Elaine Burrows-Dillane became the first woman to complete the Triple Crown of Irish swims this summer, which included the challenging North Channel. Elaine is to be celebrated by her peers in November for her epic Triple Crown achievement. She reflects with Stephen Fernane on what has been a memorable year.
what a day for this County Kerry lady. Kerry is the Kingdom, and now the North Channel – a Kingdom surrounded by various obstacles – is her castle.’
The above line comes from an Infinity Swimming moderator who live recorded the precise moment Elaine Burrows-Dillane touched Orlock Point in County Down on July 21, 2021.Fourteen hours and 54 minutes earlier, Elaine leapt into the dark, cold waters off the coast of Scotland to face the North Channel, one of the hardest open-water swims in the world.
Elaine is the first to admit that rewards in swimming are not always certain. Sometimes a final lap can seem the longest, the shortest route the most difficult; not to mention inclement weather conditions, which have frustrated many a swimmer’s ambitions. But when effort and reward do align, it can do so to handsome effect.
Elaine’s North Channel triumph meant she became the first woman to complete the Irish Triple Crown – Fastnet to Baltimore, and Galway Bay being the other two.
A proud John Mitchel’s, Kerry, and Irish woman, Elaine will accept an award in November in Galway from the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association for her Triple Crown swims. She has also been nominated for national and provincial swimmer of the year.
As well as being an accomplished swimmer who has helped rejuvenate open-water swimming for other women in Kerry, Elaine portrays an understated elegance in what she does: excessive praise makes her uneasy; whenever achievements are discussed, she avoids sounding boastful or brash, while flattery is best left at the door.
There are multiple layers of technique to Elaine’s success as a swimmer, but all of them stem from a core belief in self-motivation, support from coaches, and family – this is the triad behind her success.
Back in May 2019, Elaine and I sat for an interview while she was training to swim the English Channel. She was apprehensive having been away from the water for so long, yet her willingness and courage was never in question.
Elaine gave up competitive swimming in her late teens, and even though life progressed with her husband Brendan and their two children, Muireann and Sean, thoughts of one day returning to the water never drifted far from her mind. Support from family and friends, John Brick and Caitriona Chester, helped turn Elaine’s mind towards her goal.
“Looking back, I now realise I’m tougher than I give myself credit for,” she says.
It takes oceans of courage to do what Elaine has achieved. There is no questioning Elaine’s competitive edge, even if competition is something she never really relished as a swimmer.
“When I swam as a child, I was a competitive pool swimmer but never liked the competition side of things. I’m very competitive with myself, don’t get me wrong, I just didn’t like competitions. I felt there was always something missing in my swimming because of this,” she says.
“During summer, when we finished competitions in the pool, we always went out to Fenit and had our races there. Every day of summer I swam there, so when I went back years later, it brought all that back to me. It was a part of my swimming I had only partially delved into. It just proves what’s meant for you won’t pass you,” she says.
Many athletes have spoken about how intense sacrifice can defer the sense of enjoyment one expects after the finish line is crossed. As much as conquering the English Channel is a success Elaine is immensely proud of, she admits to feeling a void when it was over.
“I never got the high from the English Channel, and I still haven’t got it,” she says.
“It was all so new to me. I was head-first into full-time training and fundraising; it was all so fast and new. It worked out great, but when it finished it felt like I was left with nothing. I did get a low from it. I also finished it at a time of year when the weather was colder, so I didn’t get to spend as much time as I’d have liked in the water. I was warned this would happen and that I might feel that way, but you have to experience it for yourself,” Elaine explains.
The rigours of Elaine’s Triple Crown are numerous. The Fastnet to Baltimore swim is one of Elaine’s favourite swims. The danger of hypothermia thwarted her first attempt some years ago, so to go back and complete the swim in August 2020, in a time of seven hours and 45 minutes, ranks highly on her list of achievements.
Similarly, in June 2021, Elaine completed the Galway Bay Swim. Starting from the Clare coast, Elaine navigated tricky cross tides around the Shannon Estuary before reaching Galway Bay in a time of two hours and 56 minutes. But the North Channel would prove a beast of a different kind. With temperatures seldom higher than 10 to 13 degrees, difficult swells, cross currents, and jellyfish, Elaine needed to dig deep.
“Kevin [Williams] and John [O’Sullivan] were fantastic in my preparation. My goal was just to concentrate on swimming throughout,” she says.
“The day before my swim I got word I was to go at 5am from Ireland to Scotland. I was shaking from head to toe and getting sick as my adrenaline was so bad. I knew the North Channel was a different animal to the English Channel.”
Elaine’s first attempt was halted after two and a half hours due to poor weather conditions, on top of which she endured severe jellyfish stings.
“I did think to myself if this is what it’s like after two hours, what is it going to be like after 14. The next day we headed to Scotland as the crew knew that all I wanted was to swim home to Ireland,” Elaine says.
“I went to bed for a few hours and got up at 9.45pm, to be ready for around 2.20am. I had to focus so much during that time. Kevin knew a woman in Hawaii who made up a grease and jellyfish repellent that I covered my whole body in. It was pitch dark in the water when they gave me the go-ahead to start.
“The team stood on the side of the boat with torches watching for jellyfish. I was swimming when suddenly I’d hear them shout ‘move out’. I did that for the first three hours even though I was already badly stung. I felt tingling down my leg and felt worried early on. It’s a strange feeling as you’re in the dark trying to swim and you’re putting your trust in other people,” she says.
It’s hard for most people to imagine what thought process a swimmer goes through as they are tossed around for several hours in freezing-cold waters. What kept Elaine’s concentration peaked during that difficult swim?
“I am constantly watching my stroke count, watching where the boat is going. You might not think it, but there is a lot to observe. My mind was almost trained in military style as I was reaching Ireland no matter what. I didn’t get one break during the swim; I got no grace,” Elaine explains.
“There was tension throughout the swim. At one stage, Kevin said to me I needed to up my stroke count. Normally, I’m 60 to 62 strokes a minute. I had to bring this up to 68 strokes a minute for two hours, that’s basically a sprint. Touching Orlock and seeing my family was special. It’s by far my most cherished accomplishment,” she says.
Flags are a major part of Elaine’s swimming campaigns. Touching at Orlock with a Kerry flag and Irish tricolour flapping in the breeze from the nearby boat is a feeling she still gets emotional about when asked to describe it.
“I’m so proud. I’m a proud Kerry and Irish woman, and to bring my flags across the North Channel into the north of Ireland was amazing. I’m never, ever going to get a prouder moment than that. It was history to arrive there,” Elaine says.
It may seem like a lacklustre question to ask Elaine, ‘what next?’.
If she never dipped a toe in the sea again, she could ponder on all she has achieved without a care in the world. And yet this is the opposite of Elaine’s intentions. The Bristol Channel is on the cards for July 2022, as is a double Fastnet-Baltimore (over and back).
“I don’t want to seem cocky but there is nothing I wouldn’t rule out at this stage, one step at the time. I’ve been lucky to have some great people in my corner supporting me; people like Eddie Stack, for example, have been great. You don’t do it without support,” she says.
“I also want to be a pioneer for Kerry as a great place to swim. Kevin [Williams] is already doing so much along these lines, he doesn’t realise his worth as a swimming coach,” she says.
“I’d like to think what I’ve achieved will have a positive impact on others who might be considering taking up swimming. Swimming is my happy place. I really thank and respect everyone who has helped me in my swims, I’m indebted to them all.”