The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

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March 24, 2014

Fibromyalgia sufferer training to swim the English Channel

BALTIMORE — BALTIMORE — When the drugs and the doctors and the physical therapists failed her, Katie Pumphrey had one choice left: She could run from pain or confront it, curtail her lifestyle or push it as far as pain would allow.

Pumphrey, a 26-year-old swim coach and painter who has been in chronic pain for nearly two decades, had discovered along the way that intense, exhausting exercise brought some relief from the strange symptoms of her fibromyalgia, a controversial neuromuscular disease with no known cure. And so she decided to go for broke.

The Baltimore woman is now preparing to swim the English Channel, a physical and logistical undertaking so enormous that pain will just have to get in line with the other challenges she has decided to take on: hypothermia, tides, oil tankers, wind, waves, saltwater, jellyfish, injuries, the financial cost and many more.

“Controlling [pain] is such a strange power trip,” Pumphrey said. “It’s also being proud of yourself. In the past year, I’ve just surprised myself.”

Fewer people (1,429) have crossed the channel solo than have climbed Mount Everest (more than 4,000), and only 446 of the swimmers have been women. Eight people have died trying since Matthew Webb first accomplished the feat, in 1875 — though the success rate, which was tiny in the early 1900s, has risen sharply in recent years.

If all goes well, Pumphrey will enter the water in Dover, England, on Aug. 8 or 9, 2015, and emerge in Cap Gris Nez, France. The distance is 21 miles, but the shifting tides guarantee that few swim directly across. In July 2010, 56-year-old Jackie Cobell reached Calais, France, after swimming 64 miles in nearly 29 hours.

The rules set by the two groups that govern channel crossing attempts require that Pumphrey wear only a swim cap, goggles and a bathing suit, one that offers no extra buoyancy or warmth, despite water temperatures that will hover around 60 degrees. She will be immediately disqualified if she touches the 33-foot vessel that will accompany her or the hand of any member of the crew of volunteers she is assembling to aid her. Food and drink will be lowered to her in the water. An observer from the Channel Swimming Association, one of the governing groups, will be on the boat to ensure she follows the rules.

Pumphrey hopes to make it in 12 to 14 hours.

“I do think I can do it,” she said. “I like the reality [that] there’s still a chance that I can’t. That’s the monster of the channel.” But she added: “I feel very confident about my plan. And as I develop more of my plan, I feel more confident.”

She has raised and spent about $2,000 to reserve the services of skipper Fred Mardle and his boat, the Masterpiece, for her neap-tide swim 17 months from now and believes she will need $15,000 more to see the swim through. She is soliciting money online and seeking sponsors.

But some in her family are still not enamored of the idea.

“Ugh. I’m not happy about it. I’ll be honest,” said her sister, Laura Madoo, a 31-year-old medical resident in Fairfax, Va. “I feel it’s my life’s mission to talk her out of it.”

Her father, Jack Pumphrey, said he is “absolutely, positively confident that she will swim that channel. There’s worry, but there’s not a doubt in my mind. Worry and doubt are two different things.”


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