Jenny Birmelin, 33, became the first Michigan woman on record to swim the English Channel in 11 hours, 31 minutes, and 7 seconds. A middle school teacher at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield, Birmelin swam 24 nautical miles, a distance of 28 land miles, from Dover, England to France while braving freighters, jellyfish, water currents, and the frigid temperatures of the English Channel. She has chronicled her journey from Detroit to Dover on her website at www.jennybirmelin.com.
SCN: You have been swimming since the age of 6, played water polo at Michigan State University, and now compete in open water swimming. Please explain the impact the sport of swimming has had on your life.
JB: Since a young age swimming has been an important part of my life as far as physical fitness and making friends for life early on. In high school, swimming was awesome. I got to meet a lot of upperclassmen as a freshman, so that helped me get acquainted with the school. Carrying on at college was a great way to get involved as a freshman and joining a college water polo team. After college, I joined Masters Swimming. And some of those friends that I made 10 years ago now are still some of my closest friends today.
SCN: What made you decide to tackle open water swims?
JB: That’s a good question because as a kid I didn’t like swimming in lakes. We would go to friends’ lakes from time to time, and I always enjoyed just being back in the safety of the pool. So, finally in college, I tried a triathlon. I did the Mrs. T’s Chicago Triathlon in August before college started. And I did a relay. So I swam, and my other two roommates each did the bike and the run. So I loved it. I was on the starting line, and I looked to my left and right and there was a swimmer there from Penn State and another swimmer from Purdue University. And they said “Where are you from?” And I said, “Michigan State.” And we were off. So that was just awesome being able to race them having been a water polo player, and they were varsity swimmers. And I kept up, and I had a great first time experience in crazy rough cold water. So from then on I was hooked and started doing more and more smaller races in Michigan. And then a few years ago I did my first 10K. I won my age group for the nation. So I became a national champion. And I kept going longer and longer open water swims.
SCN: What are the biggest challenges when it comes to open water swimming — the cold, the distance, the water creatures? How do you maintain the energy for long distance swims?
JB: Definitely the cold was the first thing that I had to get used to. I think it was my first or second 10K ever, I did pretty well. The water temperature was 67 degrees, and I learned a very important lesson. When you’re swimming in 67 degree water and you finish your race, you get out and get warm as soon as possible. Instead, I got out and got my camera — my water proof camera — and got back in the water to wait for my husband and friends to finish and take pictures. I didn’t realize my body temperature, my core temperature, was dropping quickly. And I became hypothermic and needed medical attention from the EMS that was at the race. I ended up meeting the ambulance driver, and he remembered me a year later. He said, “I want you to get warm.” It was funny — from now on I know what an important part getting warm right away and getting warm liquids in you is when it’s that cold.
From trial and error, we’ve learned to drink a high-energy mix. So I drink a high-energy carbohydrate mix. I usually mix it with apple juice, and I import it from England. It’s called Maxim. It’s 97 percent maltodextrin — carbohydrate powder. And I mix either double strength or regular strength with apple juice. I typically don’t take in any nutrition for like a 5K, but for a 10K — they usually have after each loop, or after each 5K you can get a snack or a drink. So usually in a pool workout I will drink just water, maybe Gatorade, but I’ll take in more calories for a longer race.
SCN: You recently became the first woman from Michigan to swim across the English Channel and did so in a time of 11 hours and 31 minutes. What made you decide to swim the English Channel?
JB: No. 1, just the challenge. You know it has such a history. So to be a part of a challenge like that, knowing that the first person was Captain Webb in 1875 and then it took until 1926 until Gertrude Ederle swam it. So to be a part of the history of that was just amazing. I did my first 25K swim in June in Indianapolis and was successful at that, and then later on in July I swam from Tawas to Charity Island, which was a 16 mile swim. We had 2- to 4-foot waves so I said, “Ok I can do that.” I did that — and survived. I swam across Lake St. Clair last year — that was the swim, that Lake St. Clair swim, when I knew that I was getting closer to finishing that, that I could do the English Channel.
SCN: Please explain how you prepare for a swim as long as the one between England and France.
JB: There is a lot you have to do. And a lot of it is mental preparation. That was huge. So first of all, you have to take cold showers. So you’re taking cold showers for over a year getting ready for this. You have to get yourself acclimated to the cold water. From Michigan in April I was getting in Trout Lake at Island Lake State Park. And at first I was swimming with my face above water. The water temperature was in the 40 degree range — 40 to 50 — and I had just a bathing suit and a swim cap and was using ear plugs. But there are no wet suits allowed. So you slowly have to start building from a 5 minute swim to a 10 minute swim to a half hour swim and so on. And that means swimming until November in the lakes. I was going up to Lake Huron and still swimming in a bathing suit in October and just taking cold water plunges in November to get used to that water temperature. I was swimming twice a day while teaching full-time at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield throughout the whole school year. So that means getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning to dive into the pool by 4 a.m. to swim 2 hours before school and going back to the pool to swim 2 to 3 hours after school. On the weekends, I was swimming anywhere from 2 to 4 hour pool swims, you know, every day — Saturday and Sunday. So there’s a lot of mental training you need to do to push past and kind of get yourself used to where you are swimming and all of a sudden an hour seems like 10 minutes. You have to train your mind to focus and stay strong for that long.
SCN: There are specific rules governing the swim across the English Channel, as well. Please explain what those are.
JB: First of all, you are allowed just a normal swim suit — nothing that provides buoyancy … nothing that provides warmth. So you are allowed a bathing suit, one swim cap, and a pair of goggles. You are allowed nose plugs — I didn’t use that. I never had in my life, but I did use ear plugs. This was the first year that I experimented with ear plugs and so with the water temperatures as cold as they were, I tried that. You actually start the swim from one of the beaches in Dover. You have to jump off the boat and swim to shore by yourself. And when the pilot blows his whistle you start swimming back towards the boat and you swim parallel to your escort boat the whole time. You may not touch the boat. You may not have any assistance. If you get stung by a jellyfish, you keep going. They can feed you off something like a water bottle. You may not touch the boat; you may not touch another swimmer. As far as companion swimmers, it’s up to the pilot’s discretion. So, when you’re feeling like they basically need to lift your spirits if you start to get cranky or go through a cold patch like I did … they allow a companion swimmer to enter the water for you for an hour. They’re only allowed an hour to be next to you. So your swim ends when you reach land, and there is no water past where you are standing.
SCN: Please describe your experience of swimming across the English Channel. How did it feel to complete the swim? What did you do to celebrate after it was all done?
JB: The channel was terrific. It was so exciting. There were times when I would sit up or I was treading water and would just go, “Woooah!” because I could see these freighters going by. And my crew would say, “That’s nice. Just keep swimming.” Because to them they had seen 500 freighters in the day, and it was just another one to them. But to me, it was I maybe saw five as close up and as personal as they did. So it was so exciting. And they were just like, “Eh. Great. Keep going.” The other thing was the jellyfish. We are so lucky in the Great Lakes and Pure Michigan. We don’t have jellyfish to worry about. And I saw some that were a bear hug wide, and some were as small as my fist. So when you see these brightly colored, iridescent, glowing orange and pink jellyfish, it was awesome. I was very glad they were 4 and 5 feet underwater and not touching me. I did get stung by something, probably about halfway through, on my left wrist. So that stung for about an hour, and then it went away. And there weren’t any marks left over. So that was good.
I was oh so grateful to be successful and to have my team be there to celebrate with me. And when I looked back, I could hear the air horn sounding and I saw my friends waving the American flag. It was thrilling. I was so thankful that my husband — so grateful, too — that he was able to swim the last hour with me and share that experience of reaching shore. So I turned around and he was the first person I gave a big hug to.
Then we had a two-hour boat ride back to Dover. We had a quick shower. We went back to Dover and had another shower. And then my aunt and friend went and got some pizzas for the seven of us. And we had pizza and a little bit of ice cream. And everybody went to bed early, but I did not sleep well for five nights.
SCN: On your website, you say that your grandmother has been one of your main inspirations. Please tell us a bit about your “Iron Granny” and how she continues to inspire you?
JB: She’s 94-years-old now. And she was in a horrific car accident in Farmington Hills when she was 91-years-old. She has pins and rods and all kinds of things in her limbs from that car accident. I think there was something like, I don’t know, over 10 broken bones. And she was very lucky to survive that car accident. She battled being in the ICU and being in Beaumont Hospital for months and then the West Bloomfield Nursing Home. And she went from traction to being in a motorized wheel chair to being with a walker to advancing to just a cane, and now she can walk around either with a cane or without it. And to this day, she still goes through physical therapy and is still fighting everything that happened to her mentally and physically. So she’s been an inspiration.
She was so nervous. I couldn’t talk about the swim with her leading up to it because she was very, very nervous that something was going to happen to me. So she was the second person I called after my parents to say, “Grandma. I did it. And I’m alive. The freighters didn’t get me and neither did the jellyfish.” She was like, “Oh, thank goodness.” So she could kind of let some air out to breathe after that.
SCN: Although these swims are considered solo swims, you must have a support team to help keep you hydrated and fed and on course. Who has been your support team and how have they helped you accomplish your goals?
JB: My husband has been my No. 1 fan and supporter for the last — gosh, since I’ve met him. He’s the only one that really knows what I’ve been going through. He has been on a Jet Ski next to me for these long swims or on a boat alongside me. He’s been swimming next to me. We met at a swim meet. So he has known my goal and has been there for me. He’s been amazing. My other friends that went with us were Karen Rosinski from Garden City. She is a terrific swimmer and triathlete. She was there when I qualified to swim the English Channel, alongside my husband and my aunt. So she did a bunch of swims with me. She swam a few hours when I did my Charity Island swim along with my husband. So she’s a great teammate and friend. Cheryl Dehn from Dearborn has been a tremendous help, too. She went to England with her husband David and their 9-month-old baby, Jeanette. She was on the boat with me, feeding me, cheering me on, doing the “YMCA” when I needed to see it to laugh. And then of course my Aunt Lynn — my mom’s best friend Lynn Frikker. She’s a doctor at Beaumont and she was my medical support team. And she’s my connection to Tawas. When I want to train at Tawas, we go to her house. They have a boat so they were with me for the Charity Island swim and just so supportive — and her husband, Mark — throughout this whole thing.
SCN: Now that you’ve completed one of the most challenging long distance swims, what is your next goal? Do you plan to continue with open water swims?
JB: I do plan to continue with open water swims. I’m a coach of our Master Swim and Triathlon team for the swimming part. So I can’t wait to get our team ready for next year’s state meet, which is in March. But I do plan on writing a book about my experiences and sharing that with my students — my sixth- and seventh-graders — and other swimmers that are interested in maybe just getting into open water swimming, or doing longer swims than they have ever done before. A lot of this information was hard to find. So I did it by researching and reading a lot of books. It would be nice to compile all of that in a nice book for people to use as some information and research of their own.