At age 55, most people might be looking at taking up some less strenuous hobbies. Jeannie Zappe decided she was going to start marathon swimming.

Last month, Zappe, a former Messiah University swim coach who teaches competitive swimming across the Midstate, swam the English Channel, an endeavor that was roughly three years in the making.

It helps to have a youthful attitude.

“Even when it’s hard, it’s play. I feel like a kid,” Zappe said. “Just because things are hard, doesn’t mean shy away from them. If you’re uncomfortable, if you hurt, it’s OK.”

It’s a mindset that propelled Zappe through years of arduous training. Despite a long background in swimming, Zappe didn’t decide to start doing ultralong distances until much later in life; distances where the preparation is most of the feat.

“If you don’t’ suffer enough before you go to the channel, you don’t want your first suffering to be in the channel,” Zappe said.

The roughly 21-mile stretch of water between Dover, England, and Wissant, France, is widely considered to be one of, if not the, paragon of long-distance swimming. Zappe did a relay swim of the channel in 2017, which she said sparked her interest in doing open-water swims solo.

“It took me a year to push the button,” she said, but in July 2018 she contacted a boat pilot, one of a handful of professional guides who specialize in navigating swimmers across the channel, and eventually made reservations for 2021.

Over the next three years, Zappe began to prepare.

Zappe competed on her high school swim team in Bloomsburg, although she didn’t try out for the team when she arrived at Penn State for college.

“I didn’t think I was worthy,” Zappe said, but the nagging thought that she should have tried stayed with her.

“It was unfinished business,” Zappe said. She began teaching swim lessons as a summer gig in college, and joined a masters’ swim team when she was in her 30s.

In 2010, Zappe took a certification course in freestyle swimming, a technique that had been her least favorite when she was younger. But it opened up wide possibilities for her.

“It just became so easy to swim long distances with a more efficient freestyle,” Zappe said. She began doing open water swimming events, such as bridge-to-bridge swims on rivers in the region.

But it wasn’t until 2018 that she kicked it into high gear, doing five 10-kilometer swims that year, the distance of the Olympic marathon swim event and the minimum event distance generally accepted by serious outdoor swimmers.

When the weather turned bad, Zappe had to do the 10k training swims in a pool, an exhausting exercise given the number of turns. Being used to having other swimmers and music, Zappe was advised to have neither in order to get used to the conditions of open-water swimming.

“It’s an exercise in being present,” Zappe said. “90% of what I did over there was mental, I think.”

In 2019, Zappe did the 29-mile swim around Manhattan, the first in the “triple crown” of competitive swimming. Last year, she had planned to complete the second leg, the swim from Catalina Island to Long Beach in southern California, but those plans got cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Zappe has rescheduled it for 2022).

The English Channel swim also came close to not happening. Zappe and the three friends she had asked to be on the guide boat arrived in England on Aug. 23, with Zappe’s boat pilot having given her priority for a window between Aug. 28 and Sept. 5.

After having waited two weeks for the weather to improve, and with the window closing, Zappe decided to make the swim on the evening of Sept. 5, starting around 10 p.m. — meaning that the first half of her journey would be in the dark, the reverse of what most swimmers do.

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“It was a little iffy, but they put me in,” Zappe said. “You have to be ready for anything.”

The swim across the channel isn’t a straight shot; Zappe said her pilot estimated she swam 34 to 35 miles in order to cover the 21-mile straight-line distance.

The strong current in the channel means most swimmers’ routes are shaped like the letter S, or an inverted S. After being pushed off course one way, the swimmer then begins to drift the opposite way as the tide changes.

Toward the end of the swim comes the hardest part, when a burst of energy is required to swim against the tide and push in to the French coast. Many swimmers are exhausted by this point and fail to make up any ground as they drift down the coastline.

“That’s where you’re supposed to have another gear and pick it up,” Zappe said. “Some people swim in place for six hours with no progress.”

But when the boat pilot signaled her to move past him and head on into the French shallows, she knew she had succeeded.

“At that point I realized that the vibe had changed, that we were going to do it,” Zappe said. “The whole thing was surreal; it’s hard to wrap my head around it still. I know I did it but it’s hard to believe.”

She was in the water for 14 hours and 55 minutes, walking onto the French beach — where one is only allowed to stay for a few minutes due to customs and visa limits — around 1 p.m. on Sept. 6.

Zappe said she was advised to not take family along as her helpers, and was fortunate to have three reliable friends who were willing to make the trip.

“I was lucky I had three very good friends who sacrificed and went with me for 19 days,” she said.

The rules of most marathon swims are simple. You can’t wear a wetsuit; gear is limited to a normal swimsuit, cap and goggles. You can’t use the boat for physical support, only navigation and to have someone toss you sustenance.

Once every half hour, Zappe someone on the boat would toss her a bottle with an energy drink made from powdered mix. The bottle, with a line attached, would then be roped back onto the boat.

“I had to flip over on my back like an otter,” and kick while gulping down the drink, Zappe said.

Her training paid off. The night after the swim, her shoulders became incredibly sore, Zappe said, and she iced them and slept a lot for the next two days before returning to the states.

“I think I was well prepared for it, things didn’t hurt that much while I was doing it,” Zappe said. “The week after I got home I was very foggy. I was upright, but thinking about napping all the time.”

Zappe plans to continue coaching and giving swim lessons, although she said she wants to move into coaching more specifically for long-distance and open water swimmers. She’s also interested in writing; during long swims, she would map out books.

“Some days I’ll write a chapter of a book in my head while I’m swimming, and then come home and write it down,” she said. In fact, she wrote a whole children’s book while doing training swims, and hopes to write about her channel swim as well.

“I have amazing clarity when I’m swimming,” Zappe said. The mental precision and focus, she said, far outweighs the disadvantages of age.

“I couldn’t have done it at 45 or 35 or 25, because I didn’t have the mental side,” she said. “I think you get better mentally as you get older.”

After Catalina next year, the triumvirate of swims will be done. But there will surely be more.

“I’m sure there will be something more after,” Zappe said, “because I can’t stop myself.”

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