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Pat Gallant-Charette woke up early — around 3:30. She ate a bagel and tried to stay calm as her son, Tom, wrote two names on her left upper arm: Robbie at the top, and Johnny below.
"I told Tom, I said, ‘You know, who ever would've thought it would've come to this point?’ " Pat says.
Pat and Tom made their way down to the docks, where a boat took them to Shakespeare Beach, just south of Dover, England. At 4:55 a.m., on Jun. 17, 2017, Pat began.
"When I took the first few steps into the ocean I was stunned to see how cold it was," Pat says. "Right off, I didn't think I was going to make it. But I wasn't about to throw a towel in after an hour."
The water got a bit warmer after the sun came up. But halfway to France, oil tankers passed by and churned up even colder water.
"A few times, it felt like it was 50, 52 degrees," Pat says.
Still, Pat thought, I can’t give up now. I’ve come so far. So she kept swimming. And then …
"I saw this large dorsal fin not too far from my feet. And I thought, I said, ‘My heavens, they don't have sharks out here.’ "
Pat figured she must be hallucinating. She kept swimming.
While Pat swam, Tom counted her strokes, tracked her food intake and watched for signs of hypothermia.
"It's like watching paint dry," Pat says. "To go onto 17 hours of watching someone slowly swim across the English Channel. But he never took a break. He stood there at the side of the boat the whole time and watched, just to make sure that everything was going fine."
With a successful crossing, 66-year-old Pat Gallant-Charette would become the oldest woman to swim the English Channel.
"To have my son there, it was a wonderful feeling," Pat says. "Because years ago, he was the one that really started this."
Johnny And Robbie
To really understand why Pat keeps swimming, we have to go back — not to the story of Pat’s son, Tom, but to her brothers, Johnny and Robbie.
Pat grew up in Westbrook, Maine with six brothers and a sister. She says her family has always been very close.
"Johnny was, like, an All-American," Pat says. "He was 17, he was an altar boy, paper boy. He was an incredible runner. He had broken the state record in track, and he was in his junior year of high school. And he was doing a physics experiment and was accidentally electrocuted in class."
"I saw him that morning because I was going off to nursing school," Pat remembers. "I was 21 at the time, and he was going to deliver newspapers before he went to school. And we both waved to each other and smiled. And that was the last time I saw him alive. He was the first one that we lost, and, it was ... it was horrible."
Pat’s brother, Robbie, was the youngest of the bunch. He swam at Northeastern University. After college, in the early ’80s, he won a 2.4-mile open-water swim called the Peaks to Portland. Pat says she was stunned.
Robbie won the race a second time. And then in 1997, when he was 34 ...
"I got a phone call, and they said that Robbie had a heart attack," Pat says. "So we went into Maine Medical Center. And I remember saying to my son, Tom, 'Now listen, we gotta be very positive. And we gotta tell him that he can go through cardiac rehab and he's gonna be fine.'
"And as soon as I got off the elevator I knew immediately that something horrible had happened. I found out that he passed, and it was ... it was just ... it was absolutely heartbreaking."
A Tribute Swim
Days after Robbie died, Pat picked Tom up from swim practice. He was 16 at the time. In the car ride on the way home, he told her that he’d like to swim the Peaks to
Portland as a tribute to his uncle.
"And I said to him, 'That's so sweet. I wish I could do the same,’ " Pat says.
In that moment, Pat had no doubt: swimming 2.4 miles in open ocean water was not something she was capable of doing. Sure, she’d been on the swim team in high school, but …
"We were never even taught how to do a flip turn," Pat says.
Pat got married at the age of 21. She had kids and got her nursing degree. She says life was very busy.
"You know, you have laundry to do and shopping and all of a sudden 30 years goes by. And I'm thinking, ‘Oh, wow.’ "
When her brother Robbie died, Pat was 46 years old. Her idea of exercise was walking around the block. But there was something about this idea — the chance to honor her brother by swimming that race. Pat and Tom kept talking about it for the rest of the short drive home.
"And he goes, ‘Well, Ma, you can if you try,’ " Pat says.
'You Can If You Try'
And here’s the crazy thing: when Tom said, "You can if you try," Pat believed him.
"Yes, I did," Pat says. "You know, I said, ‘Well, why not? I'll give it a try.’ "
But three decades after her last competitive swim, Pat had a lot of self-doubt. Her first
day in the pool, she asked the lifeguards to keep an eye on her to make sure she didn’t drown.
It took Pat a year just to qualify for the Peaks to Portland. And that self-doubt? It still hadn’t gone away.
"Even the day of the Peaks, I remember thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ " Pat says. "Y'know, look at that distance. I remember standing on Peaks Island with all the other athletes. And here they were younger, slender. It was, like, 'Oh, Pat.' I thought I had made a mistake.
"But then, I just calmed myself down and said, 'Y'know Pat, you're just here to swim as a tribute. Just do this once, and that's it.'
"But something happened that day as I started to swim across Casco Bay. I just saw the beauty of swimming in the ocean. And to see lobster boats going by and seeing the seagulls squawking, I just fell in love with the sport.
"When I crossed that finish line, I felt like an Olympian. When I was training and I was able to swim 15 minutes nonstop, I felt like an Olympian. The first time I was able to swim one hour nonstop freestyle, I got out of that pool as though I had won the gold medal. I was just so proud that I was able to do that. And now, here it is all these years later, I can swim these incredible distances."
A New Career
After Pat turned 50, she noticed that her endurance was actually increasing. She realized she could swim four miles … and then 10.
"And I noticed that after I finished these swims, I didn't feel tired," Pat says. "And I told my husband, I said, 'My heavens, I know I can go much further.' And he goes, ‘Well, why don't you try the English Channel?’ "
Last June, despite cold water, oil tankers and an ocean sunfish with a dorsal fin that looked a lot like a shark’s, Pat completed her second successful English Channel swim, becoming the oldest woman to do so. It took her 17 hours and 55 minutes.
"My son was there to greet me at the ladder," Pat says. "We both hugged and I had tears in my eyes. It was very special."
But Pat has set her sights on an even bigger challenge: swimming the Oceans Seven, a collection of the world’s most difficult open-water crossings. Since the challenge was established in 2008, fewer than a dozen people have completed it.
Over the past decade, Pat has traveled the world, setting six world records along the way. Until recently, all her swims were funded with money she earned working as a nurse.
"For many years I worked Thanksgiving, Christmas, for that extra money, because I didn't have any sponsors," Pat says.
Pat says she’s had many unsuccessful attempts — swims derailed by currents and eddies, swims made miserable by frigid waters and jellyfish stings. But none of that really bothers her. It’s not about getting to the finish line.
Pat Gallant-Charette is 67 now. She needs just one more swim to complete the Oceans Seven: the Cook Strait in New Zealand. She attempted it four years ago, but was unable to finish.
"But I'll be going back next year, and I'm hoping that I'll be successful," Pat says. "But if not, y'know, such is life. You just go on to something else."
This segment aired on July 7, 2018.
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