Swimming the Channel for Uncle Wally

Marian Cardwell ’11


Fall 2012

When Marian Cardwell ’11 learned that she would spend her year as an English teaching assistant in Lille, France, she began dreaming of a swim—a very long swim. Lille is near the English Channel, a strait that has lured swimmers since 1875 when Englishman Matthew Webb made the first successful crossing. Only 1,300 have been successful, though—fewer than the number that have summited Mt. Everest.

Cardwell swam for the Knights at Calvin, despite a chronically painful left shoulder. It wasn’t the athletic challenge of a Channel swim that prompted her dream, though. It was Uncle Wally.

At 15, Wally Filkin was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. “As a young athlete, he was devastated,” Cardwell said. “But he seized life. His persistence and continual gratitude have always inspired me.”

Now 72, Filkin’s health has deteriorated. “When I left for Lille, I didn’t know if I’d see him again,” Cardwell said. “I wanted to do something to honor him and to draw attention to the research of the Chicago Diabetes Project, which Uncle Wally feels offers the best hope for a cure.”

Cardwell had to rely on her uncle’s kind of determination long before stepping into Channel waters. She tried training in the local public pool, but found 12 people per lane—swimming the breaststroke. When she inquired about a guide boat (required for official Channel swims), she was told they were booked two to three years in advance.

“I had never given God full control of something,” she said. “Finally, it got to the point where I had to say, ‘OK, God, show me what you can do.’”

Pieces started falling into place. A lifeguard introduced her to a swim coach, who let her train with his team and introduced her to a second coach. A boat miraculously became available—with a pilot considered the best on the Channel. She was assigned a swim window: July 10–18.

The waiting of that week proved more taxing than 10 months of training. Every day’s weather made a swim too dangerous. So on July 19, she packed for a flight home to Wheaton, Ill.

On the way to the airport, Cardwell called her boat pilot to say goodbye. He told her the weather had changed and he had an opening. She could swim the next day.

So at 8:35 a.m. on July 20, Cardwell ran into the English Channel at Dover wearing her Knights swimsuit and a lot of Vaseline and started swimming. In the guide boat, her father, mother and sister cheered, at Cardwell’s request, for 10 seconds every 10 minutes to distract her from shoulder pain. Every 30 minutes they spooled out to her an energy drink or energy gel. (Rules stipulate that swimmers not touch the boat.) Between feedings, she counted strokes.

At hour six, the pain in her shoulder disappeared. Jellyfish appeared. She was able to avoid them, and the 600 ferries a day that also cross the Channel.

At hour 10, things got tough again.

“By hour 11, my shoulder said, ‘I don’t feel like swimming anymore, Marian.’ And I said, ‘You can do one more hour, shoulder. Don’t be a baby.’ Sometimes you just have to talk to your body.”

After 12 hours and 20 minutes in the 61-degree water, Cardwell slid and crawled over seaweed-covered boulders at Cap Gris Nez, France. She had stroked 43,000 times—30 miles.

“This whole experience has taught me how to trust God no matter what state I’m in,” she said. “I see how I can glorify God in anything I do.”