Is Sarah Thomas’ English Channel Crossing More Impressive Than Michael Phelps’ Olympic Medals?

Michael Phelps is the most decorated swimmer in Olympic history, having won golds at distances that include 100-, 200-, and 400-meters. His success in the pool has made him a household name, and he has gained many endorsement deals that make him one of the richest Olympic medalists in history. Despite all that, Phelps’ feats likely aren’t the most impressive athletic feats to take place in water. There is a woman, whose name (Sarah Thomas) isn’t well-known, who may have the most impressive athletic feat ever.

Who is Sarah Thomas?

Sarah Thomas is a 37-year-old ultramarathon swimmer from Colorado. In late 2017, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a grueling treatment regimen that included chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. The cancer treatments sapped her stamina and made her slower in the water. They also had her questioning whether she still had the mental drive to continue chasing her swimming dreams, but she didn’t let cancer “define” her, and as she told Outdoor Swimmer, she had “demons to conquer,” so she continued her swimming career.

When doctors declared her cancer-free, she jumped back in the water and completed swims that might make Michael Phelps shudder.

Some of Thomas’ accomplishments

Thomas has several swimming accomplishments under her belt. In August 2017, she entered the record books by completing a 104.6-mile unassisted, current-neutral swim in Lake Champlain. 

Fast forward to March 2019, seven months after Thomas completed her active cancer treatment, and she completed a challenging Cook Strait crossing between New Zealand’s two main islands. 

Then in August 2019, she completed a 32-mile, two-way crossing of Blue Mesa, the largest lake in Colorado in just over 15.5 hours. The Cook Strait swim was the first coming back after her treatment, and Thomas says she “desperately wanted to quit in the middle,” which never happened to her before, but she persevered through it and finished the swim.

English Channel challenge

While the Blue Mesa swim was a grueling feat in itself, for Thomas, it mainly served as training for her biggest challenge yet, an unprecedented four-way English Channel crossing. In 2017, she scheduled that feat for September 2019 and, despite her cancer diagnosis and treatment occurring in between, Thomas still attempted the Channel crossing as planned in September 2019. 

Many people consider crossing the English Channel to be the open water swimming equivalent of climbing Mount Everest due to its cold, choppy water and notoriously variable conditions. The Channel Swimming Association has set several guidelines that must be met for a Channel crossing to be considered successful. Among those requirements is that the swimmer may only wear a cap, goggles, and an armless, legless “standard swimming costume” without thermal protection. Food and hydration can only be provided through indirect contact with the support boat — meaning through a pole-mounted cup or bottle.

Sarah Thomas’ English Channel crossing

The first English Channel swim crossing happened in 1885, but it wasn’t until 1934 when someone did it twice back-to-back, and it took until 1981 for someone to complete three consecutive crossings. Thomas was looking to go further and become the first person to swim across the Channel four times. 

The day before her attempt, Thomas wrote on her Facebook page that she was “scared,” and she would “need some luck” to complete the feat. She promised to give it everything she could — and she did. 

She finished the first three legs in a fast 37 hours, but the fourth was more of a struggle. As she fought heavy currents and fatigue, Thomas needed 17 hours for the final leg of the crossing. She finished, achieving her goal, in a total of 54 hours, 10 minutes while swimming more than 130 miles, according to Outdoor Swimmer’s estimates. The official distance of four crossings is 84 miles, so the tides and currents Thomas faced added more than 40 extra miles to her swim.

There’s no doubt Michael Phelps’ Olympic medal haul is impressive, but Sarah Thomas’ quadruple English Channel crossing might go down as one of the most impressive athletic achievements ever.