It takes a stubborn and determined swimmer to tackle the English Channel. And when that swimmer is only seventeen years old, it is a story worth investigating. And so, on a warm spring day, I met with Emily Epp to chat about her plans to swim 35 km across the open ocean this coming July.
A little history
Emily is the firstborn daughter of Rob & Cheryl. Elan, a sister for Emily, came along a few years later, and while still a toddler, experienced a series of health crises, baffling the medical teams in Vancouver and Toronto. During this upheaval, baby Erin was born. With three little girls to raise, juggling work demands along with frequent emergency trips to hospital, Rob and Cheryl coped and persevered. They were determined to give the girls as much of a normal childhood as possible under very challenging circumstances.
Joining the Swim Club
Growing up, Emily remembers opportunities to play ringette, ice and speed skating, equestrian lessons, music lessons, swim lessons and soccer. She discovered a preference for individual sports over team sports. Emily had a fear of water, ever since she was knocked over by a wave while vacationing with family in Tofino, BC, when she was a preschooler.
Her parents enrolled her in Red Cross swim lessons through her school when she was in Grade One. Eventually she overcame her fear of water, becoming a confident swimmer. After completing all the Red Cross levels, she joined the Aquajets Swim Club, mainly because her friend joined.
At age eleven, Emily did not have as much experience in the pool as her peers. That didn’t stop her, however, and she focused her energy on developing her swimming skills. That first year she passed every swim level, and was encouraged to take part in races. After receiving her first ribbon at a 25m race, she couldn’t wait to race again.
Positive feedback from her friends at the swim club and from her coach, along with her own inner drive, qualified Emily for local and then regional swim meets over the next two years. She won multiple ribbons and medals in her age category, solidifying her drive to compete and succeed.
As if swimming in the pool wasn’t enough, when Emily discovered her friends were planning to take part in Canada’s largest and longest running open water swim in her home town, Kelowna BC, she signed up. She had only been swimming regularly for a year. Swimming in a pool compared to swimming across a lake was a new challenge for Emily. As she entered the water, Emily felt nervous and questioned herself. But before she knew it, she was across the 2.1 km in 36 minutes. She loved the sense of accomplishment and of completing a big challenge and there was no stopping her now.
The next year, as a thirteen year old, Emily decided to take part in a longer lake swim, from the beach in Peachland, BC, across to Rattlesnake Island and back, a 7 km loop. The night before the swim was stormy. The morning wasn’t much better as lightning lit up the sky when the swimmers entered the water. Determined to swim that day, Emily was relieved when the race went ahead.
Strong winds pushed continuous waves towards shore. Her dad kept close by, paddling a kayak. At one point he lost control of the kayak, accidentally bumping Emily, but she kept right on going. Turning at Rattlesnake Island, she was looking forward to the waves propelling her forward on the return trip. Just then, the wind died down, the sun came out, and the waves ceased rolling. With tired arms and sore muscles after battling the storm, Emily completed the race. Her reward at the finish: a first place medal for her age group and the satisfaction of completing a very difficult swim.
Emily’s time in the Across the Lake Swim continues to improve. In her first swim in 2012, her time was 36 minutes. In 2016, she crossed the lake in 25 minutes. “I think of all the dead bodies that might be underneath me in the lake, and that makes me swim faster,” Emily relates, deadpan. Now that’s a comforting thought.
In 2014, at age fourteen, Emily competed in the BC Summer Games, bringing home three medals. That same fall Emily represented Team Kelowna in the International Children’s Games in Australia.
Dreaming of the Channel
At age ten, Emily heard open water distance swimmer Brent Hobbs speak at an Aquajets banquet. Inspired by Brent’s Channel swim, Emily’s enthusiasm for open water distance swimming built. Five years later, together with Brent’s coaching, support and encouragement, they decided to take on the Channel challenge, a two year process. Logistics include applying for a spot in the swim, arranging for a boat, training, qualifying. Once again, Emily was eager for the challenge, and so began the journey that will culminate in the swim this summer.
Qualifying for the Channel swim
Emily continued to train in the pool. Her efforts in Okanagan Lake increased as well, overseen by her open water coach, Brent. In order to qualify for the Channel, she had to swim for six hours in cool water, 15.5° C (60°F) or less, without a wet suit. On a cool fall day in 2016, with temperatures at 14°C (57.2°F), Emily headed into Okanagan Lake to swim along the shore line.
In the support boat were her open water coaches, several Masters swimmers who took turns officiating her swim and her father (to oversee her nutrition). After two hours of continuous swimming, mainly front crawl, Emily felt bored. Spotting some golf balls along the sandy lake bottom, she dove down to retrieve them. She also changed up her swim stroke to butterfly, back stroke and breast stroke. Emily realized that the mind game was just as important as the skill and endurance required for a long distance swimmer.
After swimming for six hours and 15 minutes and completing a distance of 18-20 km, Emily qualified for the Channel swim.
Training for the Channel swim
Emily’s swim practices total nine two hour sessions over six days. In addition, she participates in dry land training several days a week, which includes weights and track. All these activities fit in and around attending high school and a part-time job. Once the lake warms up a little, after a particularly long and cold winter, Emily will begin lake swims in earnest.
Emily’s sister Elan endured many medical setbacks and spent countless hours in hospitals over the years. Her care is complicated and constant, so respite for the family is rarely possible. After a lengthy application process, Elan qualified for a stay at BC’s Canuck Place, receiving excellent medical care and loving support. Since that first stay, Elan has received care at Canuck Place several more times. This gives the rest of the family some needed respite. Elan will be staying at Canuck Place again this summer when the family heads to England.
Since Canuck Place has been such a support for her family, Emily wishes to give back by raising funds. Learn more of Elan’s story, follow Emily’s efforts, and support Team Canuck Place.
I was inspired by Emily’s story and am rooting for her swim this summer, along with family and friends, coaches and swim team mates. I’ve never met anyone quite so determined and accomplished, and at such a young age. Swim, Emily, swim!
Note: feature photo contributed