Swimmer Beth French’s ambitious goal of completing oceans seven was documented in the film Against the Tides. Georgia Dunne spoke to French about the experience.
Against the Tides is a documentary film about channel swimmer Beth French and her ambitious goal to complete oceans seven, a series of the most dangerous channel swims around the world. Completing oceans seven is an incredible achievement in itself, but no swimmer has ever done so in a year. French’s goal is to be the first. But the physical challenge is not the only one present in Against the Tides, which is an empowering film with an overarching theme of being true to yourself and listening to your body.
Beth French does not call herself an athlete, instead she is a self-proclaimed “adventurer”. She’s never participated in competitive swimming, but her love for the water has always been with her.
“I was constantly jumping in streams and lakes,” French told Siren. “Mum feared taking me to the sea because I would jump in it.”
Channel swimming was almost a fulfilment of French’s wishes from when she was young. At four or five-years-old, she wanted to “get in the water and keep swimming”, to keep going out to the horizon.
“I wasn’t trying to swim far or fast. It was just spending time in the water. Then all of a sudden, I was like, ‘Right, I can spend six hours in the water. That’s kind of halfway to France. I wonder if I could do the other half’.”
At 17, French was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), a condition that causes the body’s systems to attack themselves.
“People assume you’re fatigued. You get post-exercise malaise, and your body feels like you’ve got a virus, your immune system acts as if you have a virus. It affects all different systems in the body, ” French says of the condition “There’s no real cure for it. [You] learn how to manage the stresses that trigger you to find a ground where you can maintain a bit of health.
“Just floating in the water kind of took away the [pain] and became a place where I felt okay with my body. Water was the only place where I didn’t hurt.”
The motivation that propelled French into the water
French says the decision to try and complete oceans seven in a year was motivated by a few things. Her son Dylan, who is on the autism spectrum, was the main catalyst, but her ME diagnosis contributed too.
“When I got pregnant with Dylan, I was terrified of getting ill again because my mum had ME when I was small [and] we ended up having to do a lot of the farm work and cooking because she might not be able to on any given day. So I was terrified of being a single mum and my child being a carer. I didn’t trust my body.”
It was this fear that motivated French to answer that childhood question and attempt to swim the English Channel in 2012.
“It was to prove to myself that I could put myself through something so much harder than daily life with a child, so that I’d feel comfortable doing daily life with a child. But I never trusted I was there yet.
“I kept pushing the boundaries and did a longer channel swim, then a channel that nobody had done before. Then it was in the back of my head: could I do one after another? I need to prove to myself that I can do them one after another so I can prove to myself I can recover.
“It became a recovery challenge as much as a swimming challenge.”
Learning to listen
While her early motivations were tinged with this desire to prove herself, French believes that the oceans seven project helped bring her to an uplifting decision about her freedom and her abilities.
“One of the things that I learned the most from oceans seven was learning to listen to my body,” French says. “For the first time in my life, I could stand up and say, ‘This is what’s right for me’. I could fully own my destiny and not be afraid to go my own path.
“The oceans seven list gave me the answer to the question of why I got in the water in the first place. I did a channel swim in the first place to prove to myself I was over ME, and I was trying to find the edge. And the edge became not a physical edge at all, but an emotional edge to say, ‘You have to listen to your body to say when it’s right and wrong, and listen to yourself’.”
A spiritual journey
Against the Tides depicts French’s oceans seven project as both a physical and mental journey, but also a spiritual one. When preparing for her swims, French would practise intensive meditation that she learnt during her time as a Buddhist monk in Thailand.
Her mindset throughout each swim was extremely beneficial in times of trouble, like when she encountered a shark during her Hawaii channel swim. Only accompanied by a crew mate in a kayak, French was alone in the water.
“The pilot boat had gone ahead to give us a waypoint. I lifted my head to take my hourly drink, and Mike in the kayak said, ‘Beth, please don’t freak out, but there’s a shark behind you’. I didn’t know if he was pulling my leg, but what do I do? I can’t get out.”
Luckily, French had researched what sharks she might encounter during this particular swim. This knowledge made her feel safe, as “safe as [she] could be with a shark around” anyway. But in keeping with the broader themes in the documentary about listening to your body, French says the shark brought her to a new understanding of her own fears.
“I couldn’t get out of the water, so there’s no point panicking [and] I came to the conclusion that I was so grateful to be that close to an incredible creature.
“I realised that I would never be afraid of anything on dry land ever again. It broke a part of my emotional fear. There’s nothing on land that can ever scare me more than that, so I never need to be afraid of anything. If I can get through that and decide to carry on swimming with five hours of darkness ahead of me, there’s nothing on dry land to be afraid of.”
Swimming into the power to advocate
French’s relationship with her body was a pivotal part of Against The Tides, but so too was her relationship with her son Dylan. French says that she tries to create environments for Dylan where he feels safe but also has the opportunity to explore the world, in many ways mirroring the oceans seven project.
“When I finished oceans seven, Dylan was downhearted because we weren’t going to adventure anymore. And I said, ‘That’s alright, you can choose our next adventure’. And he said, ‘We’re going to stay in Alaska in the snow’. So I found a way of making that work. It was so precious, seeing him reach out into the world.
For French, the power that she found in herself by doing the oceans seven project, has transferred into other areas of her life, including the way in which she advocates for her son.
“I can now advocate for Dylan without worrying. Having that sense of power in myself, it’s something that was long hard fought and I would love to give that to everybody without having to feel you have to swim seven channels in a year, because you don’t have to.
“Advocating for yourself and your child frees you up in so many ways. You can have adventures every day.”
Freeing and empowering
French’s decision to end the oceans seven project prematurely, during her swim in Japan, was surprising, but in some ways also liberating. French says that it was the realisation that she had nothing left to prove that propelled her out of the water.
“It just hit me about an hour and a half into the swim that I’ve got nothing left to prove. I’m doing this for a reason, and it hit me that I’ve answered my question. I suddenly went, ‘Oh my god, it’s suddenly easy again. I only have to prove it to myself. At 2 AM when I wake up, I’m the only person who’s going to judge me’. It was so freeing and empowering, it really was a beautiful moment.
Despite ending the project early, French says she still sees it as a success.
“I don’t say that I got out of the water early. I say I finished the swim. It was my decision to finish early, but I finished, and when I did, I got out of the water feeling so empowered.
“The project proved to me that, yes, I could’ve swum all seven channels, but the underlying thing was, I now trust myself. And that was the ultimate reason that I wanted to do it in the first place. My journey was to see what’s possible for me.”