MIT’s Li Completes English Channel Swim

Senior Qing Li approaches the French coast.
Senior Qing Li approaches the French coast.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – A member of MIT's women's swimming and diving team placed her name on an exclusive list when senior Qing Li (Shoreham, N.Y.) successfully completed a swim across the English Channel. Li is one of over 1,200 swimmers who have successfully made the swim. Li's teammate, senior Sydney Giblin (Williamsburg, Va.) also made the crossing attempt, but was forced out of the water by strong winds and currents after completing 20 miles in 12 hours.

Li, who completed the 23+ mile swim in just under 17 hours when she stepped ashore in France on August 26, was motivated to make the attempt by a high school teacher and a former MIT teammate. "I had an 11th grade history teacher who gave out awards at the end of the year," recalled Li. "Mine was 'most likely to swim the English Channel' because I was the only swimmer in my grade. That planted a seed in my head and when I met Clara Bennett '10, who was also on the MIT varsity swimming and diving team and swam it in 2008, I started to ask her questions about it. I realized in my sophomore year that it really was something I wanted to do."

After putting in considerable training in the water and on land, Li faced a number of challenges after entering the Channel near Dover, England on August 25. Swimming through the night she faced the cold of the water, nausea, large waves and a lightning storm. The worst, according to Li, was the mental impact of the swim itself. "The biggest component of my attempt and of the whole journey was the mental aspect, especially for a sport that is very individual by nature," said Li. "As I knew this would be my biggest problem from the very beginning, I worked hard by talking with many people, including Dawn (MIT head swimming and diving coach, Dawn Dill), on what I could expect from the swim, what mindset I should take, and in general just defining the swim to make it my own. Owning the swim helped me forget about distractions and pains. The preparation beforehand really helped me deal with doubting myself from hour one, the nausea, the pain, and the cold during the swim.

"A wonderful technique that Coach Bill of MIT Masters swimming told me was the idea of 'treeing.' This is the idea triathletes use to forget about small things that go wrong during their race, and to channel all the negative thoughts into a tree. After passing that tree, they will forget about those thoughts and focus instead on what comes ahead. I used treeing to forget about my negative thoughts and counted a forest by the end of the swim."

Li did not realize that she would finish the swim until the crew of the boat that was with her informed her that she had just 3.5 miles to go to the French coast. "Hearing I was so close gave me hope and renewed energy," remembered Li. "I thought of everyone's support and the journey I had taken during this past year. I knew I could not have even actually tried to attempt the swim, let alone getting to about 3.5 miles from shore, without so many supporters. My goggles filled to the brim with tears (and it wasn't because my face got thrown into the edge of the boat). Though my shoulders hurt, my stomach churned, and the waves sloshed over me, it was the support of everyone that allowed me to find the courage and energy to continue to swim."

Looking back on her accomplishment, Li has come to the realization that, for her, the feat is just a part of the larger picture of her journey through life. "I had prepared myself mentally for both if I had succeeded and if I had not," said Li. "And as I already knew, it wasn't the swim that was most important to me. Being able to finish the swim is just one thing to add on a long list of things I hope to one day do. It was the journey that mattered for me. And it was the opportunity to learn so much, grow as a person, and meet so many wonderful people. While this challenge was tremendous, I can't say it has proven me worthy of accomplishing everything I will be faced in the future. I certainly can't cure cancer. But I can say that this journey has changed my perspective on life and I now await my new project."