Jen Schumacher is a Sport Psychology Consultant and swim teacher at California State University, Fullerton. She is an avid open water swimmer and began marathon swimming in 2009, when she crossed the Catalina Channel in a time of 9:02, the fastest female time of the season. Jen went on to compete and place 7th overall and 4th woman in the esteemed 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in 2010. She completed a record-breaking 17.5-mlie crossing of the Kaulakahi Channel in Hawaii, between the islands of Kauai and Niihau. Jen also participated in Swim22, an unprecedented attempt of four people crossing the Catalina Channel consecutively. Although they did not complete their ultimate goal, Swim22 consecutively swum four crossings of the Catalina Channel (one being an unofficial relay) and fundraised and promoted Jay Nolan Community Services, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the developmentally disabled. As part of Swim22, Jen swam the opposite direction, from the mainland to Catalina, in a time of 11:05.
Jen is now racing to become the first person to complete the Ocean’s Seven, a series of seven of the most challenging and iconic channel swims in the world. Jen’s training involves long coastal swims with her training partner (Uncle Dan) and alongside her mother, Barb, in a kayak. During training, Barb collects trash – mostly plastics – that the group encounters out in the ocean. Jen’s clean-up swims have instilled a sense of urgency to change the way we treat our environment and protect our oceans, motivating her to dedicate her swims to raising awareness for various marine conservancy organizations.
About the Ocean's Seven
The Ocean’s Seven is a challenge set forth by Steven Munatones to the open water swimming world. It consists of seven channels considered to be some of the toughest and most iconic swims in the world. The Ocean’s Seven includes the Catalina Channel, Tsugaru Strait, Molokai Channel, Cook Strait, English Channel, Strait of Gibraltar, and North Channel. No human has ever completed all seven swims, although a few are closing in on the chase. Although Jen has only completed one of these swims to date (Catalina), she believes her enthusiasm and determination makes her a prime candidate to tackle this challenge, albeit as an underdog. The race is on!
1. Catalina Channel: Link →
Location: Channel between Santa Catalina Island and Los Angeles, California
Reasons for Difficulty: Cold water (especially near coast), strong currents, potential for strong winds, and marine life. Shortest point-to-point course across this deep-water channel is 21 miles (33.7 kilometers) from Doctor’s Cove on Santa Catalina Island to the San Pedro Peninsula.
Window of Opportunity: June to September.
Additional Information: First successful swim was in January, 1927 when Canadian George Young won $25,000 in the Wrigley Ocean Marathon Swim in 15 hours and 44 minutes. Since then, 199 individuals have completed the crossing, and I’m one of them!
2. Tsugaru Strait: Link →
Location: Deep-water channel between Honshu, the main island of Japan, where Tokyo is located, and Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan.
Reasons for Difficulty: 12 miles (19.5 kilometers) at its narrowest point connecting the Sea of Japan with the Pacific Ocean. Swimmers must cross an international waterway with extraordinarily strong currents, large swells, and abundant marine life. English and other western languages are not widely spoken in the area. Water temperatures can range between 62-68ºF (16-20ºC).
Window of Opportunity: July and August.
Additional Information: Only four confirmed solo crossings and one confirmed double-crossing have been achieved to date.
3. Moloka’i Channel: Link →
Location: Channel between the western coast of Moloka’i Island and the eastern coast of O’ahu in Hawaii.
Reasons for Difficulty: 26 miles (41.8 kilometers) across a deep-water channel in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Swimmers face extraordinarily strong currents, large rolling swells, strong winds, tropical heat, warm salty water, and aggressive marine life.
Window of Opportunity: Year-round as conditions permit.
Additional Information: First crossed in 1961 by Keo Nakama in 15 hours and 30 minutes and has only been crossed by 15 individuals to date.
4. Cook Strait: Link →
Location: Channel between the North and South Islands of New Zealand.
Reasons for Difficulty: 14 miles (22.5 kilometers) across immense tidal flows in cold water (57ºF-66ºF or 14ºC-19ºC). Swimmers also face heavy chop, jellyfish, and sharks (on one in six crossings). Both sides of the strait have rock cliffs.
Window of Opportunity: November through May.
Additional Information: To date, 67 individuals have completed the swim.
5. English Channel: Link →
Location: Channel between England and France with the narrowest point being in the Strait of Dover between Shakespeare Beach, Dover, England and Calais, France.
Reasons for Difficulty: An international waterway of 21 miles (34 kilometers) at its narrowest point, cold water temperatures, strong currents and ever-shifting water and weather conditions.
Window of Opportunity: June to September.
Additional Information: The most famous and iconic channel crossing in the world. Captain Matthew Webb’s first crossing in 1875 marks the beginning of the modern era of marathon swimming. Since then, thousands have attempted this challenging feat, yet only 1,187 have succeeded.
6. Strait of Gibraltar: Link →
Location: Strait between Spain and Morocco that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.
Reasons for Difficulty: 9 miles (14.4 kilometers) across an eastern flow of water from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea with an average of 3 knots (5.5 km per hour). Heavy boat traffic, logistical barriers, unpredictable water conditions, high winds, and surface chop confront swimmers throughout each attempt.
Window of Opportunity: June to October.
Additional Information: 191 successful one-way crossings (including 6 double-crossings) have been made to date. Most one-way attempts are made from Tarifa Island due to the influence of strong currents, a distance of 18.5-22 kilometers (10-12 miles).
7. North Channel (or Irish Channel): Link →
Location: Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Reasons for Difficulty: Heavy seas, cold water, thunderstorms and strong currents are among the natural elements that must be overcome in the 21-mile (33.7-kilometer) channel.
Window of Opportunity: July through September.
Hazards: Widely considered to be the most difficult channel swim in the world with the water temperature 54ºF (12ºC), normally overcast days, and tremendous difficulty in accurately predicting weather and water conditions. Swimmers face large pods of jellyfish if conditions are calm.
Additional Information: Has been attempted at least 76 times since 1924, but the first success did not occur until 1947 and since then, only 13 successful solo swims have been achieved. Most of the attempts have been abandoned due to difficult conditions and hypothermia.
Frequently Asked Questions
What has drawn you to the sport?
I have been swimming for the majority of my life: I learned when I was 5 and began seriously competing for the Irvine Novaquatics when I was about 10. At around the same time, I joined Junior Lifeguards in Newport Beach and fell in love with the beach and ocean swimming. Every summer, I did a couple of short open water races with my family, also avid open water swimmers. When I returned to swimming after a year-long hiatus, I would do every open water swim I could enter each summer. I had begun to increase my distance, entering the 3-mile Gatorman at La Jolla. Finally, in 2008, I was convinced to attempt my first 10K. I swam the Santa Barbara 6-miler with good friend and Catalina inspirer, Dave Galli, and was supported by my sister, Katelyn. I was so anxious about the swim - over 2 hours without stopping! - I had no idea how I could do that. Needless to say, I finished, and I was hooked. I signed up for a 10-miler later that summer, and upon successfully completing that, booked my date for Catalina.
But that is just what led up to my participation in marathon swimming, not the WHY. Throughout the process of training for my first Catalina Channel crossing, that was by far the most frequently asked question. After my 10-miler and decision to go for it, I was incredibly motivated to train and prepare for this event, but had never taken the time to consider where my motivation lied. Of course I thought to myself “because it’s fun, and because I love to swim.” But WHY is it fun and WHY do I love to swim? Luckily, I had plenty of time with myself on my long training swims to delve deeper into the big why question. One of my motivations was that very thing I was doing – spending time with myself, getting to know myself, alone in the open water. I discovered I love the feeling of being out there with no boundaries, having the ability to explore this unknown environment. I feel connected to nature and this other world I am a visitor in. Finally, I feel connected to others and strengthen relationships though the experience. My uncle, Uncle Dan, did all of the winter training swims and many of the longer summer swims with me, even though he was not training for any long distance swims. My mom kayaked the majority of my long swims, and kayaked the entire Catalina Channel. Having them at my side, as well as the rest of my crew, made the experience an incredible one. I was not crossing alone. I was with my family, my support, and that made it all possible. I was able to put in the hours upon hours of training because I found meaning in the aloneness of the sport, the connection to nature, and the relationships. Now, as I look back on my experience, it is the process that stands out. The entire year of learning so much about myself, sharing my experiences with others, and having this amazing common goal are what made that first year so special, and I can't imagine not having this incredible sport in my life.
What do you think about when your swimming for 9 hours?
To be honest, sometimes I even wonder that. There have been times where I realize an hour has gone by and I really don’t know what I was thinking about. I call this “zoning out,” like what you did when class got boring as a student, and probably accounts for about 10% of my time in the water on those extra long swims. I try to avoid doing this, but it happens.
When I am not zoning out, I almost always hear music in my head. The song usually matches the rhythm of my stroke, and I just get really into hearing the music and hearing the pattern of sounds made by my hands hitting the water and my breathing. Sometimes listening to the music and the rhythmic sounds of my stroke is all I do, and sometimes this is background “music” to what I am thinking about. When this is all I am listening to, it is like a meditative state and can be extremely relaxing. It keeps me in the present moment because I am focused on my breathing and stroke pattern. I would estimate I just listen to this with no thought (aka meditate) about 50% of the time.
When those sounds are background music, and I am actively thinking about something, most of the time it is about my stroke. I just watch my hands pull water under me and fine-tune my stroke until I am certain it is the most efficient and injury-preventative as possible. When it is what I want, I just observe and make sure it stays that way – PERFECT practice makes perfect! I probably observe my stroke 30% of the time.
The other 10% of the time I still hear the music and stroke rhythm, but am thinking of completely unrelated things to the task at hand. I think about what I have to do that day, the scenery and how beautiful it is, or how happy I will be when I finally finish this swim! I try to minimize these thoughts and get back to something in the here and now (meditation and my stroke technique). These thoughts distract me from the task at hand, and are referred to in the sport psychology literature as dissociation. While dissociation can reduce pain and increase the amount of time you will be able to exercise, it can be a detriment to performance (I swim slower when I am distracted). Association, or thinking about things going on in your body (meditating with the sound of your stroke or watching your stroke), may limit the amount of time you are able to do the activity, but often increase performance. Since the amount of time I am going to swim is fixed and not up to negotiation (at least in my mind I have convinced myself of this), I know that even if I associate, I will still swim for the prescribed amount of time on my training plan, and during a crossing, I will swim until I get to the other side. So because association will not have any effect on the amount of time I swim, but it will increase my performance, I try to associate as often as possible.
Not always easy, but it works. By the way, thinking of this answer during my swim was part of that 10% of dissociation I try to avoid!
How do you deal with the cold during a long swim?
I swim in the ocean year-round to acclimatize to cold water. As the water temperature gets colder during the winter, while getting in is always a shock, my body becomes accustomed to staying in cold temperatures (as low as 52 degrees). As the water warms back up in the spring, I increase the duration I stay in the water.
Do you wear a wetsuit?
No. Wetsuits are not allowed by the majority of marathon swim governing bodies because they provide increased buoyancy and insulation. I do not wear a wetsuit during winter training because the purpose of the cold swimming is to acclimatize to the cold.
How often do you swim?
I periodize my swimming, so it depends on the time of year. In the winter leading up to a big swim, I swim shorter, faster and more frequently and supplement with more cross training (yoga, gym, running, and/or biking). In the winter I typically swim 7-9 times a week; 2-3 ocean swims and 5-6 pool swims, with one day of rest about every other week. I supplement this with yoga at Yoga Shakti, light weight lifting and the occasional run or bike ride. As the day of the event draws near, I increase the duration and decrease the intensity of my open water swims and because this requires more rest, I remove one swim a week and add one rest day. I may even remove an additional weekly swim as the longer training swims begin to approach 6-8 hours and I need the extra recovery time.
How do you eat during your swim?
Fueling during a long distance open water swim can be challenging. I stop to "feed" every 30 minutes, and try to spend no more than 30 seconds doing so. While feeding, I tread water in place.
I have also spent a lot of time figuring out which foods and drinks my stomach can handle, and what quantities are necessary to sustain my effort. I practice this in my long training swims. I found early on that I am usually unable to keep solid food down, but that a high calorie energy drink (I use Lemon Lime GU Brew) and gel packs (Espresso Love GU gels) work for me. I have also started mixing Just Plain GU gels into my GU Brew to reduce the time it takes to consume gels and drinks separately. I am currently working on keeping down small amounts of chocolate, as this can be a wonderful mental ‘treat.’ Regardless of what it is, I try to consume between 300 and 400 calories per hour. Drinking 6 ounces every 30 minutes and consuming one GU every hour or mixing a GU into the drink achieves this. It is also important when doing ultra endurance swims to have a backup plan, in case you stomach becomes upset or you get sick of something. My backups are a warm cider drink and strawberry banana smoothie.
How do you go to the bathroom?
During a long open water swim it is necessary to relieve yourself in the water. Most swimmers learn the skill of peeing while swimming by relaxing their lower body and slowing their kick. This skill is essential because failure to eliminate can increase blood pressure, cause intestinal cramping, and in extreme cases lead to hypothermia.
Do you have swimming partners?
Yes I do. In the ocean I swim with my uncle, Uncle Dan. We have been swimming year-round at Laguna Beach for the past three years, since I begun training for my first Catalina crossing. In the summer, we are occasionally joined by my dad and friend Marlena, among others. Outside of the ocean, I train in the pool mostly with SCAQ Masters in Los Angeles and at Cal State Fullerton with Lenny Wiersma, one of my professors and kayakers. When I'm in the Irvine area, I train with the Irvine Novaquatics Masters program.
Do you have kayak or boat support?
An escort boat always accompanies swimmers attempting channel crossings. Some channels allow kayakers, such as Catalina, but this is typically the exception and only allowed in calm conditions. It is the pilot’s responsibility to guide the swimmer safely across the channel and navigate course, accounting for the current and wind.
Do you prefer to swim alone or with others?
In both the pool and the open water I prefer to swim with others. In the pool I enjoy swimming with a group and a coach because it keeps me motivated. In the ocean I prefer swimming with another swimmer or alongside a kayak for safety reasons and, of course, the emotional support.
What do you see in the ocean while your swimming?
Depending on the visibility, I may be able to see kelp, rocks, the ocean floor, small kelp fish, sting rays, sand sharks, seals and dolphins. The largest animal I have seen was when I crossed the Kaulakahi Channel in Hawaii. An 8-foot Galapagos shark followed us for several hours, but more out of curiosity. Regardless, the experience was both scary and beautiful, and something I will never forget.
Many of the channel swims may occur in part at night, such as Catalina, which typically begins at midnight. When I swim at night everything is black, except, depending on the moon, phosphloresents, which are tiny plankton that reflect light. This is a beautiful, calming experience, once you get past the first 10 eerie minutes.