Pushing boundaries with Channel swimmer Abhejali Bernardová

This post is part of my #makingwaves series – intrepid and inspirational women with an uplifting story to tell.

“What? You’re saying you’ve actually swam the channel?” I exclaimed. “All of it? From Dover to Calais?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Twice.” 

My mouth dropped open. She beamed modestly as I stood on the beach, gawping somewhat dorkily at her. Mid-March and we’d been blessed with crisp evening sunlight. The sea was a lustrous navy blue, the waves harmonious. The sun was slowly sinking behind the White Cliffs of Dover, washing the shingle with golden shards. The setting was sublime.

Heroes come in unexpected forms. Seemingly ordinary people do extraordinary things and that’s why Abejali Bernardová stepped into my life last week, to remind me of exactly that. That is, after all, what the #makingwavesproject is all about.

It was a perfect example of serendipity that Abhejali noticed my appeal for intrepid and inspirational women whilst at home in the Czech Republic, preparing to fly to England for the annual Channel Swimmers’ dinner, and realised we were about to become geographically compatible.

“I love your project,” she wrote, “and your passion for the sea! I would really love to participate. My flight lands at lunchtime on Friday. Can you do the evening and can I wear my sari?”

Obviously I said yes to both!

It turned out that swimming the Channel a couple of times didn’t even scratch the surface of Abhejali’s achievements. In 2018 she became the first person from a landlocked country to complete the Oceans Seven marathon swimming challenge consisting of seven open water channel swims.

“The sharks were on my mind,” she smiled, “during the swim from Catalina Island to Los Angeles.”

“Oh flipping heck!” I said, my mouth agape once again.

“But then again,” she shrugged, “there has never been a swimmer attacked by sharks.”

I grimaced and rubbed my furrowed forehead doubtfully.

“Ah, there are cars outside your front door,” she laughed. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to get run over by one!”

I waggled my head in consideration of her valid point.

It’s definitely all about the mind,” she said firmly. “Our mind limits us too often. We tell ourselves we’re too young or too old, too big or too small, and that stops us from even trying.”

The force behind Abhejali’s drive is self-transcendence: the overcoming of the limits of the individual self and its desires through spiritual contemplation and realisation. That’s where the turquoise sari comes in.

“Meditation really helps with my sport,” she explained. “I couldn’t achieve great things with my swimming, running and cycling without knowing myself better through meditation.”

“Oh, you run and cycle too?”

“Yes,” she nodded. “After one of the Channel swims, I ran and cycled all the way back to the Czech Republic as part of a triathlon.”

It’s true. She did. After swimming the 33.5 km English Channel, Abhejali completed 895 km of cycling and 182 km running. It took her seven days and 12 hours to travel from Dover to Prague through human power alone. The World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) describes Abhejali as a woman “who quietly and unassumingly continues to push the bar of human endurance.” It praises her “for inspiring others in the midst of a pandemic and continuing to seek her endurance potential in the water, on foot, and on a bicycle while maintaining a calm demeanor, a bright smile, and a friendly disposition.”

As Abhejali told me all about the lengths she went to in order to train for these challenges, I realised I was doing that gormless, blinking expression once again, so stunned by the capabilities of this European woman standing in front of me wearing a vibrant Indian garment.

“Right,” I said decisively, pulling myself together and reaching for my camera. “Let’s take some photos. Can the sari get wet?”

“Of course!”

And so began the standard shenanigans of a seaside shoot with The Outdoor Studio. As Abhejali sauntered photogenically through the shallows, I clicked enthusiastically, following her as she wandered willingly into the waves, the cold water seeping up the blue embroidered fabric of the sari. Inevitably, a rogue wave smacked into us both. Abhejali flailed but maintained her composure, laughing gleefully as he hobbled back to dry land. So absorbed in taking photographs, I was caught off guard. The mischievous wave nudged me sideways and my bottom dipped into the sea. The camera, miraculously, stayed dry as I held it high above the tide.

“Oh no!” she said with concern as I squelched and dripped back onto the beach. “You’re soaked!”

“It happens,” I shrugged, pulling my wellies off and tipping the water out. “Every time! It’s an occupational hazard.”

Abhejali and I left that beach with a euphoria induced by sea air, wild water and good company. I’d enjoyed my time with her. We’d laughed a great deal. Yes, she was an impressive and somewhat daunting ultra-athlete but she was also incredibly modest and easygoing. We clicked, not just in the photographic sense, but as like-minded women who appreciate the ocean and enjoy getting out their comfort zone. We made arrangements for me to join her and her Channel chums in their ‘Peace for Ukraine’ swim in a couple of days time. The idea of a dunk in Dover whilst the sea was at its coldest filled me with trepidation but, as I often say –

Never refuse an invitation.

Especially if it’s a dip in the ocean with a worldly long-distance swimmer.

Read other tales from intrepid and inspirational mermaids:

The Making Waves Project: “I started photographing women in the sea by chance when, during a family photo session, the pregnant mum put on a boho dress and stood in the waves. I thought, wow, this is powerful!”

Talking adventure with Girl In A Yellow Jacket: “I came to England because I was looking for adventure. I had £50 in my pocket. No job. I didn’t know anybody at all. It was a crazy thing to do on my own.”

Imogen and healing power of sea swimming: “You can’t out-run grief. It follows you like a shadow.”

Archie and her sea glass: “My whole life I’ve had these bonkers adventures,’ she said, as she drank her shandy. ‘Now I feel as though I’m living. I could never leave the sea.’

Empowering women with Cat Pellow: “I’ll never forget the moment someone shouted, “Fat Cat!” at me across the road.”