FORT MYERS, Fla. – Heather Roka broke down the most challenging parts of her swim into 30-minute increments.
“You can do anything for 30 more minutes,” she told herself.
When it got tougher, she would reduce it to 100 strokes. Thirty strokes. One meter. She even imagined each of her supporters swimming along with her. Anything to keep an impossible-sounding human feat attainable.
Last month, Roka, of Fort Myers, completed the English Channel double crossing, a 21-mile swim between Dover, England to Northern France – and back. Roka swam the 42 miles, non-stop, in 25 hours and seven minutes, becoming the 38th person and 10th American to accomplish the unthinkable open-water swimming challenge.
“I figured it would definitely be the hardest thing I had ever attempted and definitely push me to the limits and really risk failure,” Roka said.
Roka overcame the chilly water, fatigue, physical pain and mental exhaustion to complete the arduous swim.
“I want to say I’m still recovering from it,” she said.
To swim that long a distance requires intense concentration and mental strength, said Ginger Tompkins, a Masters coach on the Gulf Coast Swim Team and Roka’s training partner.
Roka refused to let doubts creep in or divert her from her goal.
“Her mental fortitude, from just a human performance standpoint, is just exceptional and extraordinary,” Tompkins said. “I just think she is an inspiration.”
A decision to take on the double
A Fort Myers graduate, Roka was part of the Green Wave’s 2003 girls’ swimming state title team. She continued her athletic career as a distance swimmer at Gardner-Webb in North Carolina.
Her swimming career allowed her to see the benefits of physical therapy, which inspired her to pursue that field. Roka specializes in assisting patients recovering from strokes.
“Being able to help people figure out that life will go on, you will be able to get back home, you will be able to do things again … it was challenging but very fulfilling,” she said.
Her dreams of swimming the English Channel began as a teenager.
“Most distance swimmers, if you’re interested at all in open water, English Channel’s always like that goal,” Roka said. “The toughest people do the English Channel – that just has so much fame and attention.”
Roka first completed the channel swim in 2017, finishing in 12 hours and 13 minutes.
She swore she would never do it again, but six months later, she signed up for the double. It took some encouragement from Marcy McDonald, Roka’s mentor and the American record holder for most channel crossings.
Swimmers must sign up for the channel swim years in advance because the boats can only take so many people, and the swims need to be spread out.
Roka was uncertain whether COVID-19 would delay her chance to swim the double. She learned last October it was happening, so she had to kick-start her training.
Roka had a better idea of what to expect with the first swim under her belt.
“It really helped mentally – things like knowing I didn’t enjoy night swimming,” she said. “So going into that mindset prepared (me) that it was going to be a lot of time in the dark and how was I going handle it better than the first time.”
Training down south for a swim up north
Training in Florida meant Roka could not replicate the 59-to-64-degree water she would be experiencing in the English Channel. She planned some cold water swims, but they didn’t end up panning out, in part, because of the pandemic.
She swam three days a week at the San Carlos pool for nearly two hours each morning. On some afternoons, she would swim at a friend’s lake. And on the weekends, she would swim as long as she could tolerate at Vanderbilt Beach.
“I never really got to go longer than six hours with how warm it got,” Roka said.
All this preparation came while holding two jobs – her full-time job at Life Care and as an adjunct professor teaching at the Florida Gulf Coast University physical therapy program.
The level of preparation is crucial for the endurance the 42-mile swim requires. Still, it’s hard to account for what it will be like to swim by yourself alongside a small boat for guidance.
“You’re in a dynamic environment,” Tompkins said. “Conditions can change every 10 minutes. You always have to be attentive to what’s changing and what’s happening.”
Roka was fortunate that she did not have to quarantine in England before her swim – the regulation for a 10-day quarantine in England for U.S. citizens was lifted just before she flew over. That allowed her to train in the Dover marina the week before her swim.
Roka’s younger brother, Michael Roka, would join her on the trip as a crew member, wanting to offer support and potentially witness an amazing accomplishment. Dave Chisolm, introduced to Roka through McDonald, was also an essential member of the crew.
25 hours and 7 minutes
The way the swim works is the boat’s captain will navigate and make sure the swimmer stays close. There is also a crew on board, and they are responsible for hydrating and feeding the swimmer. There are observers on the boat as well to ensure the swimmer is following the rules of marathon open water swimming.
Roka began her swim at 10 p.m. on Aug. 20.
Swimming the channel means constantly adjusting to various elements like the tide and the wind.
“You really have to learn how to just let go and be in the moment because there’s so many factors that are out of your control,” Roka said.
Michael Roka said he was “never bored” watching his sister battle through the rigorous task, but he also tried his best to hide his nerves.
“There was a level of anxiety that I had watching my sister put her body put herself through something like that” he said.
Roka changed her feed pattern early in the swim, opting to replenish every 30 minutes. The first half of the swim was manageable considering Roka’s previous experience, but knowing she would have to turn around and do it again was daunting.
She finished the swim to France at 10:16 a.m. on Aug. 21.
Roka described the second half of the swim as the hardest mental and physical test of her life.
“Just muscle fatigue-wise, things were really hurting around 15 hours and just mentally knowing that, ‘OK we’re at 15 hours and your wrist and shoulder are really hurting. Are you going to be able to keep going?’” Roka said.
Michael Roka was impressed at his sister maintaining a 70 stroke-per-minute count for the first 16-to-17 hours of the swim. As time went on, that began to dip to about 60. But when the captain asked if she could pick it up to better handle the currents in the last three hours, she was able to meet the challenge.
The captain offered Roka the best piece of advice: to just focus on the one meter of water ahead of her.
“I stopped focusing on where I was going to be and just took it very in the moment, every stroke in the moment, and be like, don’t worry about how much longer it is, just focus on what’s happening right now,” she said.
Once it got dark again, Roka said there was no way she could quit. She had come too far.
That didn’t quash concerns about what could happen toward the end of the swim.
“I was getting so cold,” she said. “Other people, I think, were more confident I was going to finish, and I certainly wasn’t going to tap out and say that I couldn’t continue, but it was still in the back of my head, like, ‘Are we going to miss a tide? Am I going to be too tried to keep pushing? Are they going to pull me out?’”
When Roka hit the white cliffs on the coastline of Dover, completing her monumental goal, a sense of “pure relief” washed over her.
“I typically don’t get emotional, but I was just so, so proud that she had been able to do something like this,” Michael Roka said.
It was 11:07 p.m. on Aug. 21.
Roka thought she felt better than she physically was after the marathon swim.
“People were like holding me up after, and I’m like, ‘I’m fine,’ and they’re like, ‘You’re not fine, you’re swaying all over the place, you can’t walk,” Roka recalled.
“Her hands and feet were completely white,” Michael Roka said.
Heather Roka felt numb and exhausted and could only manage a few hours rest before the plane ride home. She had to be back in her work routine soon after the channel swim because of all the time she took off.
In any goal in life that might appear intimidating, Roka recommends breaking it down into smaller, more feasible, pieces.
“Pick what you’re going to enjoy that’s a challenge and then push yourself, and, when you think you can’t go or complete it any more, you can,” she said. “Just focus on the very, very immediate, what’s right in front in you. Don’t get caught up in – ‘I’m never going to be able to do this, it’s too hard.’”
There are “plenty more swims to come” in Roka’s future, she said. Just maybe not in the 24-hour range.
But in pushing herself in such extraordinary fashion, Heather Roka makes it difficult to count her out of any undertaking — by land or especially by sea.
“Defeat or failure is not an option for her” her brother said.
Follow News-Press Sports Reporter Dustin Levy on Twitter: @DustinBLevy.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Heather Roka swims English Channel and back: 42 miles in 25 hours