The inspiring true story of a record-breaking, death-defying, 54-hour swim across the English Channel

In September, Sarah Thomas attempted to swim across the English Channel four times in a row. Jon Washer via PA via AP

Hours into the swim: 5

Miles: 9

Lap: 1

SARAH THOMAS HAD been swimming for about five to seven hours when she felt her stomach lurch. The spaghetti she'd eaten before her midnight start, which was intended to be an 84-mile swim in room temperature waters, wasn't sitting well. As she kicked through where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean near Dover, she felt waves of nausea rock her body. In keeping with the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation, her crew members, who were sailing next to her on a boat, threw her apple juice-infused carb shakes every half hour. It wasn't helping settle her stomach.

She calculated that her journey would take at least 43 more hours -- four laps, two round trips between England and France (average time of 12 hours each lap) -- and she was sure she was going to be sick.

Thomas, 37, was focused on not losing her dinner. She needed to retain the nutrients to sustain the swim. But after the seventh hour, as the sun started to come up on Sunday, Sept. 15, ultramarathon swimmer Thomas threw up everything she'd eaten the night before.

Little did she know that the bad spaghetti she had eaten hours earlier would be the least of her worries during this unfathomable swim -- a feat nobody else had accomplished -- across the English Channel.

THOMAS IS NOT new to ultra-swimming. She knows it involves staying awake and afloat for several days. In August 2017, she became the first person to finish a current-neutral 100-mile swim in Lake Champlain. That was also the longest unassisted open-water swim -- a swim that, under Marathon Swimmers Federation regulations, generally allows for the use of one porous swimsuit, one non-neoprene swim cap (made of latex or silicone), earplugs, goggles (tinted during the day, clear at night) and nose clips. The swimmer cannot touch the boat that's directing her and is allowed a 10-minute break at the end of each lap to eat and reenergize, although touching crewmates is not allowed.

But the English Channel swim was different. Thomas was attempting the journey less than two years after a breast cancer diagnosis.

Many people have heard about her astonishing 104-mile, 67-hour swim in Lake Champlain that made her a world-record holder. What they may not have heard is this: After her husband put her in the bathtub of their hotel room and used baby oil to wipe off the silt, clay and sand sediments that had accumulated on her body, she mumbled "I don't feel good" and fell unconscious.

"So I got my wife, after we've been out [in the lake] for three days straight, unconscious in a bathtub, covered in baby oil," said her husband, Ryan Willis.

"I thought my wife died in front of me."

Willis carried her from the bathtub to the bed, yelling, "Sarah, wake up! Sarah!" After remaining unconscious for several minutes, she woke up with a start to see her husband kneeling over her, panicked. Her cousin Alex, who is a paramedic, was on-site and cleared her vitals.

In retrospect, Thomas thinks she should have seen this as a sign.

In November 2017, she went in for a biopsy after finding a lump on her right breast.

"You have an aggressive form of breast cancer. You need to start treatment immediately," Thomas' doctor told her.

"When I finished that [Lake Champlain] swim, I was on top of the world. And then, at 35, out of nowhere, I was diagnosed with breast cancer," Thomas said. "It stops you in your tracks.

"I didn't even know if I was going to live long."

Hours into the swim: 12

Miles: 22

Lap: 2

THOMAS TOUCHED THE rocks on the shore of France. She ate rice that her friend and crewmate Elaine Howley had packed and spent the last two minutes of the 10-minute window she is allowed on the shore rubbing lanolin on her body to stop it from chafing. Then she jumped back into the water, beginning the second lap -- from France back to England -- of her intended four-lap swim.

Within minutes, she felt a dull thud against her head. Something had bounced off her swimming cap, and she rashly raised her head. The thing bounced onto her nose. She felt a sharp sting on her nasal tip and a throbbing sting on her chin.

The water was so turbid, she didn't see her swimming companion in advance, but when the creature moved away, she caught sight of what it was.

A jellyfish the size of her face, which had just stung her.

Having done years of open-ocean swims, she had learned to stay away from jellyfish and to not swat at them if they got too close.

Her face throbbed in pain as she swam the rest of the second lap.

The myth is that the salt and ammonia in human urine and the salt in the sea help with a jellyfish sting, so she said to herself, "My face in the seawater is the best place for it."

A few hours later, as she pushed past the pain from her face, she felt her nausea return. The acidity in the apple juice she was being fed had riled up her already sensitive stomach.

Thomas finished her second lap, making it back to Dover with about 24 hours having elapsed. The south end of Dover is where she started the race, and 24 hours later, she was back where she had started, having done the second lap in 12 hours, 40 minutes, which is what it typically takes an ultramarathon swimmer to finish a one-way crossing of the Channel.

But she still had two laps to go, and although the throbbing from the jellyfish stings had subsided, she couldn't keep food or fluids down.

"CAN I SWIM the English Channel?" was one of the first questions Thomas asked her doctor when she was diagnosed with cancer.

Thomas had dreamed of swimming the English Channel since she was a child. Her father had enrolled her and her sisters in a summer swimming program in Idaho. The rules of indoor swimming felt inhibiting.

Attempting multiple laps of the Channel was one of the most challenging swims a human could undertake, she had read. Some swimmers had tried and failed in the process. She had to try to see whether she had it in her to finish it. And she worked her way up, starting with a 10K swim in Colorado in 2007, where she now lives, to swimming the Santa Catalina Channel in nine hours. When she finished the Lake Powell swim -- an 80-mile marathon she swam in 56 hours and 5 minutes -- she knew she was ready for the most daunting swim, the English Channel, and not just one but four laps.

The first time she did an open-water swim in Colorado, she walked out of the water and thought, "I found it. This is where I belong."

When Willis and Thomas started dating after meeting at a local newspaper in Colorado where they both worked (the ultra-swimmer studied journalism and political science at UConn), she told him she was preparing for her Catalina swim. He looked at her curiously and said, "Wait, you're going to be swimming for hours in open ocean? That's crazy!" But the minute he saw her jump into the water, he saw how ordinary it all seemed for her. And ever since, he's been a part of her journey. Willis has been on Thomas' crew since the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in 2011. Watching her go through breast cancer treatment, Willis knew her resolve would grow only stronger.

And it did. She went through 16 rounds of chemotherapy over 20 weeks, 25 rounds of radiation every day over five weeks, and had a right-sided mastectomy with the reconstruction of the breast, getting two lymph nodes removed. Throughout the nine-month treatment process, which resulted in intense hair loss, the dream of swimming the Channel kept her going.

A month after she was cleared by her physician -- Thomas had a 100% response rate to the treatment -- she swam the same 10K she had back in 2007. This was a nod to life coming full circle and having to begin from scratch. When Thomas announced to the doctor and her family that she wanted to go back to ultramarathon swimming, they all thought the idea was absurd. She had one year between then and the Channel swim. Thomas decided it was enough time to prepare.

There was always a method to Thomas' madness. She followed self-imposed rules that astounded friends and family. Like storing at least 20 water bottles in her pantry, all black and purple, which had to be arranged in order of color. Thomas' sister Leah Throneberry recalled a time when they lived together. Thomas' swimming lifestyle required her to always carry extra water to stay hydrated. Throneberry, wanting to pull a prank on her sister, rearranged the caps on the bottles. When Sarah opened the drawer to grab a bottle, she froze, and her eyes bulged.

"Did you do this on purpose?" Thomas asked Throneberry, her mouth open. When Leah said, "Yeah, to see if you'd notice," Sarah said, "Yes, I noticed. Please don't do that again." Then she walked away. Every aspect of her sister's training and life was built around the same principle of extreme order, Throneberry said.

A year after that Colorado race, Thomas texted her family via their group chat, just as she had the day she was diagnosed with cancer, that she was going to swim the English Channel. Thomas had always been her sisters' moral compass -- if Sarah didn't freak out, they didn't freak out.

"Nothing she's done so far has been easy, but she makes crazy look normal," Throneberry said. "So when she told us she was going to go for it, we said, 'OK, this makes sense.'"

Hours into the swim: 42

Miles: 70

Lap: 4

THE FIRST FEW hours of her last lap started as she'd intended. Thomas had already made history by making that turn into the fourth lap -- four other people had done the three laps, and by turning around, she'd become the first person to attempt the fourth. Thomas had finally figured out what was making her sick -- the apple juice -- and eliminated it from her diet. And the throbbing from the jellyfish stings had fully subsided.

At that point, though, Thomas had no clear sense of where she was. By her calculations, she had around three hours left.

That was when the tide, which wasn't supposed to head in her direction for another three hours, according to the forecast, completely pushed her off course. The tide needed to calm for her to progress. And to wait for that to happen, Thomas had to swim sideways across the tide rather than go with it.

This added miles and hours to her swim.

At Hour 47, Craig Lenning -- one of her crewmates (the crew consisted of 10 people, five from Sarah's life, two observers with the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation and three boat professionals she commissioned for the swim) -- jumped off the boat and swam alongside her. "You're fighting a really strong current. We have to swim hard for an hour, and once we get through this, you'll be in the British inshore waters," Lenning said. "And we know that you can finish, but you just have to fight really hard right now."

And so she fought. It was midnight already; 48 hours had passed since she started the swim. But she hadn't come this far only to quit with a few hours left.

It felt as if she were swimming into oblivion. And just when she thought they'd gotten over the tricky part of the tide, her friend Elaine Howley jumped into the water with her and said, "We have around 10K left to go, another three hours. Push harder, Sarah."

That's when she thought, "Uh-oh. Three more hours? That doesn't sound right."

Something must have gone very, very wrong.

And immediately, as if on cue, she felt the currents. The waters were occasional choppy. She knew that. But for the first time, Thomas felt as if somebody was dumping water on her. She could feel the water rushing over her. The currents had gotten to a point where she seemingly couldn't put one hand in front of the other. The water was pushing her backward.

That's when it hit Thomas: "There is a good chance I won't finish this swim. So close yet so far. "

SWIMMER, FRIEND AND co-founder of Marathon Swimmers Federation Evan Morrison, who had set up the GPS tracking on his website for people to follow Thomas' swim, bolted upright in front of his computer. It was the final day of Thomas' swim, and he gave up on going on about his day's business. The traffic on his website had picked up, and he needed to attach extra servers to keep the site from crashing.

It was what would be the last two hours of the swim, and Thomas' dot on the tracker was stuck at one spot for a while. It had moved sideways for an hour or so -- and now it seemed as if there was no movement.

Morrison had done the Manhattan swim with Thomas. He knew a lot of ultramarathon swimmers, but there was something about her that seemed superhuman.

"She digs into a part of her soul for that extra energy that most of us don't know even exists," Morrison said.

Thomas' mother, Becky Baxter, stood on the front of the boat, screaming: "Sarah, you got this. Push. Push."

Throneberry, who lives in Missouri, felt a sense of calmness. She'd been getting updates from the GPS tracker all along. But she had this gut feeling that her sister was going to make it.

Thomas' husband, Willis, who was focused on the logistics and getting the pilot to veer her in the right direction, did not have time to think. Ever since she ran up to him after her seven-hour swim around Manhattan in 2011, asking if they could do another ultra-swim soon, they've been a team. He'd been on the boat next to her every time she'd taken on a new challenge. He'd crack jokes when the situation looked grim, and she'd smile at him from the ocean. She'd pulled through every single time.

The lifelong optimist that he is, he didn't see why that had to change this time around.

Hours into the swim: 53

Miles: 125

Lap: 4

THOMAS COULDN'T FEEL her body. She was functioning purely on muscle memory. Her crew had tried and failed to land her on different beaches on the English Channel. There were too many boats on one, and the currents were too high on another. Since they were delayed in the middle of the Channel, they had to battle the tide coming out to them. People who were tracking her GPS via the internet had no idea why she still hadn't landed. It was an 80-mile swim, but she'd already swam 40 to 45 extra miles because of the current.

The tides were only getting stronger. The water was unbearably cold in places. It felt like a fistful of sewing needles was piercing her skin. Another crew member, Karl Kingery, jumped in, and he said, "Sarah, we have to sprint. If we're going to make it, we have to sprint now."

She had no idea if that meant minutes or hours. Thomas heard she was close multiple times. She poked her head up to see if she could see the shore in the distant, or even some kind of light -- but she couldn't spot anything. When Thomas thought she had no energy left to give, she came up with one of her biggest kicks. She propelled forward like a boat that was just fueled up.

"What if I am minutes away and I don't get my hands on the beach?" she thought. "The sun is coming up, and if my mental math is accurate, I've already taken 17 hours to swim this last lap instead of the predicted 13." The total swim should have been 84 miles, but by her calculation, it would take her at least 133 miles to get to the finish line based on the number of hours she's been swimming.

"How could I not finish after all the turmoil?"

That fear propelled her.

Her team, including her mother, was screaming her name from the boat. They begged Thomas to keep going.

"Just another mile, you got this. You're so close," they yelled.

She kicked harder.

When she finally felt the pebbles on her palms, Thomas shuddered, her entire body shaking violently.

She was a mile away from where she started the swim. The tide had made her swim around the beach, all the way up north by Dover. After 54 hours and over two days of open-water swimming, her body and mind finally gave in to exhaustion.

"Where am I?" she asked. Thomas lost her sense of day, place and time. She'd tried to stay lucid for so long that her brain let go as soon as she got to the finish line.

"You're safe. You're done. You're here," someone yelled out to her.