Her self-doubt surfaces on race-day.

Pat Gallant-Charette looks at all the young, slender athletes, and thinks to herself, What the heck did I get myself into?

She stands at the edge of the open water, wondering for the briefest of moments if she’s overweight, if her gray hair means that she’s too old for a swim of this length.

It’s the Peaks to Portland race in Maine, a 2.4-mile swim, the longest she’s ever attempted, and she’s unsure of her decision. Still, when the time comes, she dives in. And about halfway in—around the time “those slender athletes were probably already finished,” she tells me later—something clicks.

She talks of racing as if she doesn’t have a choice.

“I was looking at this beautiful port, a beautiful summer morning, I could hear the seagulls squawking, the lobster boats were going by. I remember thinking, Wow, I’m really enjoying this. I had no pressure, I could care less what place I came in.”

“I was looking at this beautiful port, a beautiful summer morning, I could hear the seagulls squawking, the lobster boats were going by. I remember thinking, Wow, I’m really enjoying this. I had no pressure, I could care less what place I came in.”

That race changed Gallant-Charette’s life in ways she couldn’t have imagined.

Now, about ten years later, at the age of 68, she is using her retirement years unlike nearly every other human being approaching septuagenarian status: crushing records on some of the toughest open-water swims in the world.

She has checked off all but one of the “Oceans Seven” swims, each a test of endurance and grit that few of even the most elite swimmers conquer.

At 67, she became the oldest person to complete the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming, which includes a 30-mile lap around Manhattan Island in New York; a 20-mile crossing from Catalina Island to the California mainland; and 21 miles across the English Channel, courting the frigid waters between France and England.

Pat Gallant-Charente
Pat Gallant-Charente – photo by Brian Fitzgerald – https://fitzgeraldphoto.com

Last year was her “strongest year ever,” she tells me in her upbeat, Maine accent—she knocked out four celebrated marathon swims in just two months and racked up some world records along the way.

There have been shark encounters, blooms of stinging jellyfish, frigid water temperatures—in open water swims, no wetsuits are allowed—and swims that endured from the daylight hours through the pitch-black night.

But no matter, she’s only gotten better, enjoying it more every passing year.

“Years ago, I just never imagined that as I got older, I’d actually be getting stronger in my swimming. You listen to what society says, and they say you get to a certain age and then it’s all downhill. Well, not necessarily,” she says. “You can surprise yourself! I certainly did.”

She manages to balance all of this, plus training six days a week, with her full-time schedule as a grandmother.

But what might be most impressive is that Gallant-Charette, a retired nurse, didn’t even start swimming seriously until she was in her late 50s.

For years, she had harbored a fear of the ocean after encountering what she thought was a shark when she was 13. And later, raising her own family, she always considered herself a “spectator mom,” unsure of herself, the “Queen of the Self-Doubters,” as she puts it. So, a marathon swim? It never crossed her mind as something she could do. But the sudden death of her younger brother Robby, an accomplished swimmer himself, changed everything.

When Robby passed, her youngest son said he wanted to swim the Peaks to Portland, which Robby had won twice, as a tribute to his uncle. “I wish I could do that,” she told her son. “Well, mom, you can if you try,” he responded. “My God,” she says, “I was so caught off guard!” The last time she’d felt strong was 30 years prior, “and in that time you can get a lot of self-doubt about your abilities.” But she decided to give it a try—“just once”—as a tribute.

The first time she went to the pool to train she asked the lifeguard to keep an eye on her.

She worried she wouldn’t be able to swim two laps. But she made progress and kept going. The first day she swam non-stop for a full hour she “burst out of that pool like an Olympic athlete!” she says. It took her a full year just to qualify.

And though her self-doubt came flooding back at the start of the race, she had that moment halfway through, a beautiful scene unfolding before and a feeling of serenity that carried her through the last mile. “I remember finishing, and my brother’s widow and her son were at the finish line and I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to do this again.’”

Indeed.

She swam the Peaks to Portland twice more, and on her third finish, she realized she wasn’t tired at the end of it—not at all. So she trained for a lake swim that was twice the length. She crossed that off the list, and then she doubled the distance again. When she came out of the water that time, she looked at her husband and said, “You know what, I think I’m one of those endurance athletes!”

That’s when she really dove in.

Over the next ten years she started tackling one punishing swim after another. In 2010, she crossed the Straight of Gibraltar, from Spain to Africa. The next year, she completed the English Channel. She would go on to swim from Honshu to Hokkaido, Japan, in 19 hours and 36 minutes; from Ireland to Scotland in 14 hours and 22 minutes (at the age of 65); and across Lake Ontario on a swim that dragged on for more than 24 hours. Last November, she was inducted into International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.

“I never envisioned the journey this would take me on—trying to attempt the Ocean Sevens and the Stillwater Eight and the Triple Crowns of marathon swimming. I just fell into all of that,” she says. “And here I am 68 and I am loving every minute of it!”

Aside from the accolades, it’s the experiences that stick with her.

Like the time she was a mile offshore on the North Channel, watching a giant gray shadow that had been circling below her change course suddenly and dart straight towards her. It turned out to be a giant sea lion. She asked her team if “those things bite” before she put her head back in the water and kept swimming.

Or the time she was actually bumped by a shark—or, perhaps a dolphin, she prefers to think—while crossing the Molokai at two in the morning.

There was another sea creature encounter on the English Channel. “I remember doing this research and they said that if at night when you’re swimming, if a shark starts to attack from below, you’ll see bioluminescence. You’ll have a small warning just seconds before. Well, all of a sudden, I saw the water light up—it was probably a three-foot fish and it grabbed my arm! I just pushed it out of the way and it flew out of the water and it landed right on my neck,” she says with a laugh in her heavy Maine accent.

The experiences aren’t always terrifying. Sometimes it’s just her and the sounds of whales for hours.

Pat Gallant-Charente

Throughout, Gallant-Charette has financed virtually every aspect of her swimming career on her own.

“It’s an expensive hobby,” she says. Working on holidays as a nurse paid double time-and-a-half, she says, so before she retired, she worked every holiday that was offered to her. “I never denied any of that. A lot of people will say, ‘Geez you miss Christmas?’ But what we would do is we would celebrate Christmas the evening before, or when I finished work. I watched my budget very well, because I knew I loved the sport and I knew I would be retiring, so I made an effort to work and save my money—and clip coupons!” she jokes. She’s glad she did.

She can’t do every race she wants to; she still has to watch her budget but putting in the overtime has enabled her to keep pursuing the sport she fell in love with later in life.

Still, she’s hoping for a corporate sponsor, which she recognizes is the realm of the young, model-like athletes. But she says she has so much energy right now, and such a long bucket list of amazing swims to complete, that if she won the Powerball (or landed a sponsorship, wink wink) then she would “crank out a marathon swim every month,” she says. “I have a very fast recovery. They tell you that it takes a month to recover after one of these swims, but I feel good the next day!”

It might be the young who land the sponsorships and get the most attention, but the older athletes have a message to send, too, and it’s an important one. “Right now, my message is: Hey, you’re never, ever too old to go after an adventure. It’s not over until it’s over. I’m going to carry this through until the day I meet my maker.”

Bryan Schatz is a journalist based in Oakland, California, where he enjoys living just steps from water. He has written for Mother Jones, Men’s Journal, and Outside magazine. Follow him on Twitter @bryanschatz or on Instagram @bryan.schatz

Put your money to work.

Try Twine