Craig Lewin, originally from Swampscott, achieved the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming with his completion of the 21-mile English Channel swim last month. He is the 240th swimmer to do so and is the only one to do it during a pandemic. He did it in 11 hours and 24 minutes.
“I was ecstatic,” said Lewin, after he completed the swim. “I was going to be done because I was just sick of swimming, but I’m thinking in my head, ‘this is it, three years of working and it’s over in thirty seconds.’”
Lewin, who is 34, is the founder of Endurance Swimming – a program that coaches people for long distance swims. He began in the fall of 2017 with eight months of rigorous preparation for the first leg of the Triple Crown, the 20-mile Catalina Channel between Santa Catalina Island and the California mainland.
Lewin swam the second leg in 2019, the Swim Around Manhattan, which is the longest of the three swims at 28.5 miles.
Lewin said training for the English Channel was the hardest of the three, due to the cold water and intense current. Training became even more difficult at the onset of the pandemic in March. Pools and training centers closed, forcing Lewin to get creative with his preparation.
He decided to call his parents in March and ask them to open their pool in the dead of winter, so he could begin his training. “My days became getting up at four in the morning, driving from Canton to Swampscott, then swimming for a couple hours in the pool,” Lewin said.
The pool is not suitable for swimming laps, so he improvised further by tethering himself to the pool stairs with a bungee cord. In the colder months he swam for about two hours each morning in a wetsuit, then headed to the ocean for a bit, before coming home to work and finishing the day with another bungeed workout in the pool.
As the weather became warmer and the swim inched closer, Lewin shed the wetsuit and upped his swims to approximately five to seven hours per day. “It’s good mental training, but it’s rough,” Lewin said.
Swimming for so long can become mundane, but Lewin said that he replays classic movies in his head throughout the swims to keep his mind occupied. “Next thing you know, two or three hours are gone,” he said. Lewin’s “swimming” movies were “Men in Black” and “Sister Act.”
When it came time for the swim, he learned that he could only bring one person along with him due to the pandemic. The original plan was to have his family there for support.
His father, Richard, accompanied him on the trip oversees as he has worked as his son’s crew chief throughout his distance swimming career. On marathon swims, there is usually a five-person crew on the boat to assist the swimmer on feeds and take pictures among other tasks.
“I was glad he was able to make the trip,” Lewin said. “We were able to finish the journey we started together. If he wasn’t there it definitely would not have felt special at all.”
Upon arrival in England, they had to quarantine for two weeks prior to actually doing the swim. “He couldn’t swim for a solid two weeks,” Richard said. “He had four days before the swim where he could swim in Dover Harbor with other people, which was good.”
The swim went smoothly with little sea life interaction, aside from the time he spent in the English Channel’s separation zone, which is a part of the water between vessels heading in opposite directions. It was there that Lewin encountered a lot of jellyfish.
Lewin got stung six or seven times, which seems like a lot. But for marathon swimmers, jellyfish stings are expected, if not welcome since they serve as a distraction. “If you’re having a bad day and you get into your own head, you get stung by a jellyfish and now you’re not thinking about how badly you’re swimming,” Lewin said. “It gets you back on track. It reminds you you’re alive.”
Once Lewin completed the swim, the excitement was short-lived. The swim ends at a set of dangerous boulders, so the focus turned to exiting the water safely instead of celebrating. Officials gave him 30 seconds to celebrate, then he had to climb in a dingy and eventually into a boat to head back to England.
Once back in the boat, Lewin was able to have a moment with his dad and call his family back home. Lewin and his father flew back to the states a day later.
Richard spoke about his experience alongside his son. “I was very proud of him. When Craig sets his mind on something he pretty much can accomplish it,” he said.
What made this swim so special for Lewin was the support he had back home, which went beyond his friends and family and extended to the open water swim team where he coaches and trains triathletes.
It meant a lot to him to see people beyond his circle draw inspiration from his feat, especially during the pandemic. There was an outpouring of support on social media which made Lewin realize how his accomplishment inspired others to continue or start training themselves.
“Everyone said this swim was not going to happen, and I refused to listen to them and I’m glad I didn’t,” Lewin said. “The support I got from the community, like the North Shore area and people in general, was just enormous. When I got out of the swim and I did all the phone calls and looked at all the messages, it was amazing. I don’t think in a normal year it would have been as large in magnitude as it was in terms of the amount of support from people.”