it.”

‘I didn’t want to press that button any more’ – calling it quits

At the time of French’s Oceans Seven attempt, only six people had completed the challenge, though she was aiming to become the first to complete all seven swims in one year.

But after four, she quit. Not for a lack of ability to do it – she knew that she could complete the challenge – but because she realised she didn’t need to do it.

“I loved doing the swims, but actually when it came to it, yes I could physically do them but at what cost to me, my son and my life?” she says.

“As soon as I knew I could complete the challenge, I didn’t want to press that button any more.

“It helped me define my own parameters, but it’s not just me any more. I wanted to show Dylan there are different ways of normal life. If you can’t do ‘normal’, you can be successful in your own right, you can choose your own definition of success.

“I had to make the decision of what I wanted to teach my kid. I’d taught him self-discipline and resilience, but I had to learn to listen to my own voice above and beyond anyone else’s. My voice was saying ‘you don’t have to do this’.”

In the two years since French made the decision, she and Dylan have gone on many adventures of their own – giving her son the choice of their first.

“He didn’t even breathe and said ‘we are going to stay in a yurt in the snow in Alaska’,” she recalls. And so they did.

In just a couple of weeks’ time, French will swim in a glacial lake within the Hintertux Glacier in Innsbruck, Austria – wearing only a bikini in 0.5C waters.

Yet, for a woman who described her encounter with a tiger shark as a “privilege” and just “hanging out”, you feel an ice-cold lake won’t pose much of a problem.

You can hear more from Beth French on BBC World Service’s Sportshour programme.

Words by Katie Falkingham, interview by Shari Vahl

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