Her hand came up out of the water and quietly went back in under the wave. Then the other hand came out on the other side as Florence Chadwick continued to swim in the cold pacific waters between Catalina Island and the California coastline near Los Angeles. She had been swimming for 14 hours already in an attempt to do what no other woman had done before today, July 4, 1952. The 26 miles she was trying to cross was similar to the distance she had already crossed a couple of years earlier as she beat the women’s record for swimming the English Channel.
Stroke, pull, kick, stroke, pull, kick; Florence continued to swim.
The water between England and France is around 60 degrees, just like the water she was in now. The English Channel is 21 miles wide as the crow flies, but the strong currents and tides made her swim closer to 25 miles. So the distance and cold water on this day in July wasn’t a new challenge.
Stroke, pull, kick, stroke, pull, kick; Florence continued swimming into her 15th hour but started to weaken. Even though she had conquered many long distance swims around the world, today she was losing her resolve. It wasn’t the sharks that had been warded off by rifle shot many times. It wasn’t hunger, physical or psychological, because she would get food and drink every 40 minutes along the way and she was chasing a record. So what was causing her to struggle now?
A heavy fog had rolled over the bay that day, making it hard for the support boats to see her. She had a hard time seeing them, and had no idea where the coast was or how far away it was.
“I’m done,” Florence said, as she slowed her strokes and picked her head up out of the water. “I want to get out.”
“You are so close, dear,” her mother told her from the support boat leading the way. “Don’t give up now.”
Florence continued to paddle for a while longer, but ultimately got out of the water after nearly 16 hours of swimming. Florence soon discovered that she was half a mile away from the shore. Disheartened and frustrated, Florence had to talk to the media when she made it to land.
One of the reporters asked her, “What went wrong? Why didn’t you complete the swim today?
“Look, I’m not excusing myself, but if I could have seen land I know I could have made it,” Florence said.
Two months later, on September 4, she did make it. She had continued to work out and stay conditioned. The swim started much the same as it had two months before. And as before a heavy fog set in. This time, however; the fog wouldn’t deter her. She not only finished the 26 miles, a feat never accomplished by another woman to that point, but she did it in 13 hours, 47 minutes, and 55 seconds, breaking a 27-year-old record by more than two hours.
So what was the difference?
Tasting defeat may have given her new grit and determination to finish the swim again. Maybe the water was a little warmer. But when asked about her swim after arriving on the California beach, she said, “I kept a mental image of the shoreline in my mind while I swam.”
Florence Chadwick would make that crossing two more times in her career and would set multiple world records as she swam long distances in open waters around the world.
The difference between success and failure for a world-class swimmer was being able to see the shore. While you may never find yourself in shark-infested, 60-degree water for more than 13 hours, you will undoubtedly find yourself struggling at some point, just hoping you can tread water long enough to survive another day.
In those moments, you need to remember your goal.
If you are struggling against something that doesn’t help you reach your goal (perhaps an addiction or distraction), then you should quit and get back on track. But if you are finding the path to a worthy goal harder than you imagined, take a moment to remember what the goal is. Keep it fixed in your mind and imagine what it will feel like when you accomplish it. Try to remember why it was so important to you. Then focus on the next step, stroke, or action that needs to happen. Never lose focus on what’s important to you, especially when it gets hard. It could be the difference between stopping half a mile short, and shattering a world record by two hours.