By: Ben Eastman
Wanna lose 15 pounds in just under 12 hours? Just try Scott Coleman’s liquid diet.
No, no, you don’t have to cut out solid foods and drink Colemen’s special diet drinks. All you have to do is strap on a bathing suit and a pair of goggles, cover yourself with Vaseline and swim from England to France in 60° water.
Scott Coleman started swimming competitively in the eighth grade. On August 17, 1996 he became the first male diabetic to swim the English Channel. Coleman swam butterfly in high school and at the University of Pennsylvania where he was the captain of the swim team his senior year. But after college, his swimming career went the way of all-night study sessions, fraternity parties and dorm food.
At age 35 Coleman was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and was told by his doctor that exercise, diet and insulin were the keys to controlling his diabetes. So, 13 years after his last serious workout, Coleman was back at the pool.
He started training with a master’s team in Boca Raton, Fla., to get back in the groove and began competing locally. Soon after, he was competing in the Masters National Championships and later the Masters World Championships. After a sixth place finish in the 1994 World Championships in Montreal, Coleman decided he needed a bigger challenge and set his sights on the English Channel.
He had done very little open water swimming up to this point. But after his doctor told him there was no medical reason why he couldn’t do the swim, he began a year of swimming and weight training that would culminate in a 32-mile swim that would take 11 hours and 56 minutes.
There is more to swimming the English Channel than deciding you want to do it, practicing a little and catching a plane to London. For a swim to be official, it must be approved and monitored by the Channel Swim Association (CSA) which has been regulating swims for over 50 years. The CSA has a lengthy application including a physical and a six-hour qualifying swim in 60° water.
The CSA is there to make sure all channel swims are done unaided and safely. Covering the distance alone, 21.5 miles in a straight line, is a monumental task in itself. When you factor in the tides, high seas and the bone chilling water temperature, it becomes more than impressive. It gets dangerous. People have died of hypothermia and exhaustion in channel swim attempts as recently as six to seven years ago.
When the CSA got wind of Coleman’s diabetes they determined that he could still swim, but would have to have a doctor on board the accompanying boat in addition to his three other crew members from Florida.
“The cold is endless. It is all consuming. My hands began to bow. I lost feeling in one arm. Things were glowing in the water.” This is the way Coleman would later describe his swim. As it turned out, the cold proved to be more problematic than simply making him extremely uncomfortable.
Coleman’s crew would ride alongside him in a boat providing food, liquids and BG monitoring. But after several tries within the first four hours, Coleman’s hands were so cold that they couldn’t get a drop of blood.
At the sixth hour of the swim Coleman was feeling weak. Unsure if it was low blood sugar, fatigue or both, he told his doctor. They finally got a BG reading at this point – 45 mg/dl.
“At the next feeding, they had a surprise for me. The captain grabbed my legs and told me to pull my suit down. I never felt the Glucagon shot, but I suppose it helped,” Coleman remembers.
After seven hours the crew soaked Coleman’s hand in hot water to test his BGs – 215. He got back to it, but soon after was almost ready to give up.
After nearly 11 hours the captain yelled to Coleman that he needed to start sprinting. If he didn’t, he would risk missing the change of the tide which could mean an extra three hours in the water. Somehow he picked up the pace despite feeling completely delirious, frozen and exhausted.
His crew kept shining a spotlight on the point to swim to. Finally, that spotlight was shining on a rocky beach in France. At 12:24 am, 11 hours and 56 minutes after he started, he reached France.
Coleman later found out that he lost 15 pounds during the swim, a testament to just how physically grueling it was.
“You Just Deal With It”
When Coleman is questioned about his accomplishment you can still hear the excitement in his voice. But when he is talking freely about the swim and his preparation, you might be surprised by how infrequently you hear the word diabetes. It seems that it was nothing more than an additional factor in a year of training and half a day of hell in “the pond.”
Indeed, “I don’t think there is anything I can’t do because I am diabetic,” Coleman says. “I don’t feel limited at all. You just deal with it.” It is this spirit, along with an iron will, fierce dedication and a well trained body that has enabled Coleman to attempt what’s nearly impossible.
And nearly impossible it truly is. “More people have been on top of Mount Everest than have swum the English Channel,” Coleman will tell you with more than a hint of pride in his voice. This is a well earned pride if ever there was one.