Constable: How lifelong swimmer has found long-distance tranquility

 
 
Updated 1/5/2019 4:32 PM
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  • An All-American swimmer in high school, Marcia Cleveland has had even more success as an adult, finishing legendary swims across the English Channel, the North Channel, and other marathon events.

      An All-American swimmer in high school, Marcia Cleveland has had even more success as an adult, finishing legendary swims across the English Channel, the North Channel, and other marathon events. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • In a feat more rare than climbing Mount Everest, Marcia Cleveland swam the English Channel in 1994.

    In a feat more rare than climbing Mount Everest, Marcia Cleveland swam the English Channel in 1994. Photo courtesy of Marcia Cleveland

  • After swimming cross the English Channel, Marcia Cleveland wrote "Dover Solo," which is the Bible for marathon swimmers.

      After swimming cross the English Channel, Marcia Cleveland wrote "Dover Solo," which is the Bible for marathon swimmers. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Marcia Cleveland swims the 22 miles of the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland.

    Marcia Cleveland swims the 22 miles of the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland. Photo courtesy of Marcia Cleveland

Swimming from the time she could walk, Marcia Cleveland swam thousands of hours in the pool training for her high school career as an All-American and for four years of varsity swimming at Yale University that ended with her graduation in 1986.

"When I was done, I wanted to be done," remembers Cleveland, who couldn't get to that finish line soon enough. "During my last race, I was thinking of going out for a beer with my teammates."

Six weeks on dry land turned out to be enough of a respite from the sport of so many years of labor. "I was relieved not having to do it, but I realized I missed it," Cleveland says. Working for an advertising agency in New York, Cleveland was lured to the beach by friends who enjoyed swimming in open waters.

"I did see 'Jaws' when I was 11, and that kept me out of open water for 10 years," says Cleveland.

Now a swim instructor at Five Seasons Family Sports Club in Northbrook, Cleveland, 54, has battled fear, cold, exhaustion and jellyfish to conquer the world's greatest swimming challenges, including the legendary English Channel, the 28½-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, California's Catalina Channel Swim, the Chicago Skyline Swim, and the treacherous North Channel swim between Ireland and Scotland.

After swimming in relays and crewing for others, Cleveland swam her first Manhattan Island Marathon in 1991 at age 27 and was the fastest woman at 7 hours, 29 minutes.

"As I was finishing that race and passing the World Trade Center, I thought, 'This race has been a piece of cake. I think I'll try the English Channel,'" Cleveland says.

With crew member and husband Mark Green keeping her hydrated, nourished and motivated, on July 29, 1994, Cleveland became the 445th person to swim the channel's Strait of Dover since it was first accomplished by Captain Matthew Webb in 1875.

"He wore a bathing suit, cap and goggles, so that's what we wear," Cleveland says, explaining how swimmers forsake modern wet suits despite the choppy, 58-degree water. "You cannot get away from the cold. It surrounds you everywhere. You have to learn to deal with it, both from a mental and a physical standpoint."

She spent the two years before training in the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound in waters as cold as 48 degrees with high winds and waves.

"I swam through seaweed. I swam through shoals of jellyfish, which stung me. I dealt with aches, pains, salt rashes and suit rubs," Cleveland says. "At times the water was so rough, my arms were blown backward and the waves would break over me."

The month before her Channel swim, she took cold showers after her 3- to 4-hour workouts.

She left England in the dead of night and crawled her way onto a beach in France 9 hours and 44 minutes later. More people have been in outer space and climbed on Mount Everest than have accomplished what Cleveland did. Her book, "Dover Solo," detailing her training and preparation for the swim, has become required reading for Channel hopefuls and aspiring marathon swimmers.

Cleveland, a psychology major at Yale, wrote her senior thesis on the motivation for female athletes and did a TEDx Talk about "achieving success one stroke at a time."

Growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut, Cleveland forced her parents to get her swimming lessons. "I used to jump into swimming pools fully clothed, and they got tired of retrieving me off the bottom," she says. As an adult, Cleveland has chaired the U.S. Master Swimmers Open Water Long Distance Committee and been recognized several times by the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Her 1996 time of 5 hours, 57 minutes in the Manhattan Island Marathon set a woman's record that lasted 15 years.

She and her husband, a marketing and media research consultant who runs marathons and helps with Cleveland's open water swims, live in Winnetka and have a daughter, Julia Green, who swims at Kenyon College in Ohio, and a son, Sam Green, a senior cross-county and track runner at New Trier High School.

Since swimming solo across the English Channel, Cleveland has swum it three more times as part of relays. Her toughest swim came last summer, when Cleveland swam a 27-mile route across the North Channel, leaving Donaghedee in Northern Ireland, and coming ashore 15 hours and 3 minutes later.

"It was dark, the water was 53 degrees and there were jellyfish the size of garbage can lids," Cleveland says. "Because of my crew's nonstop vigilance, I never hit a jelly head on during my 15 hours. This is some kind of miracle."

With her husband on a nearby boat monitoring her time, the tide, and other factors, and throwing her bottles of nutrients attached to a rope, "I was on the razor edge of not making it," Cleveland says, noting a quick swimming break to eat would see the tide pull her back 100 yards. "My husband loves me so much, he let me continue."

She swam all the way to a beach just south of Port Patrick, Scotland.

"I remember getting up on the beach on all fours and collapsing," Cleveland says. "I was pretty hypothermic and probably dehydrated."

She doesn't remember telling people that she was fine, when she clearly wasn't. The boat couldn't come to shore because of rocks, and Cleveland was in no condition to swim to the vessel. But an "angel kayaker," a Scotsman named Keith Carman, saw her struggles and ferried her out to the boat.

Cleveland celebrated New Year's Eve in Florida's warmer water by swimming the 24-mile length of Tampa Bay in 11 hours and 19 minutes as a way to raise awareness for the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim race on April 20. Cleveland holds the cumulative fastest time for the Grand Slam of Open Water Swimming, which consists of the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, the swim around Manhattan Island and the Tampa Bay course. With races and training, she swam more than 1,000 miles last year. During those long, solitary swims, Cleveland says she enjoys the tranquillity.

"Sometimes I think about nothing. Sometimes I think about just getting through it. I think about the people who are supporting me," Cleveland says. "I don't think about giving up. I don't think about getting out. I focus on my stroke. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming."

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