FORT MYERS, Florida. – Heather Roka divided the more difficult parts of her swim into 30 minute increments.
“You can do anything for another 30 minutes,” she said to herself.
When it got harder, she reduced it to 100 hits. Thirty shots. One meter. She even imagined each of her supporters swimming with her. Everything to keep a human-sounding feat impossible to achieve.
Last month, Roka, of Fort Myers, completed the Double Channel Crossing, a 21-mile swim between Dover, England, and northern France – and back. Roka swam the 42 miles nonstop in 25 hours and seven minutes, becoming the 38th person and 10th American to complete the unthinkable open water swimming challenge.
“I thought to myself that it would definitely be the hardest thing I have ever tried and would definitely push me to the limits and really risk failure,” said Roka.
Roka overcame the cold water, fatigue, physical pain and mental exhaustion to complete the strenuous swim.
“I mean I’m still recovering,” she said.
Swimming such a long distance requires intense focus and mental toughness, said Ginger Tompkins, Gulf Coast Swim Team Masters Coach and Roka’s training partner.
Roka refused to let doubts set in or distract her from her goal.
“His mental courage, from a human performance standpoint alone, is simply exceptional and extraordinary,” Tompkins said. “I just think she’s an inspiration.”
A decision to be made in duplicate
A Fort Myers graduate, Roka was on the women’s swim team for the 2003 Green Wave State Swimming Title. She continued her athletic career as a long distance swimmer in Gardner-Webb, NC. North.
Her swimming career allowed her to see the benefits of physiotherapy, which prompted her to pursue this field. Roka specializes in helping patients recovering from stroke.
“Being able to help people understand that life is going to go on, you can go home, you can do things again… it was difficult but very rewarding,” she said.
His dream of swimming in the English Channel began as a teenager.
“Most long distance swimmers, if you’re interested in open water, the English Channel is always like that goal,” Roka said. “The toughest people make the Channel – which has so much fame and attention.”
Roka first finished swimming in the canal in 2017, finishing in 12 hours and 13 minutes.
She vowed never to do it again, but six months later she signed up for the double. It took some encouragement from Marcy McDonald, Roka’s mentor and US record holder for most of the Channel crossings.
Swimmers must register for the swim in the canal years in advance as the boats can only accommodate a limited number of people and the swims must be staggered.
Roka was unsure if COVID-19 would delay her chance to swim the double. She learned last October that this was happening, so she had to start her training.
Roka had a better idea of what to expect with the first swim under her belt.
“It really helped me mentally – things like knowing I didn’t like swimming at night,” she said. “So getting into that frame of mind prepared me for the fact that it was going to be a lot of time in the dark and how was I going to handle it better than the first time around.”
Training in the south to swim in the north
Training in Florida meant Roka couldn’t replicate the 59-64 degree water she would experience in the English Channel. She had planned for cold water swims, but they were ultimately unsuccessful, in part because of the pandemic.
She swam three days a week at the San Carlos pool for almost two hours each morning. Some afternoons she would swim in a friend’s lake. And on the weekends, she swam as long as she could tolerate it at Vanderbilt Beach.
“I never really got to go longer than six hours with the heat in it,” Roka said.
All of this preparation took place while she had two jobs – her full-time job at Life Care and as an adjunct professor teaching in the physiotherapy program at Florida Gulf Coast University.
The level of preparation is crucial for the endurance required by the 42 mile swim. However, it is difficult to explain what it will be like to swim alone next to a small boat for guidance.
“You are in a dynamic environment,” Tompkins said. “Conditions can change every 10 minutes. You always have to be attentive to what is changing and what is happening. “
Roka was fortunate not to have to self-quarantine in England before swimming – the regulation for a 10-day quarantine in England for US citizens was lifted just before his overflight. This allowed him to train in Dover Marina the week before his swim.
Roka’s younger brother, Michael Roka, would join her on the journey as a crew member, willing to offer her support and potentially witness an incredible accomplishment. Dave Chisolm, introduced to Roka by McDonald’s, was also a vital member of the crew.
25 hours and 7 minutes
The way swimming works is that the captain of the boat will navigate and make sure the swimmer stays nearby. There is also a crew on board, and they are responsible for hydrating and feeding the swimmer. There are also observers on the boat to ensure the swimmer is following the rules of the open water swimming marathon.
Roka started swimming at 10 p.m. on August 20.
Swimming the canal means constantly adapting to various elements like the tide and the wind.
“You really have to learn to let go and be in the moment because there are so many factors out of your control,” Roka said.
Michael Roka said he “never got bored” watching his sister struggle through the rigorous task, but he also did his best to hide his nerves.
“There was a level of anxiety I had watching my sister put her body through something like this,” he said.
Roka changed her eating regimen at the start of the swim, choosing to restock every 30 minutes. The first half of the swim was manageable given Roka’s previous experience, but knowing that she would have to turn around and start over was intimidating.
She completed the swim to France at 10:16 a.m. on August 21.
Roka described the second half of swimming as the most difficult mental and physical test of her life.
“Just in terms of muscle fatigue, things were really hurting around 3pm and just knowing mentally, ‘OK, it’s 3pm and your wrist and shoulder are really aching. Are you going to be able to continue? ‘”Said Roka.
Michael Roka was impressed that his sister maintained a count of 70 strokes per minute for the first 16-17 hours of swimming. Over time that started to drop to around 60. But when the captain asked if she could pick it up to better handle the currents over the past three hours, she was able to rise to the challenge.
The captain gave Roka the best advice: just focus on the meter of water in front of her.
“I stopped focusing on where I was going to be and just took it in the moment, every shot in the moment, and I’m like, don’t worry about how long this is going to be. , just focus on what’s going on right now. ”she said.
After dark, Roka said there was no way she could stop. She had gone too far.
This did not allay concerns about what might happen towards the end of the swim.
“I was so cold,” she said. “Other people, I think, were more confident that I was going to end up, and I certainly wasn’t going to type and say I couldn’t go on, but it was always in my head, like, ‘shall we miss a tide? Am I going to be too tempted to keep pushing? Are they going to take me out? ‘”
When Roka struck the White Cliffs of the Dover Coast, completing her monumental goal, a feeling of “pure relief” swept over her.
“I’m usually not emotional, but I was so, so proud that she was able to do something like this,” said Michael Roka.
It was 11:07 p.m. on August 21.
Roka thought she was feeling better than she was physically after the marathon swim.
“People were supporting me afterwards, and I was like ‘I’m fine’ and they were like ‘You’re not doing well, you’re rocking all over the place, you can’t walk,’ Roka recalls.
“Her hands and feet were completely white,” said Michael Roka.
Heather Roka felt numb and exhausted and could only rest for a few hours before flying home. She had to resume her work routine shortly after swimming in the canal because of all the time she took.
In any life goal that can seem daunting, Roka recommends breaking it down into smaller, more achievable chunks.
“Pick what you’re going to enjoy, it’s a challenge, then push yourself, and, when you think you can’t go or finish it anymore, you can,” she said. “Just focus on what’s very, very immediate, what’s right in front of you. Don’t get caught up in – ‘I could never do this, it’s too hard.’ ”
There are “a lot of other races to come” in Roka’s future, she said. Maybe not in the 24 hour window.
But by pushing herself in such an extraordinary way, Heather Roka makes it hard to count her out of any business – by land or especially by sea.
“Defeat or failure is not an option for her,” her brother said.
Follow News-Press sports reporter Dustin Levy on Twitter: @DustinBLevy.