Editor’s Note: Pat Gallant-Charette of Westbrook, ME is a mom and grandmother who also happens to be a world-class athlete competing in grueling open-water swim events. Most recently, on August 24, she completed the North Channel swim, a 21-mile distance from Ireland to Scotland considered by many to be the hardest ocean swim in the world. At 65, she shows no signs of slowing down. We spoke with her in September, and photographed her with the flag that her crew—usually including her son and one or more of her brothers—brought on her August swim. According to Gallant-Charette, she always races with the names of two of her deceased brothers written in marker on her arm.
Brian: Tell me about the ocean swims. How many of them have you done?
Pat: Five of the seven. I’ve done the English Channel, the Catalina [Channel]— I have the world record there for the oldest woman—the Strait of Gibraltar and the Tsugaru Strait. That was my longest one. Then I did North Channel. Out of all the swims, that’s the one I’m most proud of.
Pat: It’s the most challenging swim of the Oceans Seven. It has very cold water, tons of jellyfish, and the currents when you reach Scotland are so unpredictable. When I got within one mile of the finish line, the tide started to change, and I was concerned that I might not reach Scotland but I just continued to swim. It took me three hours to go one mile because of the current. Sometimes I was swimming right in place. Then all of a sudden I moved forward because of the strong current. I reached Scotland and it was a really good time: 14 hours, 22 minutes. I got messages from all over the world from marathon swimmers excited to see that a 65-year-old grandmother just swam the toughest of swims. I was the 41st person in history to do it.
Brian: And the oldest woman?
Pat: Yes. They said I was the oldest person. The oldest guy was 52, but in marathon swimming you usually don’t combine (men and women).
Brian: Where did you grow up?
Pat: I was born in Portland and I’ve lived in Westbrook just about all of my life. I moved out for one year—to Florida after high school—and moved back a year later.
Brian: At least you got away for a while.
Pat:I had to go out there and try it and I was like, “I think I’ll do better at home.”
Brian: How about your kids? Are they supportive of your swimming?
Pat: I have a daughter, Sarah, and a son, Tom. Tom’s been on a number of my marathons once, and he’s the one that actually inspired me because I considered myself years ago to be a spectator mom. When my kids were in school I’d go to the soccer game or track meets and that was it. At the time, my 34-year-old brother died suddenly of a heart attack. Robbie was the youngest of my six brothers and sister. It was just very heart-wrenching because he had a three-year-old son and a young wife. my son Tom was then in high school and he was on the swim team. He wanted to swim the Peaks to Portland as a tribute to my brother since my brother Robbie was a swimmer. He competed at Northeastern University and was captain of the swim team. When Tom said he was going to swim the Peaks to Portland, I said, “Oh Tom, I wish I could do the same.” He said, “Mom you can if you try.”
He was 16 and it opened my eyes. So I went to [John P. Davan] pool in Westbrook and that very first night there was a young lifeguard there. I looked at her and said, “I’m here to train for the Peaks to Portland. I don’t know if I can swim two laps in the pool. Keep an eye on me.”
Brian: How did you feel when you finally did the Peaks to Portland?
Pat: I really didn’t care if I came in last; it didn’t make any difference as long as I finished the swim. I hated swimming in the ocean then. When I got by Ft. Gorges, I had no pressure on me—all the fast young kids were probably at the finish line already, but I was going past Ft. Gorges and it was so remarkable. It was absolutely beautiful and that was the moment I fell in love with the sport of open-water swimming. I finished the swim and I felt good and I said to my husband, “you know I’m going to do this again.”
Brian: And you did.
Pat: I trained and trained and did it again. By the third year, I was just about 50 (years old) and when I reached the finish line, I said to my husband, “You know what? I think I could actually swim back,” I said. “I’ve got a lot left in me.” Then I did a swim across Big Sebago Lake next. When I finished I was like, “I feel pretty good here.” I trained another year to do a two-way crossing of Big Sebago.
Brian: How old were you then, 52 maybe?
Pat: Fifty-two—and I looked it. I said to my husband, ‘My Heavens, I think I’m one of those endurance athletes. I just did seven hours of swimming and I feel fine. I wonder where else I’ll swim?’ He said, “Why don’t you try the English Channel?” I said “Sure.”
Brian: So it was just on a whim that you tried the English Channel the first time?
Pat: I had no coach, no one to ask questions here in the State of Maine because I didn’t know of any marathon swimmers. So I’d go online and I’d read stories of other swimmers like Gertrude Ederle. I looked at the dates that they did the English Channel and a lot of them did it in July and August. I went online, looked up English Channel Swimming Association and then contacted them and then I went out.
Brian: You didn’t make it that first time—tell me about that.
Pat: In my first attempt, my brothers and my son came along with me. When we got to about 1.7 miles from the finish line, I had no doubt that I was going to reach France. All of a sudden the tides changed, and it was pulling me away—usually it runs parallel but for that one it didn’t. So I was bound and determined I was going to go back and that following year I did. There were high winds the whole time so I had to wait it out. The third time I made it, and from there I started hearing about all these other [Oceans Seven] swimmers and I was like, “Huh…I wonder if I can do the Strait of Gibraltar?”
Brian: That was the next one you did?
Pat: Yes. It wasn’t a very fast swim—it was probably nine or ten miles depending on where the current brings you—and I told my son, “I’ll get to Africa (from Spain), but just don’t tell me my time.” It takes seven or eight hours, and the average is around five hours. I was swimming and swimming and suddenly there was this finish line. The boat pilot was yelling, ‘three, three, three’. I was thinking that maybe I got the third fastest (time) of the week. I got on the phone and found out I was in one heck of a current, pushing me to Africa. I did it in a time of three hours and 28 minutes. I was the third fastest (American) woman since 1928. I beat some Olympic swimmers that day, but it wasn’t because of my ability. It was just one heck of a current that was pushing me to the finish.
Brian: What gets you through when things are really difficult and it’s dark and it’s painful and you’ve been swimming for 10 hours straight?
Pat: I think I have this laser-guided focus concentration. I’m focused on finishing. I can get stung by jellyfish; I can have some scary things happen and I just continue to swim. The only time I got stopped was in the English Channel about a month and a half ago, because I had severe nausea and vomiting. I wasn’t wearing the Scopolamine (motion-sickness medicine) patch and I had to stop because I swam for 10 hours and 30 minutes and without any intake, it wasn’t my day. Other than that I’ve never hit the wall in swimming, and I’m really curious to see how far I can swim before I say, “Jeez I’m getting tired.” When I finished the North Channel, I felt good. I felt as though I had the capability to swim back to Ireland.
Brian: That’s pretty impressive.
Pat: For being 65.
Brian: For any age, I’m thinking. How proud are your grandkids?
Pat: Oh, yes. I’ve written a children’s story about my Catalina swim.
Brian: What’s it called?
Pat: Catalina…Oh,my! It was a remarkable experience, I saw dolphins and pelicans and flying fish, and [heard] the sounds of whales…it was just absolutely…
Brian: A much more pleasant environment.
Pat: Yes, but I got a scare one mile off the coast. I thought a shark was underneath me. [The crew] were all laughing, saying, “Look around you, you’re being escorted by dolphins.” My brother Bill said that dolphins came from the north, southeast and west. All these pods converged and brought me right in to the finish line. I wrote that story and of course I can’t even find a publisher that even wants to look at it, so it’s just been gathering dust for about two years.
Brian: What’s worse, jellyfish or the tides?
Pat: Well, I’ve been stung by jellyfish here in Maine. It was awful. It was right off the charts, I never felt anything so painful. The Lion’s Mane jellyfish sting feels mild and doesn’t have any toxic effects, so for the North Channel I would say the tides were the worst part for me. The majority of the swimmers say it’s the cold water. Most people quit because of hypothermia. They sometimes quit at the third or fourth hour. They just can’t stand the cold.
Brian: It helps to be Mainer, maybe?
Pat: Yes definitely.
Brian: How so?
Pat: I told many marathon swim friends to come to Maine, to train here because this is the best training ground outside the North Channel and English Channel. It prepares you well—there’s many of the same conditions. We’ve actually had some swimmers that have come here (to train).
Brian: Do you feel like Maine is a little more on the map because of the attention you’ve gotten?
Pat: Yes. I think so. People read about me story and they say, “Jeez, she’s 65 and I’m 30, maybe there’s hope for me.”
Brian: You’re taking away the excuses for some people.
Brian: On a long swim, what do you do to deal with the boredom and to keep focused?
Pat: Each swim is different. [During the North Channel swim] I tried to focus but I noticed that time was going past so quickly, I thought my crew was playing tricks on me because we had agreed that I’d have my first feeding at the second hour, then every hour after. When the swim was down I asked my son, “How come you changed the plan?” and he just said, “We didn’t, we were feeding you every hour.” I went in to that zone and I’d never felt any of the mental strain, and the physical part of it. I’m well trained and I didn’t feel tired at all. I felt as though… in fact the following day I was on the phone seeing if I could swim Loch Ness in Scotland, that’s 21 mile swim. I recovered enough within 24 hours that I could do another swim.
Brian: What makes you want to keep swimming at 65 years old?
Pat: I love it. It’s so much fun. I’ve met people worldwide, had a great connection with many marathon swimmers and they were all very supportive. I’m just curious to see how far I can take this at this age. I’m not going to let anyone tell me that I’m too old to do something. I just want to go out and try it.
Brian: So what advice do you have for people who want to do open-water swimming?
Pat: I’d say to go down a road that they might not expect. They might find it will be something rewarding. I never ever imagined that I was going to be a marathon swimmer, but I decided to try the Peaks to Portland and it brought me down this road. It has just been incredible. Try something that they don’t think they’d enjoy and maybe they will. You just never know.
Brian: Don’t limit yourself.
Brian: What’s next for you?
Pat: On May 15th I’m leaving for Hawaii to try the Molokai Channel. That will be a difficult swim because of the waves—I can get motion sickness very easily. It’s a 30-mile estimate with current, but I know I can do the distance because I ended up swimming 26 miles for the North Channel, with the current.
Brian: What’s the secret to your success?
Pat: My determination. I also recognize that it’s okay to feel disappointed but not defeated. That’s what I’ve learned through marathon swimming. Just like in life, you will face disappointment but you’ve just got to pick yourself up and move forward.
Brian: How long do you think you’ll keep swimming?
Pat: Probably not until I’m six feet under. My mom is 91 and she was swimming up to a year ago, so I still have plenty of years left in me. I feel strong. I don’t feel 65 at all.
Brian: You make it look easy, but I know it’s been anything but easy.
Pat: I’ve put my time in.