Farmington Hills woman trains for August English Channel swim

By: David Wallace | Farmington Press | Published March 29, 2011

 Jenny Birmelin swims laps at the YMCA pool. She swims nearly every day before and after teaching math at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield.

Jenny Birmelin swims laps at the YMCA pool. She swims nearly every day before and after teaching math at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield.

Photo by David Schreiber

FARMINGTON HILLS — At the Farmington Family YMCA March 17, resident Jenny Birmelin swam lap after lap in the pool while a photographer tried to get just the right action shot.

When she finished and climbed up the pool wall, she wasn’t even out of breath.

Birmelin’s parents started her in the water as a small child, and together with her coaches, they always made it fun. She played water polo for Michigan State University while earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and she has also run marathons, though she eventually quit to focus on swimming.

Now open water swimming has her hooked, and she plans to swim the English Channel in August.

“It started off several years ago when I was doing open water swims, and I really liked them, and I noticed that every swim was different, and I learned something from every swim,” said Birmelin, a 1995 Harrison High School graduate.

Nearly suffering from hypothermia, coming down with terrible seasickness and requiring medicine for dizziness didn’t dissuade her from open water swimming. Among her accomplishments are a successful swim from Alcatraz Island to shore, and a 14.2-mile swim across Lake St. Clair. Both were for charity.

After reading Lynne Cox’s “Swimming to Antarctica,” Birmelin started researching the most famous and formidable open swim of all: the approximately 21 miles across the English Channel from Dover, England, to Cap Gris Nez, France.

“My grandma’s really worried. I can’t really talk to my grandma about it right now, because she thought when I did Alcatraz, a shark was going to get me. Now she told my mom yesterday she’s really worried about jellyfish,” Birmelin said.

“I’ll learn something from this swim. So if sea creatures are there, I’d like not to see any. I know everything is in there — sharks to floating timber to floating anything, and there could be all kinds of stuff just drifting,” she said.

Though the distance is about 21 miles, tides can push swimmers laterally, making them swim more miles.

There are a lot of rules. A support boat will follow her, but Birmelin cannot touch it. And no wetsuits: English Channel swimmers must swim in a regular bathing suit and a cap that offers no thermal protection. The Channel’s average water temperature in August, according to Birmelin’s website, is 57-62 degrees.

Channel swimmers can put on some type of grease to protect against chafing, but it cannot offer warmth.

“You can do any stroke. You just can’t touch the boat. So when I’m feeding, I have to tread water, and my water bottle will be connected to a string,” she said.

She will swim to the bottle, take a swig and let it go.

Her crew on the support boat will hand food to her, probably using a basket on a pole. They plan to experiment with how to do it this summer.

“We have to try and find a beverage with less sodium, because you’ll get so much salt in your system from the Channel,” she said.

Birmelin will eat at intervals, probably after the first hour and then every 30 minutes. They won’t be leisurely meals.

“You have to be quick, like less than 20 seconds … because if you’re taking two minutes to feed and you have 20 feedings, that can be more than three hours added on, if you miss a tide,” she said.

She has to eat, because she will burn an enormous number of calories during the swim, which she said takes an average of 13 hours.

“People have come out and have shed 10 pounds,” she said. “Some people put on 5 to 10 (pounds) before they swim, trying just to maintain. Since I did OK with the qualifying swim in September — in Lake Huron when I started, it was 56 on our thermometer, and the last few hours it was just below 50 in the water, and it was a cloudy, windy, cold day — I did OK, so I’m not trying to gain weight and have extra weight to pull,” she said.

To qualify, she had to complete a six-hour swim, which she did near her aunt Lynn Frikker’s place near Tawas Point on Lake Huron. Frikker, an emergency-room physician, will be on the support boat with Birmelin’s husband, Noah, and her friend, Cheryl Dehn.

Frikker recalled wearing fleece and wool on the boat during the qualifying swim, and freezing.

“That first hour, I thought, ‘I just have to pull her out,’” Frikker said. “After the second hour, there was no stopping.”

When Birmelin finished, she swam to the shore, Frikker recalled.

“There were people onshore applauding,” she said.

She said Birmelin displayed incredible focus at a young age, and she always excelled at the freestyle.

“She just had an incredible, effective stroke,” she said.

Birmelin thinks she can make the swim in 13 hours, though an attempt is not guaranteed.

“It’s hard because I’m fourth in — they call it the queue — with my pilot. My pilot’s name is Andy King, and so I would be fourth in line to go in that window (of time) with him. So on the first good day, he will ask the first person that booked it first, are you ready to go? If they say no, it goes to the second person on that day,” she said.

“There’s been many people that have had gotten over there and had to wait and never got a chance during that window and had to train another year,” she said.

Birmelin swims during weekday mornings with her husband and anywhere from two to six others until about 6:20 a.m.; then, it’s off to teach math at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield. After school, she does another two hours of swimming. On Saturdays, she swims at Schoolcraft College with the Ford Athletic Swim and Triathlon Club in the morning. Saturday afternoons she fits in swim lessons, and then Sundays she does her long swims.

She also trains her core, since she has arthritis in her back.

“She wants it enough to do what she needs to do to get herself there,” said Dehn, president of F.A.S.T.

“I’ll slow down a little bit after (the Channel swim). I probably won’t want to see water for maybe a few days. I’ll probably take maybe a week off,” she said.

For more about Birmelin or to donate to her trip — to rent the boat, fly to England and swim the Channel costs more than $8,700 — visit www.jennybirmelin.com.