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Into the deep: The swimming challenge that is taking one Islander from coast to coast

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Karen Gallichan tells Caroline Moody about her plans to take the plunge and swim the Channel to raise money for Autism Jersey

‘I’M just an ordinary middle-aged menopausal single mum who likes to swim.’

That’s what Karen Gallichan might say about herself. But some people would beg to differ.

Karen is a manager at the Autism Jersey Boutique. She has a son who has autism and she is going to swim the English Channel to celebrate turning 50.

‘Swimming has changed my life,’ she says. ‘If someone had said to me five years ago that I’d be swimming the Channel in my 50th year, I’d never have believed them.’

Karen’s Santander International Channel Swim – from Dover to Cap Gris Nez on the north coast of France – is scheduled to take place between 2 and 7 September, if tides and weather allow.

She has taken on the challenge to raise £10,000 to be ring-fenced for an Autism Jersey bursary, specifically to help adults on the autism spectrum to fund opportunities that will improve their quality of life or enhance their employment prospects.

Karen’s swimming journey started five years ago when she was separating from her husband. Seeing that she needed something in her life, one of her friends, Billie Cave, asked Karen to be the swimmer in a triathlon team the following July, in 2014.

‘I was very overweight and unfit,’ says Karen. ‘I knew that Billie and her husband wouldn’t mind how fast or slow I was but they would be annoyed if I didn’t train properly. So I got back into lessons with Channel swimmer Sally Minty-Gravett.

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‘It was a huge challenge for me just to do a training swim of 750 metres. I just can’t believe how far I have come in four years.

‘If Billie had never suggested the triathlon I would never have got back into lessons and started with the Jersey Long Distance Swimming Club. That request changed my life.’

One day, over a glass of wine, Karen asked her coach whether she was capable of swimming the Channel. After a moment, Sally’s response was straight: ‘Worse swimmers than you have done it.’

That was enough for Karen to begin preparing to make the crossing.

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‘The people I swim with... we laugh a lot, it’s fun, you’re exercising, out in nature, exposed to the elements, and you have camaraderie. For me, swimming is like moving meditation. Nobody can get to me. No phones, no internet. And that is part of the joy of it – getting away from everything.’

At one time, Karen felt that her life was open to everyone to scrutinise because she needed a diagnosis and help for her son, who is on the autism spectrum.

‘The challenges of having a child with autism start when you suspect there is something different. I used to be terrified to pick him up from nursery to be honest, because there was always something. He was suspended in his first term at primary school and it was just awful.

‘I still feel it now. I had to open my life to everybody to get a diagnosis and to continue to get my son help – you have to speak to everybody. Our life was documented every single day, and you have this layer of professionals around you and they know the intimate details of your family life. As he grew up, things deteriorated and we were in crisis. I would say we were beyond crisis. I couldn’t go anywhere without having a phone call from school. Everything was falling apart. Every single area of my son’s life was collapsing.’

It was decided that Karen’s son needed to be sent for specialist schooling only available in the UK, and at the age of 13 he went – a move which brought with it new problems for Karen, including feelings of guilt, and the practical issues of travelling back and forth to England.

Her son continued to struggle in the classroom, even with a high level of support, but when he was at college in Bournemouth he discovered a love of the sea. ‘He did his Powerboat Level 2, he got his VHF licence, and he was able to complete his Day Skipper qualification while he was there,’ she said.

That got Karen thinking about how much support there is for young adults who have autism.

‘I was really concerned how we were going to pay for qualifications like that on his return to Jersey and that led me to think about using my swim as a fundraiser and using it specifically for adults on the spectrum,’ she said.

‘I think there tends to be an emphasis on family support, but our children with autism grow up to be adults with autism. The potential to learn is very clearly still there. People with autism might mature at a different rate to other people and it shouldn’t all be over at the age of 18.

‘Where are you going to go as an adult to help pay for what might enhance your employment prospects if you haven’t got family here who can support you?

‘The Santander International Bursary will be for people who need a qualification, or perhaps who need a piece of equipment that will really enhance their employment prospects or indeed their quality of life.’

In preparation for her Channel challenge, Karen swam around Jersey last summer. She was the fastest local female swimmer to make it round the Island in 2017, recording a time of 11 hours and five minutes.

‘It was one of the best days of my life,’ she says. ‘It’s the longest swim I have done, but it’s quite different to the Channel because you can see land the whole time – and there’s an advantage of knowing where you are, recognising the landmarks and the bays.’

It was also made special because her son – as a surprise – was there on the pontoon when she arrived back to shore on the pilot boat.

And in September Karen had an introduction to Channel swimming when she took part in a relay team event. She joined some Americans who needed a replacement swimmer at the last minute, and she did three one-hour legs for them. ‘Actually, swimming was easier than being on the boat,’ she said. ‘I was so seasick.’

It also introduced her to swimming in the dark, something she will have to do at some point on the Channel swim, which is likely to take 20 hours.

Her real fear, though, is jellyfish. ‘I’m terrified of them,’ she said. ‘I was doing the round-Jersey when I was stung for the first time, on the face. But, you know what, I can’t give up on my challenge because of a fear of jellyfish.’

And the Jersey-France swim planned for July this year is quite a different swim to those she has already done. It will be her first ‘land-to-land’ swim, which will be the first time she will be in open water without being able to see land ahead.

‘They say that 80 per cent of Channel swimming is mental,’ she explained, ‘and 20 per cent is physical. But I think that’s probably where my strength lies. That comes from maturity, and the experience and resilience of having a child with autism – because you have to keep going, don’t you? You have to keep fighting for what your child needs.’

With six months to go, all the planning has started to come together and Karen said that she was incredibly grateful for the sponsorship from Santander International.

‘It makes a real difference. It takes a huge financial pressure off me, having their support. Now I can concentrate on my training and my fundraising. I, and Autism Jersey, are really glad they are on board.’

As she reflected upon the strength she will need for her challenge, Karen said: ‘I do use that slogan “Life is not waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” When you’ve got any issue in your life that is not just going to go away, something you have to deal with, day in and day out, you can’t stop your life because of what’s going on.

‘You have to find a way of learning to dance in the rain.

‘You can’t change your circumstances but you can change how you respond to them. I really believe that if you want anything badly enough you can make it happen.

‘This will be a day out of my life and I am sure it will be tough in places, but it’s only one day, and it’s nothing compared to what my son has had to cope with. And hopefully it will raise a lot of money to help adults with autism to do worthwhile things.’

  • How can you support Karen?

She is holding a fashion show at Grand Jersey on Friday 4 May 2018. Tickets, which are priced at £25, will be available from the Autism Jersey Boutique

Karen is organising a Dip at Dawn on 1 April 2018 - a swim in the sea at Anne Port to launch autism awareness month. For more information go to autismjersey.org/events

She has a JustGiving page: justgiving.com/fundraising/karengallichan

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