Published: June 29, 2013
On a fiercely hot Colorado Springs afternoon, Danielle Wahl talked calmly about her upcoming frigid adventure. She plans to swim across The English Channel this week, braving bone-chilling 60-degree water while dodging hundreds of shipping vessels and maybe a jellyfish or two.
Wahl twice finished second in state in the 500 freestyle for Cheyenne Mountain, and she's preparing for her junior season of competition at Kentucky's Centre College. She could have spent this summer in relative ease.
She instead spent a major chunk of her waking moments in the water. She swam every morning at Cheyenne Mountain along with a long afternoon swim among the crowds at Prospect Lake near downtown Colorado Springs. She's driven to Wellington Lake, near Bailey, where she braved sub-60 degree water for hours.
All this because she's driven by a goal. When she was 12, Wahl decided she would conquer the channel.
"I'm just one of those people who enjoy extreme challenges," she said.
There's no doubt the channel delivers an extreme challenge. The 21-mile strait between England and France has long beckoned to swimmers who seek a rigid test of their skills.
When standing on the shores at Dover, where Wahl will begin her attempt, it's easy to understand the romance of this test. The white cliffs are behind you, and the waves crash before you and France beckons in the distance. The shores of France don't look all that far away.
Wahl stood beside those white cliffs in 2010. She resolved then to cross the channel.
"Taking on the cold water and taking on the waves - that's kind of part of the beauty of the challenge," she said.
Understand this: Wahl understands the immensity of her attempt. Fewer than 900 swimmers, she said, have successfully crossed the channel. A boat, filled with people who care about her, will be by her side during her journey. Her father, Michael, and her brother, Devin, will keep a watchful eye on her condition.
The greatest threat is hypothermia. Wahl has gained 10 pounds, mostly by aggressive consumption of peanut butter, in an effort to insulate her body, but she's been told she still will spend her hours shivering.
Her feet and hands will be stinging with cold.
"I'm really going to have to keep on eye on that," she said. "The shivering, the body shakes. It's going to be like being in a cold ice bath for 10 hours. But obviously it can be done. The human body can really do some amazing things if you just keep on pushing forward."
Wahl has found encouragement from Katie Benoit, a patrol officer for the Colorado Springs Police Department. Benoit swam the channel last summer in 13 hours and 13 minutes.
"I got really lucky," Benoit said Wednesday. "I had a really good day. Low winds. Warm water. It was a really good day."
Benoit started at 3 a.m., and she was suffering in the dark during the first several hours. She struggled with dehydration and gloom.
Then the sun lifted above the horizon. The light lifted the water temperature, and Benoit's sagging spirit.
"That was really awesome," Benoit said of the sun's precious arrival. "With more light, it seemed more hopeful."
Benoit often is asked why she made all the sacrifices. She listens to the same questions over and over. "Isn't that really cold water?" And, "Isn't that really far?"
She laughed as she thought back to her long day in the frigid water.
"I never asked myself why," she said.
Wahl does ask herself that question. When the alarm blasted at 6 a.m., calling her to a long day in the water, Wahl sometimes wondered why she decided to defy the channel.
But the question always went away. She knows the odds are against her. She's been told less than one in six of those who step into the water in Dover step out as conquerors in France. She knows the misery that awaits her in the water.
And she can barely wait for her chance to suffer.
Wahl was sitting on the beach at Prospect Lake, preparing for two hours in the water, but her mind was far away. She was, in a way, already in Dover.
She realizes all this work might be in vain. She knows those who care about her in the boat might be forced to pull her from the water to ensure her safety.
"That's something I have to be prepared for, getting pulled out," she said with a shrug. "I'm only 20. I have plenty of time to try again. But I'm not going to pull myself out of the water."
She paused, glancing at the lake in Colorado Springs while thinking of that far-away channel. She smiled as she corrected herself.
"I'm not going to pull myself from the water unless I'm walking on the shore of France."