Ms. Paul, you have completed the sixth of seven stages of Ocean’s Seven in 2023. Is there already a specific date planned for the final part of this test?

Natalie Paul: In fact, we are currently in the process of preparing for the construction of Canal Seven, the Northern Canal between Ireland and Scotland. All this is expected to happen in the first week of September. We cannot yet give a specific date, because we, of course, are very dependent on weather conditions.

Intensive training for Ocean’s Seven

What does your daily fitness routine look like in the midst of these preparations?

I’m currently training in Mallorca. For the sake of the Nordic Channel, I’ve had to do a lot of cold training in the last seven to eight months, even if I don’t always like it (laughs). This is why we spend a lot of time in Mallorca in the spring: the water temperature here is now around 14 degrees, which is ideal for cooking. In Germany, where the water temperature is around eight degrees, the lakes are still too cold to spend several hours in the water.

What role does water temperature play?

Huge. It may sound strange, but I feel every half degree below 16 degrees. These are the temperatures at which the situation can become critical. The water temperature in the North Channel will be another two to three degrees lower than in the English Channel, so I am preparing to explore new territory.

That’s why everyday things like cold showers have been my daily companion for years, so that I don’t get too used to warm water in the long run. Of course, in winter in Germany I also train in an indoor pool, where the water temperature varies, but adding a little cold helps me a lot personally – and mentally.

What role does body temperature play?

Of course, body temperature is also important. It already happened to me once that my body temperature dropped; it was during my first attempt with Ocean’s Seven in the English Channel. I then spent several weeks in the hospital, with a drop in body temperature being just one of several physical problems. Let’s not forget that I am involved in an extreme sport in which the body constantly reaches new limits.

In this regard, it is even more important to be properly informed. Ultimately, I also depend on my team to travel with me on the support boat. In an extreme situation, it is my team that can and should make a decision for me. Even though extreme swimming is a lonely sport and I am alone at sea, the team plays a very important role.

You yourself are probably in the tunnel…

Correct. I have never been in a situation where I had to decide for myself whether to cancel a competition. Maybe it’s my personality, but it takes a lot of effort for me to say, “I can’t do this anymore.” After twelve hours of sailing, you think about many things, but not about giving up. Rather, you are focused on placing one hand in front of the other.

Extreme swimming is not for the faint of heart

What other factors besides temperature make extreme swimming such a dangerous sport?

On the one hand, the difficulty lies in the large distance. I sometimes swim for up to 15 hours – during this time many factors come into play: the body works to the limit of its capabilities. In addition, you are incredibly dependent on the element of water. This was demonstrated, for example, in New Zealand, where I managed to cross the Cook Strait only on the third attempt. On the second attempt, I swam in place for three hours or was pushed back into the canal for an hour.

“There are days when nature wins.”

Nathalie Pohl, extreme swimmer

When swimming, you often don’t even notice the power of the sea. I place one hand in front of the other, but I don’t notice that I’m not actually moving. However, I notice this insane effort. At times like these, my team’s realistic assessment of the situation is extremely important. There are days when nature wins.

Despite this knowledge, canceling the competition is definitely not easy…

It’s true, it’s never easy. In the beginning you put a lot of pressure on yourself, doubting yourself if you have trained enough. I think that’s what this extreme sport is all about. You must learn to accept the fact that you cannot be stronger than the sea.

The mental level plays a huge role when crossing waters. How do you deal with fear?

I think we’ve all been to the beach at night and know how dark the sea gets after sunset. In this regard, it is probably clear that getting into a pitch-black sea at night is not at all easy. I still think you can’t complete a task if you allow fear to happen. I definitely approach this challenge with the necessary respect, and also am aware of the fact that something can happen at any moment – like a shark attack.

But of course other things can happen. In Japan, for example, we had an accident when we crashed our boat into a rock at night. You should definitely be aware of all of these potential dangers in advance. In my opinion, it is not enough to say that something can happen – rather, certain dangerous situations should be played out in advance so that you can react accordingly if the worst happens.

What are these potentially dangerous situations?

For example, how to behave when you see a shark. Of course, it’s a completely different matter when something actually happens, but playing out possible situations is absolutely useful. However, there isn’t a single swim or training session where I don’t respect the power of the sea.

Be the first woman to defeat Ocean’s 7.

If you complete the final stage of Ocean’s 7 in September, you will become the first German woman to do so. Does this idea just add to the pressure or is it what makes extreme swimming so extreme?

My attitude towards the subject of records has changed a lot over the past few years. I come from swimming in a pool, where everything is about hundredths of a second and there is a different form of pressure. Of course, it wouldn’t be true if I said I don’t put pressure on myself. But thanks to extreme swimming, I learned to perceive nature as it is.

There were many days when I went into the well prepared, but after twelve and a half hours on Cook Street I realized that I could not fight the current. However, I’m obviously hoping to become the first German woman to beat Ocean’s 7. But even if I don’t succeed, I know that I love swimming and sports. I love being in the sea – although it would be a lie if I said that I love swimming for 15 hours at 14 degrees (laughs).

Cover of the book by extreme swimmer Natalie Pohl “I’m at home in the sea.”

© Nathalie Paul

Paul shares his journey in the book I’m Home to the Sea.

There are photographs from your competitions that show how you were accompanied by dolphins while swimming. What do these impactful experiences do for you?

These are the moments that I really notice and that mean a lot to me. I remember swimming at Cook Street when at one point I was very physically and mentally weak due to the strong waves. Then dolphins appeared and accompanied me during the swim for more than two hours. They even waited for me during drink breaks before continuing to swim with me. This unique experience gave me new energy in this situation. It showed me how beautiful the sea is and what a privilege it is to be able to swim in it. After all, I am a guest there.

Even if you call yourself a guest, you still feel at home at sea – at least given the title of your book, “I’m at Home at Sea.” What was your motivation for writing down your experiences?

On the one hand, I wanted to write a book for myself, because it was important for me to capture these unique moments forever. Therefore, each swim is shown in great detail and described with all the emotions that I experienced. On the other hand, I would be happy if I could get people interested in swimming. I myself got into open water swimming through the book, so maybe I can inspire some readers to get into the water.

The book also contains an important message.

Namely, you should always believe in yourself, even if others don’t or you have to suffer failures. This is what my journey means too. From the pandemic to accidents and injuries, I have experienced many setbacks, but I have also learned how important it is to not lose sight of your goals.

For example, while writing the book, I again encountered a setback that occurred in Japan six years ago (Paul had to delay crossing Tsugaru Street early due to a broken rib; editor’s note). This was a tough time for me and it took me a few weeks to get back into shape, but it was worth it.

Heart for children

When you’re not swimming in the world’s oceans, you can teach swimming lessons to disadvantaged children. What about swimming among children?

An important issue is the fact that socially disadvantaged children often do not know how to swim or are not good swimmers. For this reason, we are, among other things, distributing vouchers for courses at food banks in Germany. However, I also appeal to parents who sometimes simply do not bring their children to swimming lessons. I think it is irresponsible if children do not learn to swim properly. Every child in Germany should be able to swim properly, even if they do not live near the sea.

Knowing how to swim properly can also be vital in certain circumstances.

Absolutely. I think it’s important to understand that kids don’t have to know how to play tennis. However, when it comes to swimming, we are talking about a skill that has the potential to save lives. It is even sadder that children are often denied bathing as municipal swimming pools are closed and there are fewer water areas. I always notice how much fun kids have to swim and learn to swim.

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