Swimming the English Channel is no small feat. The list tops out at 2,671 people who have successfully completed the swim. That number is less than the number of people who have climbed Mount Everest (3,142). It seems like a bigger deal now, doesn’t it? But on top of that, can you imagine your grandparents swimming 21 miles? We sat down with George Thorton, a Fort Collins local who is attempting to be the oldest person ever to swim the English Channel. He will be 73 during his attempt, the current record is 70 years old. We sat down with Thorton last week and he explained where his motivation comes from to accomplish this feat, and the Team Fort Collins fundraiser linked to the swim for Northern Colorado kids.

L-R: George Thorton, coach Joe, and Mrs. Thorton inside the White Horse, Dover's oldest pub, where Channel swimmers sign their names on the wall. Credit: Charles L. Thornton
L-R: George Thorton, coach Joe, and Mrs. Thorton inside the White Horse, Dover's oldest pub, where Channel swimmers sign their names on the wall. Credit: Charles L. Thornton

How did you get here?

I have been swimming all my life. I was very active in swimming as a kid and we grew up near a little lake in Dayton, Ohio. Then I swam competitively for the YMCA because we didn’t have high-school teams at that point in Dayton. Then I swam through college and swimming the English Channel is kind of the last step. I never really thought that I could do it. I started swimming masters competitive swimming 20 years ago. I have done a lot of pool swimming and racing as well. Then about ten years ago we started this Horsetooth 10k swim. I have done that every year, but I have been on the race committee and that really got me into long distance open-water swimming. About three years ago my friend Joe went over and swam the English Channel and I was on the support boat. I sat there all day and watched him and said, “I think I can do that.” So that’s really where it started.

How long does the Channel swim take?

The median time is 12, 13 or 14 hours. When I went with Joe he took about 15 hours because he had some cramping. At the same time, another woman from Fort Collins swam it in 12 hours. I know I’m not as fast as them, so I’ll probably take 15 hours. The record is seven hours. That was two years ago. The distance is hard to tell, the shortest is 21 miles. With the currents you swim this big S-course. Most people swim 25 miles. Slower swimmers swim a little more because the current carries you further.

What are the dangers?

Well the water is cold; it’s in the mid to high 50s. A friend of mine swam last week, and she started out in 52 degree water. She got within a mile of the beach, and she died. They don’t really know why; there was some suspicion that she just conked out because of the cold. There are many very good racers who just can’t handle the cold. It’s partly your own physiology, if you have a lot of this brown fat it helps. There are no sharks. There have been five or six deaths. Another acquaintance of mine, she got stung badly by some jellyfish. Everyone gets stung a little bit, but two weeks ago a woman ran into a whole cloud of them. The boat couldn't get her around the or anything. The whole left side of her body went numb. No permanent damage, just pain. There is a lot of traffic in the channel as well. There are big freighters going up and down. The pilot has to watch out for that. It’s not a problem, but if you miss something you have to sit there and tread water for 30 minutes while the boat goes by. It’s very boring.

Why is Brown Fat important?

Well technically, it’s like babies have a lot of brown fat. It’s good insulation, and as you get older the percentage drops. I seem to be relatively tolerant of the cold water. But like anything else you train for it. Then you learn that the water is cold and I’m going to be cold and my feet are going to cramp. They talk about the ‘Channel claw,’ when your hands cramp. Then you have to learn that is part of the thing, and you have to monitor yourself so you don’t get hypothermia.

What happens if you have to go to the bathroom?

You just go. Peeing is easy, but some people just pull their suit aside and go on. I have never had to do that though, most people don’t. Part of it is because you are burning so much energy. Secondly it’s because all your fuel is liquid fuel. You aren't eating a sandwich or an energy bar, you aren't taking in solids. If you go to the bathroom before you leave you just aren't producing that kind of waste.

Tell us about the fundraising campaign...

I have been part of TEAM Fort Collins for a number of years. They are our partners for the Horsetooth 10k, all the money that we raise for fees and whatnot go to them. I really like their mission as well, its drug and alcohol prevention programs. They don’t do rehab stuff. It’s mostly for teens in Northern Colorado. They do programs in the public schools and at CSU; they have very solid theory and research of effectiveness. The other reason for the fundraising is selfish. In other words it’s an inspiration for me. We are trying to raise $21,000 for the 21 miles. I think we are about half way. It’s been going well. I got a friend and she pledged $2,100. But it is still selfish. I was really excited to do it last year, and went over and the weather was bad. So I needed some new motivations, I changed coaches and swimming practices and a new strength coach. The other thing I said was that I was going to do some fundraising. All those people watching you now. My greatest fear is failure.

George Thorton will be attempting the swim this August, with the earliest attempts probably being the 5th and 6th. You can follow his blog and read about the adventure here. You can also donate to support '21 for 21' here.

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