Chacha Team : the Channel Challenge

25 October 2016

Chacha team is a team of 8 girls from International Schools in Switzerland. They swam across the English Channel to raise money and awareness for Obstetric Fistula. They are the first female team based in Switzerland to do so. Leila, an IB students at IIL, answered our question.

Were there criteria to be selected ?

Yes, there were criteria to be selected. Firstly, we had to know how to swim, of course. The first email I ever received from the lady who later became the team’s manager, had precisely stated that participants had to be strong swimmers. They also had to be girls in their adolescent years.

The second criteria was even more important than the first. The weekend of the 4th and 5th of June 2016 was the official test that determined whether or not we would be allowed to swim the Channel. The Channel Swimming Association has very strict rules, so every swimmer had to prove that she was strong enough for the challenge.

Normally, the test for swimmers participating in a relay is to swim for 2 hours in open water below 15.5°c. If a swimmer couldn’t manage this, she would not be allowed to swim the Channel. To push us even further, our trainers (Kathy Batts and Kevin Murphy, nicknamed “the king of the Channel”) made us swim for 2 hours, allowed us a break of 1 hour and then made us swim again for another hour. This was our routine for both Saturday and Sunday. Everyone succeeded.

How was the preparation process ?

The preparation process was long. The first weekend that all the girls met, was our first training session. On Saturday the 2nd of April 2016, we swam in a pool for 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon. I remember that Kathy had told us to swim 1000m without stopping, we didn’t complain. So she asked for a second, a third… and eventually a fourth. “This is definitely the last one,” we told ourselves every time. But no! She made us swim a fifth 1000m. It was tiring but we were proud of ourselves.

The next day, we swam another 2 hours in the morning and in the afternoon we went to the lake. Of couse it wasn’t to admire it, but to swim in the 7°c water. I can confirm that the water was very cold. We all held hands and walked into the water, telling ourselves that we were in the Caribbean. We swam for 10 minutes.

Every weekend since, we met up at the “Bains des Paquis” to swim together. As well as this, we had to continue regular training with our respective clubs.

During two weekends in May and June, Kathy took the team to Santa Margherita Liguria, Italy (to train in warmer water than that of Geneva) and to Dover (to see the boat would use and to train in the harbour). Unfortunately, I couldn’t participate to either trip as the trip was either in my IGCSE month or whilst I was abroad.

As the date of the crossing approached, we had to intensify our training. We had to swim between 1 and 2 hours daily, preferably in wavy conditions. I managed to do this best whilst I was on holiday in Sardinia and Corsica. The wavy, salty water was perfect for my training.

The last stage of our preparation was the week before the crossing. While we were waiting for the captain’s call confirming that conditions were good enough to swim, the team swam 2 hours a day in the harbour. We swam laps between the walls of the harbour. The first days, the waves were very powerful and it was a true battle to swim against them. Other days there were no waves, and because the waves occupied us and made the time fly by, we did games whilst swimming to pass the time.


What were you thoughts when you were swimming ?

I thought of so many things whilst swimming. At the “Bains des Paquis”, in Sardinia and in Corsica, I could see the ground when I swam. I watched the fish and the seaweed beneath me. One way of the lap, I would find discernible points, and on the way back, I would try to find them again. It’s not an easy task when the ground looks similar everywhere!

When I couldn’t see anything (for example in Dover), I thought about recent conversations that I’d had, about YouTube videos I liked and their themes, I listened to the sound of the water surrounding me and my breathing, etc. The sound of the water as I swam through it created a sort of rhythm, so it was easier to swim through the minutes whilst following a beat. If I wasn’t thinking about anything, my mind would be empty for just a moment and then it would start singing the last song I had heard to itself.

When I trained during the holidays before the crossing, I repeated my dance choreography in my mind, and every time I made a mistake, I had to repeat that part. I was surprise that a half hour had passed, as it was difficult to concentrate on different movements all at once.

If there were waves, it was impossible to think about anything else as we had to concentrate on our breathing so that we didn’t inhale any water. It’s quite amusing to feel yourself bobbing up and down with the waves.


What was the greatest difficulty ?

The greatest difficulty was to organise eight teenagers! Often when the team swam on weekends, one or two members wouldn’t be able to come due to school work, colds, etc. It was harder to find a date when every girl was available, than to swim an hour in the Channel!

chacha_wall_lightWhat did you learn from this experience ?

I certainly learnt patience, persistence and that great things come with time. The organisation of the boat, the dates of departure, finding donors, all took a while to sort, about 4 months. This required a lot of our patience. The persistence, in terms of swimming, was a key element for our success. If at any moment a swimmer would have stopped and touched the boat, the whole project would have failed.

How about the cause : obstetric fistula ?

Obstetric fistula concerns young girls in third world countries. Here, it’s the culture to have many children young, even though the girls’ bodies are underdeveloped. Due to the poor sanitation, the birth can take several days and the child is often stillborn. The mother is left internally damaged, meaning that she cannot control her body fluids. She starts to smell, resulting in her rejection from her community and family.

The funds raised from the Channel crossing will finance the operations and 3 weeks of rehabilitation of 166 girls; the funds raised from the crossing of the Lac Léman will finance the education of the midwife of a village, so that the number of cases in that village will be reduced to 0.

A word for IIL ?

Yes, the school has financially helped with the funds and I am very, very grateful.

What’s next ?

Even before having swum the Channel, all the girls were motivated to accomplish a second challenge. We spoke of the Greek islands, of the stretch between Sardinia and Corsica, of the Strait of Gibraltar but we decided on the Lac Léman, seeing as we could organise this for the following month. We conquered the lake in a time of 23h 29m and 38s.

In 2017, I hope that we will continue together and to accomplish a third project.


Chacha team