There was a time when the very sight of open water gripped Emily Epp with fear.
Now the 17-year-old from Kelowna is about to take on one of the most renowned and challenging swims on the planet.
Epp will leave next week for Britain where she plans to swim across the English Channel—a distance of 34 kilometres—from Dover, England to Calais, France.
Suffice to say, Epp has come a long way since an unnerving experience in the water as a toddler.
“When I was little, I was absolutely terrified of water,” Epp recalled. “I got hit by a wave once in Tofino and wouldn’t go back in. I would crawl on my dad’s (Rob) head and scream, just to stay away from the water any way I could.
“But one day, something flipped,” she added. “Now being in the lake, in open water, I just feel free, I’m usually excited to go in. Looking back at how I once felt about it, I guess it seems like a bit of a miracle.”
When she climbs into the channel waters later this month, the swim will be about much more than conquering fear or achieving a feat most people can only imagine.
With her 15-year-old sister, Elan, foremost in her thoughts, Epp will be raising funds for Canuck Place Children’s Hopsice in Vancouver. Canuck Place has provided years of care for Elan who lost all of her motor control after being stricken with a viral infection when she was just 18 months old.
“Canuck Place has helped Elan so much, since she started going there she’s become the happiest person ever,” Epp said. “It’s so meaningful what they do, they give help to anyone who needs it.
“They’ve helped my family so much, we wanted to give back. I already had (swimming) the channel in mind. Doing it for Canuck place was automatic.”
A competitive swimmer with the Kelowna AquaJets since the age of 10, Epp first seriously considered taking on the challenge of the English Channel in the summer 2014.
Inspired by the feat of her mentor, coach and friend, Brent Hobbs, who crossed the channel in 2008, Epp’s first major long distance swim was the 2.1-kilometre Across the Lake Swim in 2012.
In 2013, Epp bumped up to the seven-kilometre mark in the Rattlesnake Island Swim.
Then a year later, when she completed her first four-hour swim, her visions of an English Channel crossing really began to take shape.
In her latest and most gruelling pre-channel test, Epp swam around Bowen Island last month in cold, rough conditions, a 30-kilometre journey which took just under 11 hours.
Epp felt ill and nauseous for much of the last three hours of the swim, but wasn’t about to concede defeat to the elements or her own fatigue.
“I was sick and tired and towards the end I was just going through the motions,” she said. “Then Brent hopped in with me for the last hour and that helped. It wasn’t a question of whether I was going to finish. It was motivating to know this was helping me for the channel swim. I had passed the test and it felt really satisfying.”
Point-to-point, from Dover to Calais, the English Channel is 34 kilometres across, but swimmers often have to cover as much or more than twice the distance, depending on factors such as the current and weather.
Hobbs said Epp’s years of swimming with the AquaJets and her extensive training in Okanagan Lake should have her well prepared for the task ahead.
“Her experience with the Aquajets provides her with good swim technique, speed and endurance,” said Hobbs, who nine years ago swam the channel in 10 hours 43 minutes. “She will require those elements to break through the rough currents that lie in wait for her off the coast of France. That is where most channel attempts fail.
“Emily has also put in the work to prepare for her swim. She has swum countless hours in the lake between May and November over the last two years.”
While the physical demands of the swim are evident, Hobbs said 90 per cent of the challenge it presents is psychological.
“To that end, (Emily) must remain focused for her entire journey,” Hobbs said. “That means believing in herself and visualizing success every stroke she takes until she touches the sands of France.”
And what is the most important piece of advice Hobbs has for Epp as she prepares for the most profound swim of her life ?
“Have fun,” said Hobbs, who will accompany Epp to Britain and during the swim. “It is the English Channel after all. It is the most storied seafaring crossing on the planet. It is the world’s top marathon swim with over 150 years of history.
“You have done the preparation and your community, province and country is behind you. Remember why you are doing this—raising money for Canuck Place which cares for kids like Elan. Enjoy the moment and stay focused.”
As for Emily’s mom, Cheryl Epp admits there are some nerves attached to her daughter’s upcoming adventure but those are outweighed by the sense of gratitude and anticipation felt by the entire Epp family.
“It’s been a big commitment for everyone, all of the family and all those who have helped her along the way,” Cheryl said of Emily, one of three Epp sisters. “We’re very excited that she’s been able to realize this goal. To see how far she’s been able to push herself has really been quite amazing, to see her determination (at Bowen Island) was incredible.
“We’re proud of her and the cause she’s swimming for,” added Cheryl. “She’s mentally and physically ready. Now we just wait. We’re hoping her swim is successful but even if it isn’t, it’ll be an amazing experience.”
For a time, the prospects of swimming the English Channel seemed a bit surreal for Emily. Only recently has the gravity of what she’s about to attempt started to settle in.
“I’m nervous, for sure,” Emily said. “It was kind of hard to take it all in at first, I was just brushing it off, saying I’ll be fine.
“Now I know how challenging it’s going to be, Bowen showed me that. You need to prepare for the waves, the swells, the currents, jellyfish, fatigue and sickness, the currents at the end. There’s a lot to be ready for.
“But I’ve had so much support in getting prepared, that’s really been a big part of what’s kept me motivated. I’m excited and nervous at the same time.”
In addition to Brent Hobbs, Emily cites the ongoing support from several members of the Okanagan Masters Swim Club, including Mike Stamhuis, Phred Martin and Jennifer Leach-Trask, as well as Rod Craig from West Vancouver who swam the Channel in 2010.
Emily is second in the queue in this year’s group of swimmers and depending on conditions, will most likely attempt her crossing between July 16 and 20.
For successful swims of the channel—about 10 per cent of all attempts—the average time is around 15 hours. Hobbs estimates Emily’s time, again depending on conditions, will be in the 10 to 13 hour range
As of Wednesday this week, Emily had raised more than $16,000 for Canuck Place. A Vancouver-based foundation, Kids helping Kids, is matching all monies raised, dollar for dollar.
To make a donation go to canuckplace.org.