Carol Wortman, a member of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) Information Technology Laboratory (ITL) team, can say something very few swimmers will ever be able to say: she took on the English Channel and won.
The 20.5-mile swim in cold, rough waters is a solo-venture that is difficult to predict; conditions are highly variable, and no two swims are alike. For Wortman, that unpredictability meant the most difficult moments came within the first hour.
“I started a 1 a.m., so it was dark, and I had challenges following the boat,” said Wortman. “I was also told the water was going to be flat, but that changed. It was choppy, and the northward movement of water and swimming east was new for me. My first feed was too hot, and I had to spit it out – there wasn’t time to do anything about it, I had to refuel in under 30 seconds to stay on course, but I couldn’t let it bother me.”
Remembering that her coach had instructed her to relax and get into a pace, Wortman simply kept swimming and focused on maintaining a good mental state. Her ability to adapt was the result of a significant amount of hard work and training. With very few qualified to train swimmers for the English Channel, it was a stroke of luck when she saw an article on Facebook about Coach Dan Simonelli, who has successfully coached hundreds across Catalina and the English Channel.
A distance runner for most of her life, Wortman spent her high school, college and early adult years logging miles on the pavement. After multiple knee surgeries put a damper on her beloved pastime, she began looking for something to fill the void. In 2018, six months after she began swimming in an indoor pool, she was still struggling to feel fulfilled in the same way running affected her. That’s when she discovered open water swimming.
“Endurance activities are meditative for me and help me to clear my mind, relax, and rejuvenate,” said Wortman. “Often during endurance activities, I get ideas that help me solve work problem that I'm stuck on. I was searching for that feeling again when I found WaveOne, a group in Washington D.C. that swims each summer at National Harbor.”
Not only did she quickly fall in love with the sport, she soon found a perseverance-based mindset— “I’ll tackle anything that comes my way.” Such an attitude is a requirement for open water swimming, and something she already had experience with from her day job as chief solutions architect for ITL’s Supercomputing Resource Center. With efforts that include advancement of edge computing, high-performance computing cloud assessments and participation in the Department of Defense Joint Artificial Intelligence Task Force, Wortman is no stranger to focus, hard work and persistence, attributes she instinctively applied to her new venture. In 2021, she signed up to conquer the English Channel, knowing it carried a two-year wait, and soon found herself training virtually with Simonelli, who is located in California.
“Training for the English Channel consumes much of your life,” said Wortman, whose additional major swims include the Catalina Channel and the 20 Bridges Manhattan Island circumnavigation. “A typical week consisted of multiple two hour swims, a four hour swim, a six hour swim and a rest day. I did a lot of this in a pool because it was winter, but I live in Annapolis, Maryland and regularly swim the Chesapeake. I swam as much as I could in 40-60 degree weather to prepare.”
To officially qualify, Wortman had to complete a six-hour swim in water below 61 degrees. She says coaching helped her go from lasting an hour in those temperatures to six hours in only 10 days. She also completed a 10-hour swim in the Chesapeake Bay, and came home with a few unwanted souvenirs: jellyfish stings. The practice helped her swerve around the many jellyfish that call the English Channel home. For the final leg of her training, Wortman spent two weeks in Cork, Ireland swimming in waters that ranged from 54 to 56°F.
“Much of getting ready for the cold was changing my mindset and understanding when I was uncomfortable verses in danger,” said Wortman. “My training worked, and I was able to pick up my pace during the English Channel swim, which was in water around 64°F. I just swam faster when I started shivering.”
Wortman said she also owes a lot to her crew, a boat full of people who stayed with her throughout the swim and ensured she made it successfully to the French shore, where she met a group of locals who’d gathered to congratulate her. Simon and Maz served as pilot and co-pilot respectively, Vernon was the observer provided by the Channel Swimming Piloting Federation, and Caroline and Peter, swimmers from England who quickly became friends, were there to support and cheer her on.
“I couldn’t have done it without them – more than 1/3rd of swimmers don’t make it to the end,” said Wortman. “I was advised to laugh, swim happy and remember that it is a privilege to do this. I took that advice.”