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Student braves waves to swim English Channel

Nicholas Sidelnik
Nicholas Sidelnik
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After beating out dozens of other swimmers in an unofficial race around Manhattan Island in June, MIT junior Nicholas Sidelnik overcame six-foot waves to accomplish "the Everest of swimming"--crossing the English Channel. Sidelnik completed the 23.69-mile swim in nine hours and 53 minutes on July 26.

"I swam the Channel for the same reasons people climb Everest," Sidelnik said. "It was an exciting and adventurous experience that I can share with others." Climbing Everest, in fact, may be his next great adventure. "I plan to climb a few 14,000 foot mountains in late August, and that's pretty much it for my summer," he said. He almost didn't get to make the attempt because of bad weather. He had a window from July 19-29 when the tides were favorable, "but the weather was horrible for almost the entire time I was there," he said. "The winds were high and this created large waves that made swimming nearly impossible."

Sidelnik, an aeronautics and astronautics major from Kansas, specializes in middle-distance and butterfly events for the MIT swim team. He's been swimming competitively since age 8.

After getting a decent weather forecast early in the morning of July 26, "I was in the water swimming by 10 a.m. Even then the waves were six to seven feet tall," he said. "In fact, when I first entered the water from the beach, the first wave that hit me knocked me down and I got pushed back to shore. The channel sort of spit me out. These weather conditions persisted for three to four miles and then it got a little calmer (two- to-three-foot seas). The waves picked up again once I was a few miles off of France."

During the trip from Shakespeare Beach near Dover, England, to a beach just south of Calais, France, Sidelnik was accompanied by a boat to guide him and provide feedings. Unlike his New York swim, which involved many other swimmers in a competition, Sidelnik did this one alone, except for a friend who swam for three one-hour hour periods to help pace him. "It was a great help and gave him a taste of what it will be like for him on his swim," Sidelnik said.

As in his New York swim, Sidelnik had to contend with chilly water. The Channel was 61 degrees on the English side and one or two degrees warmer off the coast of France. But this was his first time doing distance swimming in open ocean. "In general, it was a long, cold and bumpy ride," he said. "When I was done, I was cold and a little sore in the arms, but not too bad. I was really hungry and relieved."

Both the New York and English Channel swims raised money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, as well as providing personal satisfaction for Sidelnik.

"I enjoy swimming and I enjoy challenging myself. Swimming the Channel was a perfect fit," he said.

Sidelnik, who is working for the Lean Aerospace Initiative this summer, is retiring from open-water swimming for now. "I think most of my swimming will be done in the pool for MIT in the near future," he said. "Maybe my swims this year will attract a little more attention to MIT swimming than usual. We have the strongest team in the school's history this year and could potentially go undefeated, so it will be a very exciting time."

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