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Alana Digby MBA2017 swims the English Channel

By Lauren French

On 22 July, Alana Digby MBA2017 swam the English Channel in support of the Marine Conservation Society. Check out the videos taken of her swim over on Periscope


Hi Alana- firstly, well done! Please tell us more about this incredible achievement
I knew a couple of people in Australia who had swum the English Channel, and I was fascinated by them. Where other swimmers were slim and fast, the channel swimmers were not slim, not fast, and almost looked like they could fall asleep as they swam, they were so efficient in the water. So I became curious about the Channel and what it would take to get across. 

When I came to LBS I spoke to some alumni who had been involved in Channel swimming. They directed me to the Serpentine Swimming Club, the home of Channel swimming in London. At the SSC, I was surrounded by Channel Swimmers and a wealth of experience on preparation. My first challenge was to gain weight to keep warm – the English Channel could be just 16 degrees in July, and the official Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CS&PF) rules do not permit wetsuits! From September to April I was swimming up to 30 km a week in the LBS pool, so eating enough to sustain myself AND gain weight was extremely difficult. My stream got used to me drinking pints of milk and shovelling in Nutella with a spoon during class. Eventually I gained my target ten kilos of insulation. 

Training in Dover began at the end of April, when the water was 10 degrees. Having swum through the winter in the Serpentine, I wasn’t too bothered by ten degrees, until on my first day in Dover Harbour we were instructed to stay in for FORTY MINUTES. I survived, just, and got out to only to be told that an hour later we’d be back in for another forty minutes! As the water temperatures climbed, so did our time in the water until eventually we were swimming seven hours on Saturday and six hours on Sunday. Dover was simultaneously the best and worst part of this adventure – the best, because I met some incredible and inspirational people who will be friends for life, and the worst, because… seven hours in murky, fourte degree water is deeply unpleasant, especially when you have to do it all again the next day!

I swam in support of the Marine Conservation Society here in the UK, who were involved in lobbying to initiate the 5p plastic bag charge (among many other things). This cause means a lot to me, as I am alarmed and angered by the amount of careless plastic waste accumulating in our oceans. Thanks to all of my generous sponsors (including plenty from LBS) we raised £1,365. 

You’re currently a swimming captain – did you apply any of the leadership skills to your channel swim?
Yes! There is a lot of organisation and logistics to get a channel swim happening. First, you need to convince four people (your crew) to spend 20 hours on a small, slow boat, watching you swim for hours on end. You also need to make sure you and your crew are ready to go at the first sign of good weather (calm seas, light or no wind) during your ‘tide window’, a period of up to eight days when you have a channel pilot boat booked.  Finally, and most importantly, you need to make sure that your crew know how to look after you and themselves while you are in the water. On my crew was my boyfriend, Gery Paljak (another MBA2017), who was in charge of feeding me, my dad, who was in charge of taking photos and writing messages on the whiteboard, a friend from Australia who was my social media concierge and safety swimmer for the last 200m (when the boat can’t continue) and finally my coach, who was there to dish out tough love or encouragement as required. We talked about their roles ahead of the day and I briefed them as a group on critical safety requirements (for me and them) and how the day would unfold. Swimming the English Channel is truly a team effort – without my crew supporting me, I’d still be doing laps of Dover Harbour.

At any point did you want to give up?  
At my five-hour feed I turned around and could see England really clearly. In truth, we were very far away from the coast, but due to the clear day it looked like I’d only swum a few miles! I was quite upset because I had already been swimming for a while, but my crew gave me some tough love and after a couple of hours I could see France and everything was back on track. I got in the water that morning ready to swim to the point of unconsciousness or until I hit France – although I had a few mental wobbles, nothing was going to stop me and I never contemplated getting out.

What gave you the strength and determination to continue?
Swimming the English Channel is 20% physical and 80% mental. My challenge was never going to be the actual swimming, but rather keeping my mental demons at bay. During the three months of training in Dover Harbour I had lots of time to practice being bored and cold, so I developed games to take my mind off the discomfort – the ABC of my MBA classmates, trying to name all 50 states of the USA, capital cities of Europe, top five favourite cocktails…  During the actual channel crossing, when I saw jelly fish or felt some extra cold water stirred up by a passing tanker, I would be like “Right Alana, think about this – what are your five favourite study group moments of Term One?”. 

In some ways, the hardest part of the journey was the long, cold training sessions in Dover Harbour, especially when I knew that I was missing out on treks and events like MBAT. Making those sacrifices was just about wanting to succeed badly enough that the decision was obvious.

What’s your next big challenge?
I can’t decide! There are so many interesting things to do, the challenge is not to overcommit and under-perform. For now, I am enjoying a three-month internship at Johnson & Johnson and training for the Three Peaks Challenge with my classmates in September.