3 Crucial Lessons Learned from Swimming the English Channel

There are less than 2,000 people who have swum across the English Channel, and Lucas Carbonaro, MBA ’13, is one of them. The HEC Paris MBA alumnus made his crossing in August in a little over 17 hours.

“It started as a joke,” Lucas explains. “I had swum the Strait of Gibraltar, and a friend said, ‘So next you’ll do the English Channel?’ It’s two-and-a-half times the distance. At the time I thought I never could train for that.”

Just knowing the facts about the English Channel show how impressive a feat it is. Also called La Manche, the 21 mile (33 km) stretch of water separates England and France. It is widely considered one of the most iconic swims by open-water swimmers. To date, more people have successfully climbed Everest (nearly 5,000) then have been able to complete the swim.

What makes a Channel swim so unique is its complexity. The water temperature usually ranges from 13°C to 17°C (hypothermia accounts for many of the unsuccessful attempts) and to be officially recognized it has to be completed without a wetsuit. The swim can take just a little over 7 hours (world record) to nearly 27 hours (the slowest).

While Lucas seriously downplays his accomplishment, saying things like, “What one person can do, another person can do,” the Senior Project Manager for the European Investment Bank did share with us three life lessons he learned from his crossing.

MBA alumni Lucas in action during his 17 hour swim

Lucas Carbonaro, MBA ’13, during his 17-hour swim

Lesson 1: Surround yourself with a positive team

Lucas’ words: Swimming the English Channel is not a one-man show. I couldn’t have made the crossing without the full support of my family, or without surrounding myself with people who share my passion.

My holidays, my weekdays and my weekends were all affected: training took lots of my personal time and required lots of patience from my fiancée, Maria Narusova (also an HEC Paris MBA graduate). Last July, I spent a week in Ireland training at a cold-water swimming camp, then I spent another week in Corsica to swim across the Bonifacio Strait (between Corsica and Sardinia). During the last 6 months, I had to find swimming pools everywhere I travelled: Paris, Moscow and Venice. My weekdays often started as early as 5 a.m. to fit in a 3-hour training session.

Being part of a like-minded community was essential for me. Some of those early morning swims wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have training partners to hold me accountable and motivate me to wake up so early. I met dozens of English Channel swimmers at the Irish swimming camp. Hearing about their experiences and witnessing their attitude towards the swim reassured me and helped to “demystify” the crossing, to show me that it’s doable.

On the day of the swim, I had the support of a six-person boat crew: 2 pilots, 1 observer from the Channel Swimming Association, 2 support swimmers and my fiancée. I fully relied on the pilots’ experience in terms of tides and currents.  The support swimmers jumped into the water a few times to help me keep pace. Maria and my other team members closely monitored my food and liquid intake, passed on messages of support from friends and family, and generally kept checking on me to make sure I was still feeling good. The six of them stayed on the small boat for more than 20 hours straight. Luckily for all of us, the weather was good.

Lesson 2: Create a plan and stick to it

This screenshot of Lucas' tracker shows the path he took across the channel

This screenshot of Lucas’ tracker shows the path he took across the channel

Lucas’ words: The funny thing is that I am quite an average swimmer. That said, I have been active all my life, playing rugby during grade school and later at university, then taking up running and completing a few triathlons, including three full-distance Ironman competitions.

When it comes to swimming, I started practicing the sport regularly only few years ago. Consistent practice and setting small goals created the “domino effect:” a reaction in which the cumulative effect produced by one event sets off a chain of events. In my case, I went from swimming in a pool to crossing the Strait of Messina (3 km between Sicily and mainland Italy), then to crossing Gibraltar (14 km between Morocco and Spain) and finally the English Channel (33 km).

Crossing the Strait of Messina became a summer habit from 2011 onwards (I am half Sicilian and half Scottish and I go every summer to Sicily for my holidays). One summer I crossed it two ways (6 km) and wanted to challenge myself further. In 2014, I crossed Gibraltar. In 2015, I unsuccessfully attempted the English Channel – I stopped after 13 hours at roughly two-thirds of the distance.

After each milestone, I set another goal that was ambitious but achievable.

Lesson 3: Realize that we are much stronger than we believe

Lucas’ words: People say that if you have properly trained for La Manche, the challenge on the day of your swim is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of self-limiting beliefs by saying, “I will never be able to do that,” and I did have so many moments of doubt. The first time I swam in cold water (less than 10 degrees), I only lasted 20 minutes. That’s after spending another 20 minutes beforehand on shore convincing myself to enter the water. Training after training, one step at a time, I managed to spend longer in the cold water and be able to exit the sea feeling cool but without shivering. Still, it was difficult to believe that eventually I would manage one day to swim 17 hours straight in cold water.

As much as hard work and having a plan are important, mental strength is often a decisive factor in any endurance event.  Seventeen + hours of swimming through the night and the day, embracing the pain as part of experience, without stopping or even touching the boat, was definitely one of the major physical and mental challenges I have experienced. I am grateful for the body and mind I have, and I keep being surprised by how “flexible” my limits are.

In the end, what I definitely realized is you can really achieve whatever it is you set your mind to do.