Swimmer takes on English Channel

       Danielle Wahl, the daughter of long-time Westside dentist Michael Wahl, has always felt “very comfortable in the water. It's restoring,” she said in a recent interview.

Danielle Wahl shows her form in the butterfly event.
Courtesy of Danielle Wahl

       The 20-year-old former Cheyenne Mountain High swim star, now a member of the team at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, will put that pleasure to the test in a few weeks, when she tries to swim the English Channel.
       She estimates the 21-mile crossing will last about nine hours. The water temperature will probably be under 60 degrees (compared with 80 to 85 in most heated pools), jellyfish could attack at any time and currents will buffet her sideways, particularly in the last mile before France.
       Still, she sees a basic upside: “You get to the point where you're pretty uncomfortable, but you know it's not going to get any worse and it's something you have to push through.”
       So why the Channel? Danielle says it's something she always wanted to do. “It's one of the biggest challenges for swimmers.”
       She's already gotten close to replicating the experience. The organization that oversees Channel attempts, the Channel Swimming Association, requires that prospective crossers qualify under a certain set of circumstances. For Danielle, this consisted of a continuous six-hour swim last January in the Gulf of Mexico near St. Petersburg, Fla., during a Centre College swim team preseason training trip. The water was 57 degrees, and “you never warm up,” she said. But she also had moral support. In an article in a Kentucky newspaper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, Danielle was quoted as saying, “The last hour of the swim, 15 of my teammates came in and finished up the swim with me. It was just really cool because I wasn't expecting anyone would want to swim in the ocean with me, and furthermore, get in that cold water. I had just a great support group from my team.”
       If Danielle is successful, she'll be one of about 1,000 (men and women) who have splashed unaided across the Channel since the first crossingin 1875.

Danielle emerges from a swimming pool.
Courtesy of Danielle Wahl

       She had to schedule it well in advance. Because of the water temperatures, the Channel Swimming Association allows a limited number of crossings a year, Michael said. His daughter will have a two-day time window (July 1 and 2), and she'll be accompanied by a small, privately captained boat that she and her father set up months ago.
       Danielle believes she's in shape for the attempt, as she continues her basic Centre College training regimen of two to four hours a day in the water, plus weight-lifting twice a week.
       The Channel also matches her favorite type of water experience - open swimming. Despite the cold, she likes the adventure of it. “You don't know where you're going, what's going to happen, or what will come along,” she said.
       Probably the most difficult thing, since coming back to Colorado after school let out in May, has been finding places in her home state to practice open swimming. At the lakes she's gone to, she's found that people wanting to get in the water are supposed to stay in relatively small, designated areas. When she decided to stroke across the lake at Cherry Creek State Park, the park patrol cruised up with flashing lights to ask what she was doing. Her answer (“training”) was honest but still ended with her being forced to leave.
       A similar response greeted her at the Chatfield reservoir near Grand Junction.
       “It's been a little frustrating,” she said.
       Lately, trying to get in her 50,000 weekly yards of distance swimming, she's mostly been consigned to pools or stroking from one end to the other of Prospect Lake's designated area. “But it's only 100 yards across,” Danielle said. “I can only go back and forth so many times.”
       Her dad Michael, who has been with Danielle in her searches for open-swim locations, suggested that could be the Westside Pioneer's story angle: “Colorado girl landlocked as she trains to swim the English Channel.”
       But there's another angle, which is the role that Michael himself played in his daughter's love of water. When she and her older brother Devin were babies, as young as 3 months old, he started taking them to the YMCA and getting in the pool with them. His wife Andrea was sometimes away at night teaching drama at Cheyenne Mountain High, “so I said, 'You know what, I'm going to take them down to the Y and wear them out,” Michael recalled. “By the time I got them home, they were asleep.”
       The effects were also lasting for Devin. He too swam for Cheyenne Mountain High, then for Colorado College, competes in Ironman competitions (Michael joining him) and taught swimming at Pine Creek High School.
       Following Danielle and Devin are their three younger siblings, all of whom had similar young-age water exposures and are also getting into swimming as they grow older.
       As for Danielle, “I never had to push her,” Michael said. “When I'd talk to the coaches, they'd say she was the first one in the water and the last one out. She loves the water and has a little bit of a natural gift.”
       By her senior year in high school, swimming at club events, she was already competing in longer races, up to a mile. A big catalyst was qualifying for the open-swim national championship that summer in Long Beach, Calif., with distances of 5 and 10 kilometers. At the event, she bested a number of girls from states that aren't as “land-locked” as Colorado. “She liked that, and thought it was pretty cool,” he said.
       And now the Channel beckons.

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