Q&A with Open Water Swimmer Grace Van Der Byl

Photo Courtesy: Grace Van Der Byl

By Melissa Berkay, Swimming World College Intern

World-class open water swimmer and national level pool swimmer Grace Van Der Byl is gearing up for a 36-mile marathon swim in New York this coming summer to add to her extensive list of swimming accomplishments. The 37-year-old is the world record holder, in both the men’s and women’s category, for the Catalina Channel solo crossing from Catalina Island to the California mainland and is an active observer for the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation.

A few of Van Der Byl’s high-profile performances include a place as one of two individuals to finish the seven stage swims of the 2012 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim, the longest competitive open water swim in the world. She also won the 28.5 mile course in the 31st Annual Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. She devotes a large portion of her time to coaching for the Rancho San Dieguito swim team at the Boy’s and Girl’s Club of Rancho San Dieguito in Solana Beach, California.

Van Der Byl also competes in long-distance paddling events and combined long distance swim/paddle events. After returning home from Tahiti and before heading to compete at S.C.A.R. Swim Challenge in Arizona, she took some precious time out of her schedule to answer some questions.

Swimming World: How did you get involved with swimming?

Grace: My Momma started me swimming. Our local Summer League let kids as young as three try out and if they could swim the length of the pool, then they could join the team. My Birthday is in June, so I was still two and not old enough to try out. My Momma pleaded with the coach and after a good bit of convincing, he let me try out and I made the team. That was it…I was hooked The next step was joining a USA Swimming Club Team. I begged and pleaded with my parents to let me join. On my seventh birthday my dream came true and I became a “hub fin” (Hattiesburg, Mississippi). It is and was the greatest gift my parents ever gave me.

SW: Did you ever think you were going to be a world record holder when you were a child?

G: No and maybe yes. I wanted to be Tracy Caulkins. I wanted to be an Olympian and do something special. Obviously the Olympics never happened. Then I quite literally “found myself” in the ocean and haven’t looked back. Records have never been my focus but it is pretty cool when they happen. I am more inspired by challenges that help me explore what my limits are and break through them.

SW: What was it like when you broke the world record in the Catalina Channel?

G: I never went into that swim with the idea of getting the record. I trained hard and knew that I had a great swim in me. I just hoped that things would come together for it to happen. It is impossible to conquer the ocean…it is either agreeable or not. When I showed up for my swim, the captain met me on the dock and said, “Sorry, Gracie. It’s not a record day. If you would have swum two days ago, you would’ve crushed it but conditions have changed. Sorry kiddo.” I was a little taken aback, but assured everyone that it was fine.

I just wanted to cross the channel and have a good and safe swim. I felt great in the water. It was windy and I could feel the current cutting across me but I was in my element and loving every second of it. I only found out I was on record pace the last two miles. At that point I was a little furious nobody had told me sooner. If had had known sooner, I wouldn’t have been playing around. The water dropped to 57 degrees fahrenheit the last few miles and the surf got big. I chose to finish on the point by the lighthouse. It was a dangerous finish that resulted in a hospital stay later…but I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

SW: What is your greatest swimming accomplishment?

G: Ahhhh…this is a tough one. I think my greatest accomplishment is that I am still swimming and still pushing my limits. I never thought my career would last this long or that I would have the privilege or the opportunities that have come my way. I appreciate every second of it!

SW: How much time do you spend training and what are your practices like?

G: I am a little unusual in that I don’t limit my activities to just swimming. I prone paddle, stand up paddle, outrigger paddle, and lift weights. In the winter I do more pool swimming and in the spring, summer, and fall I spend more time in the ocean. I consistently swim six days a week. Most days are doubles with another activity- usually paddling of some sort. However, in heavy channel training season I’ll start to specialize and swim as much as 70 plus miles in a peak week.

SW: What is it about swimming that you love (open water and/or pool swimming)?

G: I love open water swimming because I believe I am my most authentic self when I am in a swim. I love swimming as a sport because I truly believe it prepares you for life better than any sport in the world. In swimming you are 100 percent accountable for your actions…you either did the work or you didn’t and it shows. It teaches discipline, hard work, accountability, gratitude, teamwork, mental and physical toughness, respect, and humility. There are no instant rewards in swimming and sometimes you can do everything right and things still don’t go your way….sometimes they do. That is life.


Photo Courtesy: Matt Wright

SW: What does your day consist of?

G: I start the day swimming from 6 to 9 a.m. I typically paddle from 11 to 1 p.m. Then I coach from 3 to 7 p.m. In my between time, I do my best to rest and get as much nutrition in as possible! Some days vary, with longer swims and no paddling but basically I am in the water four to six hours every day doing something.

SW: What inspired you to work at the Boy’s and Girl’s Club?

G: Joe Benjamin (Pardee Aquatics Director at the Boy’s and Girl’s Club of Rancho San Dieguito and Head Coach for the Rancho San Dieguito Swim Team) and his philosophy in coaching is very close to mine and is what inspired me to work there. I wanted to be a part of the great work he is doing and help grow the program.

SW: Do you receive support from teammates/family/swimmers/friends while training? Do you have training buddies?

G: It takes a village and I couldn’t be more grateful to mine! My teammates and training partners make the process of training for big events fun and they push me everyday. However, the backbone to any and all successes I have had at this stage of my life is due to my husband Neil Van Der Byl. He is behind every crazy idea and is either in the water on a kayak by my side or on the beach cheering for me at the finish. I truly couldn’t have achieved any of what I’ve done so far or hope to do in the future without him.

SW: What is your favorite recovery meal? Your favorite pre-workout meal/snack?

G: My favorite pre-workout meal/snack is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a peanut butter and honey sandwich. My favorite recovery drink is Interphase from the Carbo Pro brand of recovery drinks within 15 minutes of working out. For dinner I like grilled salmon or steak with rice and vegetables.


Photo Courtesy: Greg Porteus

SW: What inspires you?

G: A lot of things inspire me….the kids I coach, new and exciting challenges, swimmers that I meet with amazing stories, the women who came before me like Gertrude Ederle who paved the way for what I am doing now. One of my mother’s last requests before she died echoes in nearly every conscious thought I have of every second of every day. She told me, “Don’t just be, be a force of nature!” The sound of desperate conviction in her voice and the intense look in her eyes when she said that is what inspires me most. I do my best to live exactly as she told me to.

SW: Are you currently training for any athletic events coming up? What are your future goals or plans?

G: I am doing a few races with the Waterman World Tour in French Polynesia. I am planning to swim Lake Tahoe, as well as a 36-mile “never been attempted” swim in New York. I am also paddling Lake Ontario and in Chattajack. Lastly I will be doing Ironmana (swim and paddle race) in Bora Bora in December.


  1. avatar

    Love you Gracie, you are a true inspiration. Thank you for blessing our kids with your presence.