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Swimmer Facing the Channel Challenge

Elizabeth Fry, 52, attempts round-trip, solo crossing of the English Channel

Elizabeth Fry swim English Channel

Elizabeth Fry of Westport, Conn., made a record-breaking swim from Battery Park in Manhattan to Sandy Hook, N.J. — Photo by William Farrington/Polaris

Some long-distance swimmers count their strokes; others repeat mantras to keep themselves focused. Still others keep track of their heart rate or the time.

Elizabeth Fry doesn't even wear a watch.

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"I completely zone out," says Fry, with a laugh. It's like that in every aspect of her life, she adds. "I'm that person who can drive five hours in a car, and when I get there, can't even tell you what [was on the radio] while I was driving."

That ability to tune out distractions, to put her body on automatic pilot for long periods of time, has taken the 52-year-old Westport, Conn., woman to a remarkable place in her life: Fry is about to attempt a round-trip, solo swim of the English Channel — from Shakespeare Beach in Dover, England, to Cape Gris-Nez in France, and back again.

It's the shortest point across the Channel. But it's still about 21 miles each way — a 42-mile back-and-forth swim — made even more difficult by what one Channel swim historian called the "freakish microclimate and wicked currents" of the body of water that separates England from France.

Feat of endurance

For participants in aquatic sports and endurance athletes, the Channel is more than a geographical feature. Since Capt. Matthew Webb first did it in 1876, swimming across the Channel has been considered one of the ultimate tests of fortitude and stamina.

Long-distance swimming is not for the faint of heart. Earlier this month, Diana Nyad, 61, abandoned a 103-mile swim from Cuba to Florida at about the halfway point.

There have been about 1,650 successful cross-Channel swims (including one by Fry in 2003), according to the website Open Water Source. To date, 37 have succeeded in the double crossing. If Fry succeeds — this will be her third try — she would be the oldest.

As if the act of pulling her body through 65-degree waters and against stiff currents for 24 hours isn't enough of a challenge, those same factors prevent Fry from knowing exactly when her feat of endurance will begin. It could be as early as Sunday, but it could also be any day next week, depending on the tides, the winds and when her pilot — the skipper of the boat that will guide her — says it's time to go.

Yet Fry manages to tune out that distraction, too. "I'll have my laptop with me," she says cheerfully. "I'll probably get some work done."

Next: Swimming with a challenge. >>

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