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Deirdre Newell with her congratulations cake

Deirdre ‘Dee’ Newell, from Corrandulla in County Galway, is a Captain in the Irish Defence Forces. She is currently based in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin, having recently returned from overseas service with the United Nations. Deirdre is also studying for an MSc in Exercise and Nutrition through the University of Chester, in Dublin.

She started her swim at 1am on August 4, from Dover, and arrived at the coast of France just under 15 hours later, shortly before 5pm, having swum at a steady pace, averaging 54 strokes per minute for the entire swim.

Deirdre explains more: “The English Channel is a swim that has been in the works for me for a number of years, but due to work and study there has been no perfect time to do it. The opportunity first arose last year. However, since I was out of the country working with the UN, I had to defer, which is how this year’s opportunity came about.

“Usually, four swimmers will be booked on a tide which is either a neap tide (lower high tide, higher low tide, less moving water) or a spring tide (higher high tide, lower low tide, more moving water). Looking at the forecasts, it was clear I would not be swimming in the window originally intended for me. I knew if I didn't stay and try my best to get out, I would be waiting a number of years to get this chance again. My original crew did not have this flexibility and so I waved goodbye to two out of three of them, and started to scramble to find replacements.

“Luckily, I had a number of offers and the new crew consisted of Andrew Ferguson (who lives on a barge in London and is an accomplished sailor, so I was confident he would have good sea legs), the other was Gavan Hennigan (who has rowed solo across the Atlantic and has completed a number of self-supported endurance races and expeditions - so more good sea legs and a great understanding of endurance sports). Cliff Golding was my mentor throughout and the main crew man on the day. He lives in Kent so was on call constantly for all kinds of advice, as well as being the main man on the support boat. He provided updates to my friends and family, closely following the tracker as the day progressed.”

Deirdre says that once she knew the swim was confirmed, and she realised how close it had come to not happening, she decided to make the most of the experience and opportunity: “I told myself above all else to enjoy it, and this is exactly what I did. I felt safe with my crew watching me and I was willing to do exactly as they told me.”

She explains how the swim went: “At midnight, my support boat Suva left Dover Marina and made its way to Samphire Hoe Beach. Once the boat was a few hundred metres out, I entered the water to stand on the beach. I got my signal to start just before 1am. I entered the water and swam. The first two hours, my mind did race with all kinds of thoughts, but once I got through that I settled into the swim. It wasn't long before the sun came up and I could see that I was well on my way, with lots of ferries and container ships to look at.”

She added: “I fed every hour, alternating between Ucan, a corn starch product, and Maxim, a glucose and fructose mix. Feeds are done by the crew throwing a bottle on a line in for me to grab and quickly gulp; one of the rules is that you must not touch the boat during the swim. The crew saw some porpoises along the way but all I saw were jellyfish, which were only in patches. I was asked to give one hard 30 minutes’ swim to get out of the last shipping lane and I did this while the crew cheered me on the whole time. The pilot was happy that this effort was enough and I returned to steady swimming. Eventually, I landed at Wissant Beach, France to a crowded beach with a lot of people there to congratulate me and take pictures. It was the finish you imagine when you think of swimming the English Channel.”

Deirdre’s successful Channel swim, caught the attention of the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who is also the Minister of the Defence. He tweeted his congratulations, saying ‘Amazing feat of physical fitness and resolve’. The Irish Defence Forces also congratulated her on Twitter.

Deirdre joined the Defence Forces as a Cadet at 18, straight after leaving secondary school. If she hadn't been offered a cadetship, she already had a place as a PE teaching student at the University of Chester, so she feels that she was destined to be a Chester student whatever happened.

As an endurance athlete herself, she now hopes to use her MSc qualification to help her in assisting other endurance athletes and guide their nutritional plans and training.

She said: “I hope to graduate next year. Future plans will include more challenges and hopefully inspiring more people to get involved in activities which challenge them as well as getting them to respect their environment. If people rely on the environment for their sports and hobbies, they will be more conscious of keeping it clean and healthy. I had a very positive mindset throughout the lead-up to the swim and practiced meditation regularly to keep my mind calm. This really helped me in both not stressing in the preparation for the swim but also in allowing me to focus on the task at hand on the day and enjoy it. I hope I can encourage more people to switch off from technology and enjoy activities big or small for a portion of each day.”

Deirdre’s supervisor at the University of Chester, Professor Stephen Fallows from the Department of Clinical Sciences and Nutrition, said: "This is a fantastic and brave achievement and should be applauded and celebrated. Dee is a fantastic role model for students across the University - we should encourage all students to take on challenges and succeed."

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