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On Second Thought

Channeling her energy

By Kevin Paul Dupont
September 18, 2011

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Pat Gallant-Charette set her record last month, at age 60, and she did it in just under 16 hours. Not that she really cared about the official time (15:57). Back when her odyssey began, she didn’t dip her toe in the ocean to race against a clock, or beat anyone to a finish line, or lug home an oversized faux marble trophy in need of mantel space and perpetual dusting.

“When I started, I was 46 years old and I never imagined I would become a marathon swimmer,’’ said Gallant-Charette, pondering what it is that makes her motor churn like a tugboat when she slips into the sea. “My first race, I was overweight, with gray hair, standing there surrounded by all these young athletes. I thought, ‘Pat, really, what are you doing here?’ ’’

Gallant-Charette, who on Aug. 22 became the oldest American woman to swim the 21 miles across the English Channel, was there that first day because of her brother, Robbie Gallant. Robbie, an avid swimmer and Northeastern graduate with a wife and young son, died unexpectedly in 1997 at 34 of heart failure, only a short time after being told he needed to lower his cholesterol.

Months after Robbie’s death, Pat’s son, Rob, proudly announced that he intended to swim in the annual Peaks to Portland race to honor his late uncle. A great idea, Pat told her teenager, tagging her praise with the standard parental line, “I wish I could join you.’’

“Well, you could,’’ said her son, a proud member of the Westbrook (Maine) High School swim team, “if you tried.’’

Slightly taken aback, Gallant-Charette thought about what her son said for a few seconds, buzzed through the excuse list (mom, wife, full-time work as a nurse, a daily to-do list with attached anchor), and unexpectedly found herself uttering, “OK, I’ll give it a try.’’

But first came the training. Actually, first came learning how to train. Gallant-Charette hadn’t so much as been in a pool for more than 25 years, didn’t own a pair of goggles. To kick-start her fortysomething athletic makeover, with an eye on crossing the 2.4 miles from Peaks Island to Portland, she would have to get the right stuff, whip herself into proper condition, buy the ice cubes.

“That was part of it,’’ said Gallant-Charette, recalling how her early training had her spiking her bath water with ice cubes, to acclimate to the chilly ocean temperatures she would encounter. “I’d fill up the tub, pour in the cubes, get a book or newspaper, and sit in there and read for, oh, 30 minutes at a time.

“I never took the temperature, but I can tell you, it’s damn cold . . . brutal.’’

The swim to Portland was better than expected, much better, inspiring Gallant-Charette to keep at it, increase her distances, swim to tomorrow and the next day.

Each time she entered a race, caring only that she finished, she wrote her brother’s name on one of her arms, a constant reminder that not everyone gets to tomorrow, that the next day is never a guarantee.

Over time, training, and/or competing 12 months a year, and considering it to be “the Mount Everest of long-distance swimming,’’ Gallant-Charette set her sights on crossing the fabled Channel.

She tried first in 2008, only to come up 1.7 miles short when four hours of hacking her way through heavy chop at the French shoreline proved fruitless.

She returned a year later, but the fickle English weather and the Channel’s tormenting currents prohibited her from making the attempt.

“So I tried again this year,’’ said Gallant-Charette, “and I wasn’t leaving until I got to France.’’

With dawn yet to break in Dover, England, Gallant-Charette reported seaside at 3:30 on the morn of Aug. 22. The prospects did not look good.

“The fella in the parking lot spotted us,’’ she recalled, “and he said, ‘You’re not swimming today, are you?’ Not what you want to hear, right? But I was going.

“So much of it is Mother Nature. She can help you out big-time, or make you go home, hanging your head.’’

On this day, Mother Nature was both forgiving and forbidding.

Shortly after 4, Gallant-Charette jumped into the water off Shakespeare Beach, Robbie’s name scribbled on her arm, and began churning across the Channel.

Surprisingly, the current was tame. The slow but steady nurse, dedicating each mile of the route to friends, family, and patients, knew right away that she would make great time, but she was also aware that her speed would work against her as she approached land, arriving prior to a yielding slack tide.

Sure enough, the wind and waves conspired like a brick-and-mortar wall at the 20-mile mark. One mile to go, and there was France, at her fingertips yet beyond reach.

“After 11 hours, I was there, with about three-quarters of a mile to go,’’ she said. “Then I wasn’t going anywhere.’’

For nearly five more hours, Gallant-Charette kept kicking, kept churning, the punishing current pushing her down the coastline, turning an easy romp into a back-alley brawl. Such a short distance, but in the end it would take the equivalent of 7-8 miles more work to get the job done.

“Finally, I made it to Cap Gris Nez,’’ she said. “And it wasn’t like I thought, how I imagined it. I figured it would be a beach and I’d walk up out of the Channel and onto the sand.

“Instead, it was this cliff in front of me, with all these big rocks in the water. The official on board the dinghy that followed me in finally told me it was over, I made it, I did it.

“And I yelled back, ‘Look, are you sure? If you’re not, if I’ve got to stand up on a beach to make this official, I don’t care, I’ll go another five, six hours, whatever it takes.’

“But I was able to stand up, with my leg touching ground, and that did it. Over. I stood there and said, ‘That’s for you, Robbie.’ ’’

In short order, Gallant-Charette jumped aboard the dinghy and was ferried directly to the nearby Viking Princess, where she rejoined her crew for the return trip to Dover. Christopher Gallant, 16, her late brother’s only child, stood first in line on the Viking Princess to give his unsinkable aunt a big hug.

Gallant-Charette is back home in Westbrook, training each day, and working full-time as a nurse, caring for Alzheimer’s patients at the Barron Center in Portland. Her Channel record in the books, she has her eyes set now on California, where next month she’ll attempt to cross the Catalina Channel.

Her mother, Marguerite Gallant-Harnois, is 86 and still swims three times a week. Pat is convinced that those genes, coupled with Robbie’s memory, will keep her motoring for a good long time.

“Two things I’d like people to know,’’ said the ebullient, enduring swimmer. “First, I’m not retired. Swimming is only what I do on the side. I’ve got a family, a full-time job, and I’m a full-time babysitter to my grandkids.

“And also, I hope people get out there. Like I say, I never ever imagined I’d be doing this. I think it shows that you never know where the road might take you if you go after your dream.’’

There is a start line out there for everyone. Often, the longest journey is just finding it.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.