Paige Christie, a 21-year-old from North Andover, has conquered the English Channel.
She completed the 21-mile swim from the White Cliffs of Dover, England, to the sandy beach in Wissant, France, on Aug. 24 in 12 hours and 55 minutes. The water temperature was about 62 degrees.
“You’re rolling up and down,” said Christie, a senior who swims at Smith College in Northampton and will be a cocaptain for the Pioneers this year. “The waves are very high. . . . The currents are very fast. They really push you sideways.”
Christie is the sixth swimmer from Smith to swim across the world’s busiest shipping channel and the 469th woman overall, according to the Channel Swimming & Piloting Association. (1,047 men have been documented as finishing the crossing since 1875). It is a plunge she planned to take since first visiting Smith after her junior year at Austin Prep in Reading.
“The challenge really resonated with me,” Christie said by phone from Smith, where she is an all-academic swimmer based on her 3.5 grade point average. “It was the ultimate open-water swim challenge.”
She got smacked in the face by waves. She endured jellyfish stings to her chest, arms, and legs. She had nausea from swallowing salt water. She wore only a swimsuit, goggles, and swim cap.
“Your body is basically saying to you, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ ’’ said Christie, who stands 5 feet 1 inch and weighs 115 pounds. “But I never considered giving in. I had the passion to do this. I also had the support of my family, coach and school.”
Her parents, Gregory and Karen Christie; her brother Cameron, 23; and her coach, Kim Bierwert, followed on board a tracking boat, which must accompany all swimmers. Her only contact with them came every 30 minutes, when they tossed her a nutrition drink.
“Swimming for 12 hours straight is hard,” said Christie, who is majoring in philosophy. “But equally important was their job, helping me to keep going.”
Christie was given a seven-day window, from Aug. 17 to Aug. 24, when she could complete the swim. Bad weather prevented her from starting until the very last day.
“I started to think it might not work out,” Christie said. “But I finally got my chance.”
She started at 7 a.m. and finished at 7:55 p.m. on Aug. 24, Christie said.
“When I started to see land, my adrenaline really got going,” she said. “When I hit the soft sand of the beach, I raised both arms up, and I grabbed a pebble.”
Her success is no surprise to Jeff Hechenbleikner, who coached Christie for two years at Austin Prep.
“She is such a hard worker,” Hechenbleikner said. “She’s quite small, and height is a clear advantage in swimming. But she always had the work ethic and great attitude.”
Christie swam her freshman and sophomore years at Austin Prep before opting to train solely with a private swim club, Crimson Aquatics in Andover. At Austin Prep, she set school records for the 200 and 500 freestyle, and with three relay teams: the 200 medley, 200 freestyle, and the 400 freestyle, according to Hechenbleikner.
All of those records have since been broken, with the exception of the 400 freestyle relay, Hechenbleikner said.
“She was a very smart swimmer,” he said. “She knew how to pace herself. If there was ever a swimmer who was capable — and committed — to training to swim the English Channel, it’s Paige.”
Christie endured a rigorous training regimen. Since March, she took nothing but cold showers to help prepare her body for the channel water. She trained several hours per day in the Smith pool.
On May 21, she completed a six-hour cold-water qualification swim in the Connecticut River. “That was definitely grueling,” Christie said. “The currents were really strong in the river. The water was about 59 degrees. It simulated the conditions of the channel.”
In June, she started training at the outdoor pool at Cedardale Aquatic Center in Haverhill, where she learned to swim as a 6-year-old. Then in July, she added long swims at Crane Beach in Ipswich. She had a GPS on her swim cap to help measure how far she swam.
“I would get there when it opened for the day and just go,” she said. “It was just endless swimming.”