Q&A with Marathon Swimmer Paige Christie

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Christie during her August 2014 English Channel crossing. Photo courtesy of Paige Christie.

By Abby Bergman, Swimming World College Intern

Accomplished marathon swimmer Paige Christie is currently training for the longest marathon swim in the world, the 8 Bridges swim in the Hudson River in New York. Unlike many traditional marathon swims, the 8 Bridges Swim occurs in seven stages over seven days and participants can swim anywhere from one stage to all seven.

This summer’s 8 Bridges swim will take place between June 26 and July 3, with the first stage beginning at Rip Van Winkle Bridge. Christie, who swam the English Channel on August 24, 2014, plans to become the third woman and fifth person to complete all seven stages consecutively. The Smith College graduate and Massachusetts native took time out of her busy training schedule to answer some questions. Click here for more information about the 8 Bridges Swim.

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Christie begins her swimming career. Photo Courtesy: Paige Christie.

Swimming World: When did you start swimming?

Christie: I used to dance and I always wanted to do a sport because my brother played hockey and I always saw him being super cool after practice, you know drinking his Gatorade. I was doing swim lessons at the time at a local summer league and towards the end of the lesson, we asked the woman whether or not I could try out for their summer league team. She said that she didn’t think I would be good enough to make the team this year, so I feel like it started with that and being like, “you know what, I’m ready.” I had learned all four strokes, I was 6 years old and I could do them proficiently.

The next day was a Saturday and my dad saw that they were having USA club team tryouts in the next town over. I tried out and I made it and I stayed there for the next 15 years. That training was the toughest and it made me the marathon swimmer I am today.

SW: How did you get involved with open water and marathon swimming?

Christie: At the time I was applying to college, I went to visit Smith and I met Coach Kim (Bierwert). I was a distance swimmer but the races became more standard in my brain, there wasn’t the excitement that there once was and I thought there might be another way to challenge my brain, maybe doing open water swimming would be something fun, but I wasn’t expecting marathon swimming. But when I met Kim, he was training two women, Mackenzie (Bradley) and Emma (Reim), to swim the English Channel and he had a history of training women to do that swim. At the point that he said it, I was feeling that I wanted to do a little bit more but I wasn’t sure in what capacity that would be, but when he talked about marathon swimming it was like “now that would be something right up my alley.” It was Kim.

SW: What is your favorite part about marathon swimming? How is it different from pool swimming?

Christie: My favorite part of marathon swimming is the fact that in many ways you defy so many limits, not only from a physiological standpoint, but also defying the limits of what you think you can do. When you swim the (English) Channel, you have to go into it thinking you can do it, otherwise why would you do it? Just to be able to say “I was able to do that”, it makes your perspective so different. Also, you inspire other people and it helps people understand that the only limits you have are the ones you are setting for yourself. And that if you try to push those and get out of your comfort zone you might surprise yourself with what you can do.

The mental game of it makes it different … one of the things that’s funky about it, you have to be prepared for everything. When I go to swim the 8 Bridges, I’m not going to sit there and ask what kind of water am I going to get, I’ll show up and get what’s presented and have to deal with that. Being mentally flexible is a bigger deal in marathon swimming.

SW: How did it feel when you finished your English Channel crossing?

Christie: How I had envisioned it but even better, like I had expected it to feel like a relief, but the endorphin kick was so much. I mean “surreal” is such an overused word but it seemed how I had always pictured it in my visualizations. It feels like an accomplishment but at the same time, it doesn’t set in. Your brain has been swimming for so long, you feel like you could hop in and swim the whole way back and you’re kind of fine with it. It’s just really weird.

Photo Courtesy: Paige Christie

Christie during her English Channel Crossing, August 2014. Photo Courtesy: Paige Christie.

SW: Why did you decide to do 8 Bridges?

Christie: Originally, I wanted to take some time off to see what happens after the hype of a swim… I stayed involved by being on the support crew for Charlotte (Samuels’) New York Bight swim, which kept my head in the game. I though that was super important because I could see the other side of the swim. After that it made me enthusiastic to do another one.

I thought maybe the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim would be most realistic, but I had a gap year between Smith and law school so I thought what could be the next big swim. I thought maybe there’s a different swim that will get me excited. After Charlotte’s swim I found out about 8 Bridges and I thought if I’m going to try it, now is the time.

SW: What is your training schedule and what are your practices like?

Christie: It varies week to week because at the beginning of my training I was doing a lot of pool swimming and heavy lifting circuit. The minute I could get out to open water, I went and didn’t look back. That happened about May and I don’t do pool unless I have to because getting used to being in the open water and the muscle development is so important.

I try to do four or five open water swims per week, and in those swims I go for just time, I try to get as much as I can do in several hours. I do a lifting circuit, not with heavy weights, just for endurance. I do some yoga and quite a bit of meditation because I think the mental aspect of these swims is so important. A different part of this swim (from the channel), in the channel there wasn’t as much emphasis on “prehab” whereas a new thing I’ve been incorporating in my training is preventative training with an emphasis on recovery. With as much emphasis as I put on training I put the same emphasis on recovery.

SW: How do your family and friends support you?

Christie: They are the most supportive people. I am so grateful to have such great people surrounding me for these swims because everyone has their own lives but they make time to help me and I hope I can give back in some way to them. The one person I can really credit this swim is my brother– he’s just totally stepped up to the plate, from kayaking, to nutritional help, to making me laugh, and even making sure that when I’m not training, my mind is somewhat off.

What has been incredibly rewarding and exciting for me is my new appointed role as “marathon swimming mentor”! Two of my Smith College teammates and friends Abby Bergman and Eliza Cummings are embarking on their first marathon swims this summer; Abby is doing the Catalina Channel and Eliza is doing a Plymouth to Provincetown crossing!

I’ve been trying to give them some insight, tricks of the trade that nobody tells you about, as well as answer their questions and give them words of encouragement. Working with them reminds me of the mindset I had during my first swim when I was excited and passionate, which fuels my passion and excitement….it’s synergy! Mentors are so important in this sport, and I know how much my mentors helped me. It’s what I consider my little way of doing my part to give back as well as pay it forward!

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Christie standing on the Bear Mountain Bridge, one of the bridges that defines the 8 Bridges swim. Photo Courtesy: Paige Christie.

SW: What is your favorite thing to eat before practice or while training?

Christie: Before practice I like oatmeal but I also like a green smoothie. I find with this you can switch it up make it interesting. It’s kind of like marathon swimming… you’re always swimming but the conditions might be different; so with my green smoothie it’s always spinach but you can have blueberries or you can have mango.

SW: How is swimming as a pro athlete different?

Christie: When I was doing the channel in college it was really fun because I had the support of the college with me. It’s a great way to do your first one because you’re not feeling pressured. But this time around it’s been really nice because you get supported. It makes things financially a lot easier but none of the sponsors that I have say “you have to swim or we are going to drop you.” They’re all just invested in you as a person, which I really appreciate. They’re all brands that I have used before and that I truly believe in.

SW: What are your plans for the future?

Christie: Every swim takes a little bit more out of you; this swim has needed more of an emphasis on recovery. I think just get through this swim, you know seven days of swimming. I am supporting Abby’s channel swim in July, so that’ll be a awesome challenge. One swim I really want to do is the Alcatraz one.

I am still interested in law school, I got into law school and that’s kind of the next step academically. I am looking forward to helping other people have voice through the law, whether that’s health law or sports law or women’s empowerment. Just to serve others will be a really great way to get involved.

SW: What’s the best advice someone has given you? What advice would you give?

Christie: Both Ika (Kovacikova) and Margaret (Broenniman) both told me before my swim that it’s only one lap and although that sounds incredibly silly, it’s just a two step process: you get in the water and swim until you’re done. If you can simplify it, do it.

The best advice I can give is that with this sport there are so many people that want to help you make it successful, always surround yourself with people that you trust and who really have your back. In this sport, a lot of people have things to say about either what you look like or your background or your experience or what they drink or don’t drink and how they train, but with marathon swimming it’s not one size fits all.

When it comes down to things that’s a personal choice you have to do what’s best for you because when you are standing there and they sound the beginning horn, all the people who gave you opinions aren’t going to be there and you have to be comfortable with what you have done to get to that point. Don’t feel like there is one way to do this because there’s not.

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Christie at an early swim meet. Photo Courtesy: Paige Christie.

Click here to visit Christie’s blog.

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