Anthony McCarley had a desire to swim the English Channel before he even learned to swim at age 13. That drive got the SF State alum to the Pacifica Sports Hall of Fame last weekend.
“I can’t really tell you what first spurred it, but it was always there,” said the former SF State student. “I woke up one day and I was 49 years old and I thought, ‘Holy moly, I live in Pennsylvania and I’m getting old. If I don’t get to it soon then I’m never going to get the English Channel done.’”
McCarley became the 59th person over 50-years-old to complete the swim in the history of the English Channel Aug. 14, 2013.
“It’s like the Mt. Everest of climbing,” McCarley said. “It’s the ultimate one, the big one.”
In 2009, at 49-years-old, McCarley started training for the big one.
McCarley made his first attempt at crossing the English Channel in September 2012. The captain ordered him to stop, a mere half a mile from shore. The crew believed he was showing signs of hypothermia.
“Three weeks right before my swim, in that very spot, someone died.” McCarley said. “Everybody was skittish and on eggshells from it, but they knew right when I got on the boat that it was a mistake to pull me out. I was fine.”
The term “fine” is relative; he did lose 10 pounds in the water during the swim, leaving him in excruciating pain like he had never experienced before. In a marathon swim, once a swimmer touches the boat, the swim is over. There was no going back. He had failed to finish.
But he said it proved one thing to him: He could do it. So he went back home to Berwyn and continued his training for another year.
“I’d go out and shovel snow in flip flops, shorts and a T-shirt,” McCarley said. “I had to change the way my body thought of cold. It was brutal.”
And so in August 2013, McCarley was back for the unfinished business he left at the channel a year prior.
“At the start of the swim, at the Cliffs of Dover, I had to jump off the boat into pure blackness,” McCarley said. “I paused… there was a moment there.”
He ignored his doubts and dove into the night.
“In the middle of the English Channel, you can’t see England, you can’t see France, you can’t see Africa or Portugal. For eight hours in pitch blackness, every six strokes all I saw were the lights on the boat.”
For marathon swimmers, there’s always a dark period where the battle is not against the waves, but themselves. His dark moment was the first five hours.
“You’re depressed and down on yourself, you don’t know know how you’re going to continue on,” McCarley said. “It was rough and choppy right out of the gate. I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ It was demoralizing.”
After five hours, the water calmed down. But then, the jellyfish came.
“One hit both shoulders, then across my lip and forehead. The pain was indescribable,” he said. He spun like a fish on a hook, completely out of control from the pain.
After that, he decided he could not stop. Any sense of doubt subsided again.
After swimming the channel, McCarley was inducted Feb. 22 into the 24th class of the Pacifica Sports Hall of Fame.
McCarley worked as a swim instructor at Terra Nova and Oceana High School in Pacifica, and later head coach of the Sea Lions swim team in the early 1980s. During this time, he studied chemistry at San Francisco State University.
“(McCarley) is incredibly inspiring.” said Don Potter, former swimmer for the Sea Lions under McCarley. “Right this minute he makes me want to start training for the English Channel, but ask me tomorrow (and) I don’t know if I’ll have it in me.”
McCarley also became the latest member of the Half Century Club, which promotes open water swimmers who have successfully completed a marathon swim over the age of 50.
There are an estimated 8,000 people in the world who have done marathon swims, and approximately 20 percent of those are over the age of 50.
“(McCarley) is a fascinating guy who is very enthusiastic about his sport,” said Steven Munatones, founder of the Half Century Club and World Open Water Swimming Association. “A lot of the people who do marathon swims are successful in their lives, personally and professionally and looking for something more.”
Now the 54-year-old swimmer looks ahead to his next big swims, 28.5 miles around Manhattan Island and 20.2 miles across the Catalina Channel, which, alongside the English Channel, comprises the “triple crown” of marathon swims.
“For me, it wasn’t about marathon swimming, it was about the English Channel,” He said. “I really thought I would stop swimming after that.”
But he also may not be finished with the English Channel.
The Channel is 21 miles at its narrowest point, but the swim can be much longer, depending on when the swimmer hits the tide change. McCarley missed that spot by 20 minutes and a painful two and a half hours were tacked onto his journey.
“It is eating at me that I didn’t go faster. I missed the tide shift by a little bit and it cost me,” he said. “I’m not going to say that I’ll never do it again.”