‘She smiles when she swims’

‘She smiles when she swims’

New Jersey teen sets new world record for open-water swimming.

Charlotte Samuels hugs her grandmother

Charlotte Samuels hugs her grandmother Camille Stern at Newark Liberty International Airport on September 14, 2014, after returning from a world-record-setting swim across the English Channel (© Elizabeth Lara, North Jersey Media Group / The Record)

© Elizabeth Lara, North Jersey Media Group / The Record


Wearing a bright blue and green swimsuit so the sharks wouldn’t think she was food, 16-year-old competitive swimmer Charlotte Samuels slipped into the water of Catalina Channel off the coast of California at 11:30 p.m. on an August evening and began her 20-hour swim, pausing only occasionally to chug an energy mix. She pushed through huge swells, the frightening darkness of the nighttime ocean, a panic attack, and numerous jellyfish that stung her for two miles straight.

“The jellyfish stings were a good distraction from everything else that was going on,” says the teen, who is a member of the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood in New Jersey. “It was only bad when they stung me in the nose or ears.”

With that sort of tenacity, it’s no wonder that Samuels not only finished her difficult 20-mile Catalina Channel swim but also successfully swam 21 miles across the English Channel just weeks later. Those two marathon swims, combined with her 28.5-mile swim around Manhattan Island earlier in the year, clinched her title as the youngest person in the world to complete what’s known as the “Triple Crown” of open-water swimming.

“The common threads through these experiences were the awe and spiritual amazement of what an individual can accomplish with the support of a team and the belief that she can achieve her dream,” says her father, Steven, a physician who rides on the support boat alongside Samuels on all of her marathon swims. “There is something much more at work than breaking a record when Charlotte swims. She smiles when she swims. She appears one with her element, the water. She is part of the ocean, not fighting against waves or swells or current. She just keeps going and going and going.”

Samuels started swimming competitively at age six and was just eleven when her grandfather gave her a book that changed her life. Titled Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer, the memoir by Lynne Cox details the author’s record-breaking swim adventures around the world.

“It made me want to try something like that,” Samuels says. “I tried some shorter swims and really liked it, and a marathon swim was the logical next step.”

Samuels’s swim coach discouraged her, predicting that she’d never make it, but that just made her even more determined. In 2013, working with a different coach, she became the youngest person known to complete the Ederle Swim, a 17.5-mile course from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

“It’s a really beautiful swim, and it’s really symbolic because it’s named after Gertrude Ederle, who was the first woman to swim the English Channel,” Samuels says. Samuels was also in the first group to swim around Cape May, New Jersey, before the event was cancelled due to the dangers involved.

Her swimming career has included some disappointments. Her first attempt to swim around Manhattan Island in 2013 was cut short because of difficult currents, though Samuels and other swimmers didn’t agree with the officials who forced them to leave the water.

But she conquered the Manhattan Island swim a year later, completing the first leg of her quest for the Triple Crown. Next came her nighttime trek across the Catalina Channel.

“That was the scariest thing I’d ever done in my whole life, and I felt better once the sun came up at 5:30 or 6,” remembers Samuels. “The sun changes the color of the water; it turned this intense gray and then this beautiful blue. It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever swum in my entire life.”

Although Samuels nearly gave up after Catalina, she decided to attempt the English Channel just a few weeks later. “I knew I wanted the record,” she says. Her family flew to England not even sure that Samuels would be able to snag a swimming slot. She woke at 3 a.m. ready to go, only to learn her assigned start time was delayed until 7 p.m. It was a tough and much colder swim, with water temperatures as low as 50 degrees.

“The English Channel is this body of water that you can’t fight,” she says. “You have to respect it so much because so many things can go wrong.”

Despite large swells and choppy water, Samuels persevered, crossing the channel in 20 hours and 44 minutes—and completing the Triple Crown.

To stay in shape, Samuels swims two to three hours a day, on top of strength training on dry land. But the teen has plenty of interests outside the water, too. She frequently raises money for charities, has played the violin since age four, and participates in a program for students who are interested in health professions. And, of course, she’s active with her church. “I’ve always been an avid UU, and I love youth group,” she says.

As a freshman, she wrote about swimming in her personal credo statement for her congregation’s Coming of Age service. “I tied it into the Seven Principles,” she says. “All of my swims make me feel really, really small compared to the universe, and that ties to interconnectedness. . . . I wrote about how we all need each other to live and how you can’t separate yourself from the universe. I talked about how swimming made me realize that none of my problems are big and how nothing I really do matters, and how at the same time, how everything I do matters.”

Meanwhile, she’s determined to experience the world one ocean at a time.

“The Triple Crown is a really big thing for marathon swimmers, but there’s an even bigger goal that only a few people have done, and it’s called the Ocean’s Seven, where you swim seven open-water, long-distance swims around the world,” she says. “That’s something I’d like to do because I’m genuinely interested in every swim that’s a part of it, and I’ve already swum two of them.”

Knowing Samuels, it’s only a matter of time before she reaches her goal.