When Pat Gallant-Charette was 46 years old, tragedy struck her family. Her brother Robbie, 34, a two-time winner of the Peaks to Portland swim, died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
Her son, Tom, who was 16 at the time, decided to compete in the 2.4-mile ocean swim from Peaks Island to Portland as a tribute to his uncle, and he encouraged his mother to join him.
“I said, ‘I wish I could do the same,’ and he said, ‘Mom, you can if you try,’” said Gallant-Charette, a 66-year-old retired nurse from Westbrook.
Little did Gallant-Charette know, that first stroke toward Portland would be the first stroke in what has been an inspiring open-water swimming career.
One of the grandmother of three’s greatest goals was finally accomplished earlier this summer, when Gallant-Charette became the oldest woman to swim across the English Channel, making it from England to France in 17 hours, 55 minutes.
That marked the second time Gallant-Charette successfully swam across the channel. The first time was in 2011. She had Robbie’s name on her arm during the swim.
She said the swim was challenging, and she even had some doubts along the way but did not give in.
“It was incredible, because 80 percent of the swim, I wanted to quit,” Gallant-Charette said.
Among the struggles Gallant-Charette experienced were cold water, with water temperatures peaking at 50 degrees — conditions she wasn’t expecting.
But the memory of her brother and her son’s presence on the boat kept Gallant-Charette moving, and she wound up swimming a total of 34 miles.
The shortest distance from England to France across the channel is 21 miles, but ocean currents can make the swim longer, and Gallant-Charette took what she called an “inverted S” to France.
She added that the current is notorious for throwing swimmers off their route, and at one point she noticed a dorsal fin roughly 6 feet away.
“I thought I was hallucinating because they say for marathon swimmers, if you’ve been swimming close to 20 hours, some will have episodes of hallucination,” Gallant-Charette said.
After completing the swim, Tom notified his mother that the fish with a shark-like fin wasn’t a shark.
“It was an ocean sunfish,” said Gallant-Charette, who noted that very few sharks are spotted in the English Channel.
Challenging marine life doesn’t phase her, as Gallant-Charette has been stung numerous times by jellyfish in completing challenging swims such as Japan’s Tsugaru Strait, the North Channel which connects Ireland and Scotland, Hawaii’s Molokai Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar and the Catalina Channel in California.
“I’ve been stung by jellyfish so many times that I’m used to it,” she said. “I don’t have bad reactions. It’s just very painful.”
All of those swims are part of the “Ocean’s Seven,” with only the Cook Strait in New Zealand, a swim Gallant-Charette plans to attempt in 2019, remaining on her checklist.
Only six people have completed all seven swims, but Gallant-Charette has the training and the mind-set to complete it.
She compares marathon swimming training to that of marathon running, using the same formula that runners use, which is a regime of typically five to six days per week and a long run every two weeks, with the distance increasing with each long run.
That intelligence in training has contributed very well to Gallant-Charette’s longevity in swimming and is part of why she’s in tip-top shape.
“That’s why I haven’t sustained any injuries from overdoing it,” she said. “I had to figure out a training pattern and do you know what I did? Copied what marathon runners, what they were doing.”
Gallant-Charette also admits to “self-training,” meaning she doesn’t have a training specialist. She typically trains at Pine Point in Scarborough.
Athletics have always been a large part of her life.
Growing up with six brothers and a sister, Gallant-Charette and her siblings were all active in their youth, and she participated in swimming at Westbrook High School before graduating, getting married and starting a family.
Tom and his sister, Sarah, participated in a variety of sports in their youth, including soccer, track and field and, of course, swimming, with Gallant-Charette never offering any pressure to partake in her sport.
“I never put any pressure on the kids or my grandkids,” Gallant-Charette said. “If they get into swimming, great. If not, there’s other things to enjoy.”
While Gallant-Charette is passionate about her sport of marathon swimming, it is by no means cheap, as she said it costs at least $4,000 to hire boat pilots and she has no official sponsors.
“It’d be nice to have a major corporate sponsor [but] I’m not expecting it; such is life,” Gallant-Charette said.
But she has no plans to come ashore anytime soon.
“At 66, this is my strongest year ever in swimming, and I just want to continue it with a lot of great swims,” Gallant-Charette said.
The next one will occur in Lake Ontario, a 32-mile route from western New York state to Toronto, and it’s a safe bet that Gallant-Charette will journey across that lake with grace and power.
If there’s any message Gallant-Charette hopes to send with her journeys across many bodies of water, it’s that putting that toe in the water for the first time can lead to enormous success.
“I would say for anyone, try something new in life,” she said. “You never know the road it’s going to take you down. I just never imagined I was going to go down this road. It got me down a road that I’m enjoying very much, meeting people from all over the world, and it’s great exercise.”