Kiki conquers the channel
She ploughed her way through the icy waters to reach her destination on French soil while hundreds of people watched her swim via live streaming, and countless WhatsApp messages circulated the globe.
“All those mornings waking up at 03.30 and getting into the freezing water throughout winter paid off,” says an elated Marx, who endured two years of extreme training for the ultimate long-distance swimming challenge.
“It took a powerful belief that I have what it takes to do this. It’s a mind-body thing – the will and drive to achieve something that is way beyond my imagination,” she told the SA Jewish Report this week.
Marx celebrated her 50th birthday the day before her swim, on Saturday, 24 August. It was the same day in 1875 that Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the English Channel in less than 22 hours.
Marx, the 15th South African woman to accomplish this feat, was one of five South African swimmers – three Jewish – to brave the iconic swim last weekend. Johannesburg businessman Jason Lemmer, 52, successfully completed the crossing in 15 hours and 18 minutes, becoming the 68th South African to cross.
Miles Worling completed it in 13 hours, 31 minutes, and Marcelle Stiemens completed it in 11 hours, 29 minutes. Sadly Colin Gluch had to abort his swim after severe sea sickness made it impossible to continue.
The cold and lonely experience began at 04.29 on Sunday for Marx, when a loud foghorn on Samphire Hoe Beach in Dover signalled the start of her swim. It took a punishing 16 hours and 30 minutes to hear the same sound at the end of her journey, when she reached Wissant Beach in France.
She had to dig deep to keep going as the tide began to turn around sunset and she was still swimming. Towards the end, fatigue set in. “It had been an incredible day, the weather forecast was fantastic. The sea was flat a lot of the way. I was in a good head space. But at the very end, I was a bit exhausted after fighting the current,” she said.
This was Marx’s second attempt at the epic 33.5km swim. Her hopes were dashed in 2016, when she was forced to abort the crossing a mere 400m from dry land. This was after a mammoth 19.5 hours, and a gigantic battle against the current which stubbornly pulled her backwards. “I was absolutely devastated. I begged and pleaded to keep on, but I was warned that safety comes first,” she said.
It didn’t quell her desire to triumph over the tides and try again.
During the long, lonely hours at sea, Kiki said, “I thought about the important people in my life. I always connect with my late dad, Richard. I say, ‘Hi dad,’ he is there watching, and we have a huck.”
She said she also davens (prays) for friends who are ill. “I’m so privileged to have a healthy mind and body. When you don’t, it’s debilitating and sad, so I send them positive thoughts. I think about life, and what I’m doing here.”
Dozens of messages egging her on reached her by phone via the voices of close friend Sharon Wilensky and her partner, Hedley Isserow, who were in the support boat sailing alongside her.
When the going got tough, Derrick and Debbie Frazer, who took care of logistics and assisting with swimming support, both jumped into the water next to Marx. They swam with her to the end. “It gave me the strength I needed to get there,” she said. Derrick, in fact, swam with her three times during the day to motivate her.
The morning afterwards, she told the SA Jewish Report, “My arms are a little stiff, but I’m feeling fantastic.”
A toasted cheese made by her mom, Dorothy Marcus, a hot shower, and a good night’s sleep was what the doctor ordered when she returned to the hotel.
Swimming the channel isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with hundreds of ferries and tankers passing through every day. Swimmers get stung numerous times by jelly fish.
“You just push through it,” said Marx.
In preparation, Marx was in the pool most days by 04:00. Sundays culminated in an 8km to 10km swim, taking up to three hours. Often she would go to Langebaan in the Western Cape or KwaZulu-Natal with Lemmer, where they’d practice swimming in the dark, and getting used to open seas.
The two also completed a double Robben Island swim – about 15km – and a compulsory six-hour sea swim in similar channel temperatures.
Marx was also one of 25 swimmers to complete the first-ever swim across the Dead Sea in November 2016. The dangerous 17km swim from Jordan to Ein Gedi was organised to create awareness of the rapidly shrinking sea, and to raise money for numerous charities.
In 2012, she joined ORT Jet as part of a 20-strong female team that climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, to promote awareness and raise funds for vulnerable single women across all communities.
Lemmer, who has done an Ironman, four Comrades marathons, the Dusi Canoe marathon, the Otter Trail, and the Robben Island swim, told the SA Jewish Report he kept negative thoughts at bay while swimming in spite of feeling seasick for the first three hours.
“I hurled like never before. I swam for three hours in darkness, it was a little rough, and the fumes from the boat got to me, but I don’t give up easily. I swam 987km in training for this in a year. I didn’t want to come back telling sad stories,” he said.
He began his swim at 02:35 on 23 August, and when he reached France he took a stone from the beach as a keepsake.
“It’s lonely, and you really need to love water,” he said.
His message to others interested in doing this is to “do what makes you feel good and alive. It’s not only about the event. It’s about the journey, the people.”