Saturday 18 November 2017

Channel challenge has ladies taking the plunge

An idea which began as a joke has seen bravehearted souls across the country leap into the chilly waters in support of a group who are themselves set to swim the English Channel, to raise funds for the Irish Deaf Women's Group. John Cradden reports

Channel swimmers Patricia Heffernan, Deirdre Byrne Dunne, Bridie Power and Lisa Finn Carroll at the Deaf Village Ireland pool in Cabra. Photo: Ronan Lang/Feature File
Channel swimmers Patricia Heffernan, Deirdre Byrne Dunne, Bridie Power and Lisa Finn Carroll at the Deaf Village Ireland pool in Cabra. Photo: Ronan Lang/Feature File
Deirdre Byrne Dunne at the Deaf Village Ireland pool in Cabra. Photo: Ronan Lang/Feature File
The ladies who will swim the English Channel as a relay team in July: Lisa Finn-Carroll from Meath, Deirdre Dunne Byrne (Dublin), Patricia Heffernan (Galway), Michelle McLaughlin (Meath), Bridie Power (Wicklow), Bernadette White and Nora Duggan (Kerry)

John Cradden

IF YOU were appalled at the fallout over the controversial 'neknomination' online drinking game craze that took hold here and in Britain earlier this year, you might be concerned to hear it spawned a spin-off game that has swept communities throughout Ireland over the last few months.

But fear not, there is no alcohol involved in this latest craze. In fact, the only consumption of any kind of liquid by those nominated for this game may be the accidental ingesting of salty sea water.

Hundreds of deaf and hard of hearing people across Ireland and further afield having been jumping into the sea to raise money for a group of women about to embark on one of the world's toughest swimming challenges.

The idea for the game began as a joke, when a friend of the group was encouraged to go for a dip to experience the freezing winter seas they were having to endure as part of training for their charity relay swim across the English Channel.

"When he got in, he was shocked (at) how cold it was and admired us and then donated money to us," said Lisa Finn-Carroll from Meath, who, along with Deirdre Dunne Byrne (Dublin), Patricia Heffernan (Galway), Michelle McLaughlin (Meath), Bridie Power (Wicklow), Bernadette White and Nora Duggan (Kerry), will swim the channel as a relay team in July.

The gesture inspired the nomination game that has since spread rapidly amongst deaf communities throughout Ireland and still shows no signs of stopping, judging by all the videos and photos of the game being posted on the group's Facebook page.

"It was good timing because the months January to April are the worst times to swim in the sea because it can freeze up your hands and toes," said Lisa.

"We thought it was a good way to show everyone just what a tough challenge it is with all the training in the rain and cold by getting them to go into the water, for fun of course. But it's been a big help."

"We didn't think anyone would do it, because it was so cold, but almost every weekend someone has been going into the sea for our benefit," said Lisa. "And some of them have done it again and again!

"It's also been great to meet so many new people, young and old, and see them getting involved."

Many of them ended up enjoying it, too. "A lot of them said they were nervous before going in the water, but afterwards said they felt great," said Deirdre.

The seven women, ranging in age from 22 to 53, are aiming to raise €10,000 for a small charity close to their hearts, the Irish Deaf Women's Group, which provides information, events, workshops and services through Irish Sign Language (ISL) to deaf women all over Ireland.

The nomination game has been great for fundraising and publicity, but also as a moral support from the closely-knit Irish deaf community and from further afield as the day of the challenge approaches.

"It's been very hard work between all the training and all the fundraising we've had to do," said Lisa. "Last year we did a lot of fundraising, but this year we've had to focus more on the training."

Crossing the English Channel is to swimmers what conquering Mount Everest is to mountain climbers – a tough challenge that many fail to complete.

The idea came from one of the group, Bernadette White from Co Kerry. "She had wanted to swim the channel for a long time," said Deirdre. "Years ago, her late father had told her she should do it, although she was sceptical about it at the time. But later on she realised she really did want to, so she asked us to get involved."

Five of the seven would have been good swimmers while two, including Lisa, would have been only average, which gave the challenge an extra edge. "It's a good balance of abilities," said Lisa.

Their swimming coach, Martin McCann, agrees. "It's a very big challenge for them. It's a good mixture, with a couple of really good swimmers, and a couple of people who, starting off, I thought would have found this a bit too much of a challenge for them. But with their very hard work and commitment to it, they're going to far exceed what they could have done, especially since last Christmas. They've improved in leaps and bounds."

As a team, each member will swim for two one-hour sessions each in order to cover the roughly 35km distance of the swim.

Although the sea temperature will be warmer in the channel than it is now in Irish seas, swimming in inhospitable waters carries with it particular risks for the swimmers.

"When you have done your stint the first time around, and you get back in [for the second stint], you're actually going in with a lower body temperature into the water," said McCann, who has previously trained seven individuals and two relay teams to swim the channel.

"What they've done all the way through the winter is to get into the sea so they're used to much colder temperatures than the actual water in the channel. But because they're going in the second time around with their core temperature down a degree or two, it's only a very small change between a normal core temperature and hypothermia."

He says it will also be as much a mental as a physical challenge for each member, particularly if the weather or currents work against them.

"When you're in that water, as well as having to stay tuned for an hour, you could be swimming in the same spot for an hour and not going anywhere."

There are also high costs associated with the challenge, which are being covered by the women out of their own pockets. For example, the pilot boat to accompany them on their English Channel crossing costs £2,600, and they also have flight and accommodation costs, registration fees and transport to think about.

While the group has been overwhelmed in the last few weeks by the messages of support and funds from people across the country (including in Donegal, where they did their latest successful trial swim), they say they would love to receive more donations from outside the deaf community.

"When you ask people about good charity causes they'll say cancer or heart disease research; when you suggest deaf people or the deaf community, they'll say it's not that important," says Lisa. "But they don't realise that it's important to us."

For more information, see Irish Deaf Channel Swimmers on Facebook.

Donations can be made at their idonate page on

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