Well-Being

Brain waves

Open water swimmers face immense physical challenges — but the mental strength required is laced with lessons we can all learn from.
There’s a calming repetition that comes from swimming laps in the measured lanes of a pool. A certain number of strokes, then the approach of the wall, the twist and push to propel yourself into yet another lap to begin a new set of strokes. Lap, push, repeat. Lap, push, repeat — a sort of lullaby to the practiced swimmer.

Now imagine those same strokes — but without the pool. No lanes, no black lines of paint keeping you moving in the right direction. Imagine yourself surrounded instead by a lake or even an ocean. The currents might help you along, or they might work you to the bone. The water could be freezing cold. Boat traffic will offer additional obstacles, stroke after stroke after stroke taking you not to a wall to push into a new lap, but further out into the open water. For hours. Or even days.

If you’re wondering who on earth would want to battle such a scenario, meet four Spiders who live for the sport of endurance swimming:
An illustrated portrait of Meredith Gilson.

Meredith Gilson, ’93

  • Former member of the women’s swim team
  • Swam across Lake Geneva (Switzerland) in 2 hours and 28 minutes
An illustrated portrait of Mark McCullough.

Mark McCullough, ’21

  • Former member of the men’s water polo team
  • Swam across Lake Geneva with Gilson, also in 2 hours and 28 minutes
An illustrated portrait of Molly Sanborn

Molly Sanborn, ’16

  • Swam the English Channel in 14 hours and 24 minutes
An illustrated portrait of Courtney Moates Paulk.

Courtney Paulk, L’00

  • Longest recorded swim: 33 hours and 13 minutes
  • First person in history to complete the Double Triple Crown of endurance swimming — two-way crossings of the English Channel and the Catalina Channel and a double circumnavigation around Manhattan Island
  • Honor Swimmer in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame

A 30-hour open water swim takes more than a little preparation. There are countless hours of practice swims, most likely in a lap pool. But while pool water can be kept at a fairly comfortable temperature, the swimmer isn’t permitted by the rules of this sport to compensate for the open water’s chill with a wetsuit. There’s a support boat present to keep the swimmer nourished and safe throughout, but the swimmer isn’t permitted to touch said boat or its crew. And then there’s the effort and expense of scheduling and transporting all those people, followed by hoping the weather and boat traffic will behave on the day.

Going from the idea of, “I’d like to swim the English Channel,” to actually accomplishing it is a monumental task. Paulk, president of Hirschler, a Richmond-based law firm, has advice inspired by her legal career.

If she’s writing a big brief for her law firm, she thinks, “Can I just write one sentence as opposed to four? It’s amazing how you can accomplish things when you break them down into their smallest possible denominator.” Paulk, Hirschler’s first female president, tackles each task by looking at it on a micro level. Each manageable mini-task will eventually build up into a completed brief.

Swimmer Molly Sanborn in the English Channel. She is wearing blue goggles and a yellow swim cap.
Molly Sanborn in the English Channel

“And that’s what I do on my swims,” Paulk says. “Can I take just 10 more strokes? And when I’ve done that, can I take 10 more strokes?”

The trick is finding what “micro” means to you. Sanborn aims to get to the next feed, which is endurance swimming lingo for the short pause taken to consume enough liquid-form calories to maintain one’s strength. “I kind of hate that we call it [a feed],” Sanborn says. “It makes me sound like a baby. Or a barn animal.” Nevertheless, it got Sanborn across the English Channel, one feed after another.

For Paulk, though, swimming from feed to feed is too long. “Most people take nutrition every 30 minutes. But 10 more strokes [feels more doable]. And you learn a lot about yourself in those 10 strokes. You see if you can push yourself just a little bit further.” Before you know it, you’re looking back on something that felt daunting but is now a part of history.

Endurance swimming is a lesson in how to handle the overwhelming. It’s about taking on the tough moments with a mindset that offsets the enormity of a task — and not just in the water. This is a story about how to manage what feels unmanageable no matter the context.

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Mission impossible

Let’s talk numbers. When Sanborn was first getting into open water swimming, the athletes she met kept telling her the sport is 80% mental and 20% physical. Sanborn wasn’t convinced. “I was like, ‘There’s no way that’s true, right?’ Because swimming the English Channel takes at least 12 hours. Clearly that’s a lot of work for your body. Your muscles feel like they’re dead by the end of it, and you’ll say, ‘I can’t physically do this anymore.’”

But after Sanborn reached France on the other side of the channel, she had to admit her fellow endurance swimmers were right. “It is more mentally challenging than it is physically challenging. And I truly don’t know that I would have had the mental fortitude to finish the channel had I not had so much experience with depression.”

During Sanborn’s college years, she learned to rely on CAPS — UR’s Counseling and Psychological Services — to manage her diagnosis of major depressive disorder. “CAPS was pivotal in teaching me how to have healthy coping mechanisms for mental health struggles. In fact, [swimming has] paralleled my journey with mental illness quite well.” For Sanborn, the skills she learned for addressing her depression also played into her ability to strengthen her mindset while swimming.

CAPS psychologist Rachel Turk, who works with UR’s student-athlete population, calls an athlete’s strengthened mindset “mental toughness.” Turk asks students to consider not only how many hours they train their bodies each week, but how much time they spend training their brains.

“I like that cliché quote: Whether you tell yourself you can or tell yourself you can’t, you’re probably right.”
- Rachel Turk
CAPS psychologist

“Yes, it’s your physical fitness and your physical skill,” Turk says, “but if your brain is not telling you the right things, you’re less likely to complete something successfully. I like that cliché quote: Whether you tell yourself you can or tell yourself you can’t, you’re probably right.” Turk’s job is to get students to a place where they’re both physically and mentally tough.

“Most people fail in the English Channel because their brain gives out,” Paulk says. “They either think they’re too cold, or they think about the enormity of what they’re doing and decide they can’t do it.” Notice the distinction between reality and perception here: The temperature of the water is an indisputable fact, as is the technical length of the swim. But whether it’s too cold or long for the swimmer depends on how they perceive those facts, and that can determine whether they finish the swim.

After years of mental training, Paulk recognizes those internal dark places more quickly. “Then I can use the tools I’ve gathered over the years to say, ‘OK, what am I going to do to get myself through this?’”

One of the biggest hurdles is addressing self-talk. Self-talk is what you say to yourself on a regular basis. If it centers on unhelpful styles of thinking — “I can’t do this,” or, “I’m not strong enough” — it can limit us to unnecessarily rigid patterns. Mental training can change that.

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A photo of swimmer Molly Sanborn in the English Channel next to her support boat, with a dramatic orange sunset showing the sun sitting on the horizon line.
A photo of swimmer Molly Sanborn in the English Channel next to her support boat, with a dramatic orange sunset showing the sun sitting on the horizon line.

Mental training strategies

Strategy No. 1: Check the facts of the situation

A productive type of thought isn’t necessarily a positive or happy one; it just has to be fact-based. Consider a headache. The more you focus on the headache, the worse you will feel. Has the headache actually worsened? Maybe. But the mindset that spotlights the headache is a far cry from the mindset that seeks a distraction. “This is because our brain actually has the ability to influence our pain receptors and how we’re feeling things,” Turk says.

With a sport like endurance swimming, it’s easy to get caught up in how much your body hurts. Focusing on that pain will make the swim more difficult. “Train yourself to control your thoughts,” Turk says. “You can’t control that first thought, but you can control what happens next and how you respond.”

For example, during the first six hours of Sanborn’s English Channel swim, she desperately wanted to quit. “I was thinking that this is the worst thing I’ve ever done. I honestly believed I wouldn’t finish.” But after each feed, she decided to try for another feed. “Just make it to the next one, and you can quit after that,” she told herself over and over, all the way to the French coastline.

Strategy No. 2: Use grounding to stop racing thoughts

“We have 60 to 80,000 thoughts in a day,” Turk says. “You are not going to be paying attention to every one of those thoughts, but there are times where you’re going to try to pay attention to them [when it’s not beneficial], so we help you learn that you can take control even when you feel like you can’t.”

One method Turk uses is a five senses grounding: Notice five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can smell, two things you can feel, and one thing you can taste. (Note: It doesn’t have to be in this order, but you might be hard-pressed to name five things you can taste in any given moment.)

Alternatively, you can focus your attention on something specific — like Paulk counting those 10 strokes — to keep your mind trained on that instead of the seemingly endless stream of thoughts. “When you’re doing the same thing over and over again, it’s almost meditative,” says Sanborn. “Thoughts are still coming in, but you’re not dwelling on them as much. I’ll think, ‘Why did Taylor Swift write that lyric?’ and then let it slip away. My thoughts aren’t necessarily quiet, but my soul feels quiet.”

 

Strategy No. 3: Make use of breath work and relaxation

By learning to breathe the right way, you then also control your heart rate. “A controlled heart rate controls the release of both neurotransmitters and your stress hormone, cortisol,” Turk says.

“Neurotransmitters and cortisol impact many physical symptoms of performance anxiety, including nausea, shakiness, and sweaty palms. You can naturally trigger your parasympathetic nervous system — which cues your ability to rest and relax — just by breathing a specific way.”

No, you don’t have to fold yourself up in lotus position for a lengthy meditation session. Just becoming conscious of your breathing in this very moment can make a difference. For example, as I, your humble narrator, slow the pace of my own breath, I notice that my shoulders and jaw both unclench, and my back straightens from hunching over my laptop. My thoughts even slow down enough for me to notice that I haven’t had any water in the past hour. My mind is clearer to my body’s needs, just from those 10 seconds of awareness.

“You can do anything for 10 seconds,” Sanborn says, recalling a scene from one of her favorite television shows, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. “When those 10 seconds are done, you just start the next 10 seconds, and that’s exactly what I did for the last two hours of the [English Channel] swim.”

Strategy No. 4: Visualization

From an athlete’s perspective, you might assume this means visualizing the game-winning goal (or touchdown or run, etc.), but Turk says this sets you up for a higher level of pressure that isn’t always helpful. Instead, visualization can be used to keep an athlete in a calm and structured mental place.

“I teach a very specific visualization,” Turk says. “You use each one of your five senses to build up a picture like you’re actually in the situation and then watch yourself complete whatever skill successfully. What does your body need to do? What are your thoughts in that moment? Should we shift those thoughts?” Doing this when you’re not physically in the midst of an activity better prepares you for the times when you are. Those high-stakes moments become less of an anomaly, making them familiar and therefore less intimidating.

Think of it like a dress rehearsal. Paulk — a theater major in her college days — learned to make the most of her time on stage through a vigilant rehearsal routine: “Leave it all at the door. You can’t [get into character] if you’re distracted by boyfriend problems. You have to leave everything else at the door. And that’s what I do with my swimming. When I dive in, I leave everything else behind.”

Strategy No. 5: Incorporate self-care into your everyday schedule

While social media may sometimes suggest that this looks like candlelit bubble baths while sipping champagne, self-care in fact has more to do with stress management. Routinely taking a moment from your day to recalibrate — perhaps by trying out one of the keys above — can regulate your parasympathetic nervous system. “It looks different for everybody what that is,” Turk says, “but consistently do something to decrease your stress level every day instead of letting it build to a point that it’s unmanageable, [which then leads to] feeling like we have to use extreme measures to decrease our stress.”

Paulk says she goes to the pool for her sanity. “I’ll say to my colleagues, ‘I need to go to the pool now. It will be better for all of us if I go do that,’ and they’re like, ‘OK, cool.’ I’m a busy lawyer and president of a law firm, and swimming brings me peace.” By prioritizing time in the pool, Paulk manages her stress levels before ever reaching a potential state of crisis.

 

Strategy No. 6: Adapt the above to suit your needs

As you can imagine, endurance swimmers in their ninth (or 19th) hour of a swim might not be able to use a method like five senses grounding if the things around them are what’s inducing panic. “If it’s completely dark or you can’t hear anything, our instinct is to freak out,” Turk says. “You also have to train yourself to manage that constant shift of what senses you can access.”

That adaptability is critical, particularly in open water swimming where the variables are often beyond one’s control. For Paulk, that unpredictability taught her to find comfort and confidence even when she has no idea what’s about to happen. “I’ll have done all the training and prep work — everything I can do to get ready for that moment — but I can’t control the weather. I can’t control boat traffic. I got yanked out of the Baltic Sea once by the German Marine Police because they didn’t want me there. And there was nothing I could do about it. So I went and had breakfast instead.”

A photo of Lake Geneva, surrounded by mountains, with clouds hanging around their peaks, and a blue sky. Swimmers are visible in a row in the lake.
A photo of Lake Geneva, surrounded by mountains, with clouds hanging around their peaks, and a blue sky. Swimmers are visible in a row in the lake.

Strategy No. 7: Take rest days

Just like we get physically tired training our bodies, we also mentally tire. Turk encourages mental rest periods. “If someone is trying to change certain thought patterns, it can be a very frustrating and exhausting process,” she says. “Make sure you’re not constantly forcing yourself to change that pattern to the point where it’s impacting you negatively.”

For the swimmers Turk works with, those thoughts often sound like, “Don’t fall behind,” and, “Don’t mess up your stroke.” And once that swimmer recognizes their thought pattern, they might get mad when they catch themselves at it. “The answer to that is self-compassion,” Turk says. You change the narrative to something like, “Hey, it’s great that I noticed myself doing this because it gives me the opportunity to change it.”

However, Turk warns, “I make sure to tell them they don’t need to do that every minute of every practice — because that’s exhausting. Pick certain times to focus on it. Building these mental skills needs to be implemented in a very intentional way to avoid burnout or more mental exhaustion.”

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Cultivate a growth mindset

Of course, these strategies work only if you believe you can change. McCullough started as a sprinter. Playing water polo for Richmond demanded nimbleness and quick reaction times — but not endurance. “I never really enjoyed endurance swimming as much, but my mom brought up [the idea of swimming Lake Geneva] and said if I wanted to join, I just really had to get in shape for it.” Which he did in a scant six months.

“Mark had the most impressive turnaround, for sure,” Gilson says. “Our group ranged from 25 to 66 years old. But even though Mark was 25 and fit from racing back and forth playing water polo, asking him to swim a mile or two [was a different story]. But he trained and kept pace with the group, no problem.”

Gilson swam many laps during her time on Richmond’s women’s swim team. It wasn’t until she moved to Massachusetts that she shifted to open water swimming, relearning the art of swimming beyond the confines of set lanes. “I was very intimidated by it. There were creepy, living things in the water with me. I struggled initially, but then I got hooked. I love the adventure of it.” Gilson met new friends also taking on the challenge of the open ocean, including Moira McCullough, Mark’s mom.

These mindsets centered on the ability to improve helped Gilson and McCullough transition from swimming in a pool to navigating much larger bodies of water. “This is called self-regulation,” says Crystal Hoyt, a professor of leadership studies and psychology at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. “Growth mindsets help us achieve and engage with more beneficial goals. It helps us set learning goals, not performance goals.” It’s the difference between “I’m going to prove I can do this specific thing” and “I can develop that ability and do it better.”

“If you’ve been sitting on a goal, remember that a goal without a plan is just a wish.”
- Courtney Paulk, L’00
Swimmer Courtney Paulk alongside her support boat, swimming in the Hudson river, circumnavigating Manhattan island with the skyline and Statue of Liberty visible in the background.
Courtney Paulk, L'00, swimming in the Hudson River, on one of her back-to-back circumnavigations of Manhattan Island

The opposite of a growth mindset is fixed mindset, which suggests you’re either successful or unsuccessful. You admit defeat, thinking, “I’m not cut out to do that length of a swim. That’s why I failed.” Contrastingly, someone with a growth mindset can say, “OK, I failed at finishing the English Channel. Let me change my strategy. Let me wear a different suit or try it at a different time of year.”

Hoyt says people with a growth mindset are confident that they will succeed. “There’s always this element of, ‘Not yet,’” Hoyt says — but it’s not always about working harder. “It’s about working with the right strategies and learning from things that didn’t go the right way. [These endurance swimmers] are figuring out how to do it rather than figuring out if they can do it.”

In an episode of the podcast If She Can Do It, So Can You, Paulk encouraged people to realize just that: You can do this, too.

“I’m not just a 54-year-old woman who got up and decided one day that I was going to conquer these crazy long swims,” she says. “If you’ve been sitting on a goal, remember that a goal without a plan is just a wish — so take that first step to make a plan to accomplish that goal.”

 

Image credits top to bottom: Footage of Courtney Paulk swimming by Kevin Heraldo; illustrated portraits by Katie McBride; photos of Molly Sanborn swimming courtesy of Molly Sanborne; photo of Meredith Gilson, Mark McCullough, and friends swimming in Lake Geneva courtesy Mark McCullough; photo of Courtney Paulk courtesy of Courtney Paulk.