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‘I hit rock bottom, learned to swim and then swam the Channel’

A childhood dream of swimming the English Channel got Stève Stievenart through divorce and depression

Stève Stievenart, 46, remembers his grandfather taking him to watch cross-Channel swimming races Pic: Stève Stievenart

How can we pick the adjective that (swim) suits Stève Stievenart best? 

Outstanding, out-of-this-world, unreal, off-the-charts, mesmerising, mind-boggling, inspirational, super-human are just a few that come to mind. 

But if you had to pick just one, ‘extraordinary’ seems the most fitting. 

Mr Stievenart, who lives in Wimereux (Pas-de-Calais), has swum the Channel five times, also the North Channel, Baikal Lake in Siberia, Loch Ness, and Catalina Island to Los Angeles, each time spending between 20 and 51 hours in the water.

He has always been an avid sportsperson, having previously competed in ice racing, jet skiing and marathons. But his open-water career, sparked by a childhood dream to swim the Channel, only came later, when he hit rock bottom in his personal life in 2017 and decided to turn things around. 

He was helped by British open-water swimming legend Kevin Murphy, who agreed to train him. They went on to form an enduring friendship.

During his swimming journey, Mr Stievenart discovered the astonishing capacity of his brain, something that only a tiny percentage of the population ever experience. 

It happens in the water after 20 hours of swimming. “You enter another dimension. You see things differently.”

Mr Stievenart said he was joined by dolphins on some of his swims when he doubted his abilities and considered giving up. 

He is adamant the animals picked up on his fear and doubt, and answered his calls for help to boost his confidence and outperform himself. 

Scientists have not studied or explained such occurrences, apart from to cast aspersions on them.

The Connexion spoke to an ethnologist who said that Mr Stievenart in all probability is telling the truth about what he has felt on these long-distance swims, and compares his experience with hundreds of similar reports from people sharing their experiences.

“Everybody has these capabilities. I am the living proof,” he added.

Read more: France’s ‘Iron man’: ‘I had this crazy dream of flying even higher’

You are the first open-water swimmer to have made three crossings between the California coast and Catalina Island. Was it the hardest race of your life? 

Oh yes. Swimming for 51 hours and 18 minutes is an incredible adventure considering that I am not allowed even to touch the boat to rest. 

Once you are in the water, you can’t stop. The rules are strict: you are allowed a cap, goggles, and swimming trunks. That is all.

Is the cold your greatest enemy? 

Yes, and with good reason. Your body temperature ranges from around 36 to 37 degrees and you swim in waters of around 16 or 17 degrees. 

Your body constantly fights to stay at its regular temperature, which is already burning a lot of calories. 

But then you add in the physical effort of swimming on top of that... I deliberately gain weight, going from 63 to 110 kilos, to allow me to achieve this.

You hit a kayak after an hour in the water. What effect did it have on you?

My team followed me with one boat and a kayak, which caught a wave and hit my head. My neck hurt a lot and I was a bit groggy. I even considered stopping after I had completed one stretch of the swim. 

Ninety per cent of my success lies in mental preparation through meditation. Nowadays, I am able to isolate the pain and convince myself it does not exist.

Once you pass 20 hours in the water, you are in a higher state.

What do you mean? 

You enter another dimension. You see things differently. 

I know it sounds slightly crazy but you can ‘communicate’ with dolphins. I have had experiences on open-water swims when dolphins joined me. It has happened three times. 

I nearly gave up while swimming the North Channel when, about ten hours in, Lion’s Mane jellyfish began to sting me very aggressively. 

I called on Nature, so to speak, and something incredible happened: two dolphins came over ten minutes later, the wind changed, and the jellyfish moved away. 

You can feel the energy you have asked for. The power of the human brain is incredible. We have not been taught how to understand these capabilities. 

In 2017, you went through divorce, lost custody of your children, lost your job and home. How did you overcome the depression you suffered? 

From a little inner voice that we all have. I clung to my childhood dream to cross the Channel. 

I had always admired those swimmers but had put up mental barriers, telling myself that it was not for me as I did not know how to swim. 

I decided that my dream would get me through this situation, so I went to England to learn the sport...

…where you met Kevin Murphy, who has crossed the Channel 34 times. What convinced him to train you?

The eyes don’t lie. I think he saw the distress in my eyes. 

I said to him: “Mr Murphy, I cannot swim but I want to swim the Channel, I am prepared to do whatever it takes to get there.” 

He replied: “OK, we will do this over three years. A year to learn, a year to understand and a year to win.” 

That’s how our story began.

Read more: ‘I am learning to read at 43 after running my own business for years’

Your nickname is ‘the seal’. Does it come from your training?

Yes indeed. Sometimes I had to swim for ten hours a day, and twice over the weekend. 

During these sessions, the British swimmers followed a diet of sweets and cakes. My stomach expanded from too much fructose, yet I was not gaining the weight I needed.  

The following weekend I came in with oily fish – herring, haddock and sardines, to put on more fat. This is when he told me: “you eat like a seal.”

Tell me about that first Channel crossing. You said it was a trigger point.

I came ashore after 20 hours and 55 minutes, having swum 81 kilometres instead of the average 40. 

I got an award, and that is how I started making a name for myself.

What is special about the Channel?

It is the oldest water-crossing competition. Since 1875, it has been a bit like the Tour de France for swimmers. 

It is also the race my grandfather took me to when I was a child. He used to tell me that people crossed over to a new country. It has always fascinated me.

Have you developed a particular link with Great Britain? The Anglo-Saxon mentality rewards the most ambitious and passionate people. Would you have made it without Mr Murphy?

No. He has given me so much, both as a person and as a sportsman. 

I have a deep admiration for English and American sports culture – the recognition for performance and how you achieve it.

It takes on even greater significance in the US, where I am considering settling to train.

You have crossed the Channel five times. Why do you keep swimming?

I discovered a wonderful world that benefits my wellbeing. I now have a visceral need to be in the ocean every day. I get seasick when I am not in contact with it. 

It has also opened my eyes to research about the ocean. I have learned to sleep in the water, for example, because it helps recovery by supporting your body weight. 

Scientists are also studying my stomach, mainly the intestinal flora that contain different bacteria. Researchers are looking into the new yeast cultures that have taken up home there. 

I also speak at conferences about mental preparation.

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