On July 29th, MICA grad and Baltimore artist Katie Pumphrey, 34, swam the English Channel in thirteen hours and 44 minutes. This was Pumphrey’s second time swimming the Channel. And she’s only the 73rd woman to the complete the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming, which includes the Catalina Channel, the 20 Bridges swim—a 28.8-mile swim around the island of Manhattan—and the English Channel.
Pumphrey talked to us about her rigorous training for “the beast,” jellyfish stings, and waiting for 10 days in England for “the call” to start her swim.
You are an artist and an open-water swimmer. One seems a little more likely in Baltimore. How did you get into open-water swimming?
Yes, I love my two worlds of art and swimming. It’s been so fun to connect them in my work lately. I’m working on a new body of paintings and sculptures that dives into their connection even more. Swimming has always been in my life—I would call it my first love, but art joined in there around the same time. Like I mentioned, they have always been connected. I swam competitively starting at age five for Monocacy Aquatic Club in Frederick County and then in high school. But when I was making the decision about colleges, I chose to commit fully to painting versus swim collegiately. I went to the Maryland Institute College of Art to study painting, which was the right choice for me. Not only professionally and because it’s one of the best painting programs in the world, but it also brought me to Baltimore, and I truly fell in love with this city.
But swimming was always a happy place and a huge part of me, so I kept coming back to it. Throughout college, I taught swim lessons at the Y on 33rd Street, so I kept swimming on my own. I am definitely someone who likes to work toward a goal, so after college in 2010, I signed up for the 4.4-mile Chesapeake Bay Swim. It was one of the hardest things I had ever experienced, but oh my goodness, I loved it. The first thing I said out of the water was, “I want to do that again.” So, the next year I did, as well as the 7.5-mile Potomac River swim in Southern Maryland. I loved that swim even more—not only the distance, but that each swimmer has kayak support. I loved the swim with the sense of teamwork.
In 2013, I put my mind towards the idea of a bigger swim. I started thinking about a 20-plus mile swim and I quickly fell in love with the idea of the English Channel. I thought, if I was going to go for a big swim, I should just go for the mother of them all. The English Channel is a beast and so hard, but it is so beautiful. Truly magical. And the community that surrounds it is a big part of that. I love it all.
Swimming was always a happy place and a huge part of me, so I kept coming back to it.
When did you swim the English Channel for the first time?
My first English Channel swim was August 7, 2015. I was 27 years old and completed that swim in 14 hours and 19 minutes. It was a beautiful day, but the cold water was a challenge. The water temp this time around was five to six degrees warmer, versus the 60 degrees it was in 2015 (sadly, a sign of climate change), but the conditions were much rougher this time around. Luckily, I knew what I was getting into.
What made you want to swim it again?
A big part of revisiting this swim for the second time was to enjoy it more and to do it again without so much pressure. Knowing that I could do it and knowing what I was getting into made the experience of training and the swim itself so much more fun. I was more excited than nervous, which was a big change, but made it more enjoyable. Experience and wisdom—and perhaps being seven years older—played a huge part in that. I was nervous, of course, but I felt more in it, more present, and I was just so happy to be doing it.
How long have you been training?
The somewhat snarky answer is my whole life. And there is some truth to that. I’ve been swimming my entire life, and quite seriously, distance-wise, for 12 years now. I like to mention that because I am always swimming and that time in the water adds up—but there is an ebb and flow to training. (Open water pun intended.) And there’s a ramp up as a big swim gets closer. So, the actual answer is about a year and half, with the last six months of training leading up to leaving for England being quite intense. Training is a huge part of the experience, but I really do enjoy it.
So, you just completed your second swim. Holy cow that is so impressive! You started at 11:30 p.m. Why begin so late and swim through the night?
You basically start at a time that gives you the best window for conditions. So, this time around I started at 11:30 p.m. because the wind was set to calm down during the night and wasn’t expected to pick back up until later in the afternoon. The aim was to swim through some wind—which means lots of chop and swells—at the beginning, but that’s when you’re the strongest. Then it settled down a bit. Unfortunately, the wind did pick back up and make for some big swells and white caps a bit earlier than predicted, which made the end of the swim a fight—but what would an English Channel swim be without a battle?
I got the “call”—it was actually a text—from the boat captains, who are called the pilots. My pilots were co-captains Harry and Fred Mardle of Masterpiece Charters, so they made that call. They make the decision of when to go, as well as if the swim needs to be called off at any point. My crew is there on the boat to support me, along with an observer from the Channel Swimming Association to ensure rules are followed and to record the events of the swim. But the big decisions about when to go, the course, necessary changes, etcetera, are the decisions of the pilot. I swam in 2015 and this time in 2022 with Masterpiece. Harry and Fred really are amazing.
In 2015 I started at 3:15 a.m., so this time around starting at 11:30 p.m. felt a bit more daunting since it meant swimming through the entire night, but I really enjoyed it. Not knowing what day you’ll swim or what time is definitely a challenge. After waiting about 10 days, unsure of when I might swim, getting a text at 1:30 p.m. to meet the boat at 10:30 p.m. that night was really exciting.
You also had a whole crew with you. Tell us about them.
My crew was my husband, Joe Mahach, along with two friends—Dylan Tenney and Trent Sumner. They were amazing. And not just amazing because of how they kept my spirits up during the swim, but they were amazing during the many, many days of waiting. Plus, amazing for being up for the adventure in the first place. I am truly so thankful for them. They helped make it a very fun swim and took great care of me before, during, and after. Not only does Joe very much support and encourage these crazy swims, but he helps make the training and the entire experience an adventure.
You swam from England to France in 13 hours and 44 minutes. What are the rules for swimming the Channel?
The rules are simple actually. You must start beyond the water and finish beyond the water. You can’t touch anything, like the boat, or anyone during the swim. You can only wear a standard swimsuit (no wet suit), cap, and goggles. So, no neoprene for warmth, no resting on the boat, no hanging on or anything. Your crew is allowed to toss you water and food—which we call “feeds.” I take a feed of water with protein powder, along with a Gu gel every 30 minutes. A rope is tied to the water bottle, so the crew pulls that back in and no litter is left in the water. I swim freestyle (front crawl) the entire time. When I “stop” for a feed, I eat and drink while treading or mostly kicking on my back. We joke that I eat like a sea otter—but that’s actually very accurate.
In the last couple hours of the swim, the wind picked up an insane amount. It felt like being in a washing machine, or even more accurate, as if I were inside a snow globe that a small child was shaking.
What do you think about while you’re swimming?
Honestly, not a whole lot. I really try to keep my mind away from the distance or time, and I try not to think about being warmer or sleeping. But it creeps in there, of course, along with the thought of how uncomfortable I am. Pain and discomfort is a part of these swims. There’s no way around that, but it’s best to try and not focus on it. Often I just think about my rhythm. A lot of times I repetitively count to four. I aim to make my arms turning over match the counting, which can help keep my pace faster. I focus on the rhythm of my breathing. I breathe every stroke on my left. I stay very aware of my surroundings but just aim to make my mind blank, which does help. I did spend some time thinking about new paintings. And when my mind wanders I always replay the movie Jaws in my head during a swim—it’s unavoidable, and very fun. But for the most part, I kept my thoughts very blank.
The timing of feeds does help that though. I take a feed every 30 minutes, and then within that 30 minutes I swim “at pace,” meaning my kind of forever, comfortable pace, for 25 minutes. And then my crew gives me a signal—a spinning glow stick at night or a “Go” sign in the daylight—to “sprint” or pick up the pace for five minutes. My favorite “Go” sign reads: “Go Fast for Five Min and Then We’ll Give You a TREAT.” And then at the end of the five minutes, I get a “Stop” sign and I pick my head up for the feed. This timing structure helps break up the swim. While it was an over 13-hour swim, I aim to think of it as 30 minutes at a time.
You said it was a “tough swim.” What does that mean to you exactly?
It was a wild swim—big swells, choppy waves, and the wind really picked up towards the end making the waves even wilder. I’ve been describing the beginning of the swim, the dark hours throughout the night, like riding in a bumper car while blindfolded. Waves kept hitting me and knocking me over and felt like they were coming from all directions. Swimming at night is always a wild ride, especially when it is so dark and there’s no horizon line. Sometimes a wave hits you and it’s confusing of what’s up and what’s down, but my crew helped a lot. They wore glow sticks, which gave me points of light to look for. As the sun came up—one of the most beautiful sunrises—things calmed down a bit. And then in the last couple hours of the swim, especially when we could see the French coast was so close, the wind picked up an insane amount. It was wind over tide, which makes for white caps everywhere and some wicked water. It felt like being in a washing machine, or even more accurate, as if I were inside a snow globe that a small child was shaking. While I’m swimming, I always try to think of ways to describe what the water feels like, so some of those descriptions made me laugh to myself while I was swimming.
Of course, I also love smooth conditions and flat water, but it’s oddly fun to battle it out. The English Channel really is a beast. Something about that body of water keeps drawing me back to it. Even now, talking about the tough parts, I am excited to get back to it in a few years. I think this is a swim I’ll visit several more times in my lifetime.
Do you run into any sea life while swimming?
Dozens and dozens of jellyfish. Mostly Lions Mane jellyfish—which are particularly hairy and have a pretty wicked sting. A few of the stings even continued to burn periodically for days after. And even now, I still have a few marks from their tentacles. Some of the stings feel like a rubber band snap. When they got me, let’s just say, there was a lot of cursing. But truly there’s nothing you can do about them, so I might as well think of them as friends that are just trying to make me swim faster. They woke me up a few times, especially at night when I was feeling a little sleepy. I couldn’t see them coming at all, so it was always quite the surprise. I didn’t see or hear any other sea life, but I am sure they saw me.
Walking, really hobbling, out onto the beach in France and looking back to my crew on the boat cheering—I just don’t have words to describe that feeling.
How did you feel right after? How do you feel now?
Tired. Happy. All of the feels. Right after I just felt so excited. Walking, really hobbling, out onto the beach in France and looking back to my crew on the boat cheering—I just don’t have words to describe that feeling. I laid on the warm sandy beach and just looked up at the bluest sky with seagulls flying over. It felt like the greatest sense of relief and joy. I did a few sand angels to celebrate, before grabbing four little rocks from the French coast to hold onto.
To do this swim for a second time, it just feels so amazing. So much work went into training and planning. There were so many hours spent in the pool and I really put my all into every step of the way. I am so just so pleased with how I trained and how prepared I was for this swim. So now, I think I just feel extremely proud and wildly lucky to have so many wonderful people in my corner cheering me on.
How does your swimming influence your art?
Lately I’ve been really diving into the connections—but the easiest answer is I wouldn’t be me without swimming. So, swimming is always in my work. Recently I’ve been pulling directly from shapes and images in swimming, but also a lot of the repetitiveness of the act itself. I think my work has also gotten a bit more playful—I’ve really enjoyed exploring how swimming and the darkness of water can make your imagination play tricks on you. So, I’ve been bringing in images of sharks, fish, and even alligators. It’s been a lot of fun. Over the last several months I completed a group of paintings called the 100 Paintings project. All 100 paintings are 10×10 inches and available for purchase. Sales from this project helped fund my English Channel swim and are now helping fund a new body of work in response and in connection to my training and the big swim. Many have sold, but there are still several paintings available.
The 100 paintings all feature hands, which are a call to the repetitive strokes of swimming—each hand is a pull through the water. The hands also have a jellyfish feel to them, which now, after the swim is complete and I made so many jellyfish “friends,” I love that connection even more. This project was a big challenge, as most of my work is larger scale, but it was also a lot of fun. It’s taken me a few years to dive into the big and direct connections between swimming and my work, but now that I’ve really started to rip that Band-Aid, I want to plunge even deeper. No other swim has influenced me and my artwork more, so I can’t wait to see what comes out of this new body of work.
I think my work has also gotten a bit more playful—I’ve really enjoyed exploring how swimming and the darkness of water can make your imagination play tricks on you.
What’s next for you?
I am so very proud of all the work that went into this swim, and I am also excited to take those experiences and the training approach I used this time around and apply that to future swims. I have my heart set on swimming the Catalina Channel and around the island of Manhattan again. A second Triple Crown sounds like a lot of fun, and fun is the biggest reason I do these swims in the first place. Why I do these swims is the most common question I get from people—and the answer is truly because I love it.