Penny Palfrey will swim with sharks to break a world record. (Photo by Anne O'Malley)On Saturday morning Penny Palfrey went for a dip. A little over 40 hours later she emerged after setting the world record for the longest solo unassisted swim.
Her 68-mile trek across the Cayman Islands in nothing but a standard swimsuit and goggles bypassed packs of sharks, powerful currents, and unpredictable weather.
When she finished her swim last night at 11:11 P.M., her face and tongue were so swollen from the salt water she was unable to speak but she did manage to raise her arms in victory.
Shine spoke with Palfrey just before the challenge, who anticipated as much. "There will be chaffing, swelling, and sore muscles. I'll definitely need a little TLC for a few days," she said.
The 48-year-old grandmother isn't your average athlete. She's raised three kids and turned to competitive swimming after retiring from running an accounting firm with her husband Chris. In the past year, she's swam with sharks and has been stung by packs of Portuguese Man-O-War. "They are a real problem," she says. "When they hit it's like being hit with a whip, like being electrocuted. It gives you a big jolt and bursts through your body."
Last year when she first attempted a swim of this distance, a gang of relentless Man-O-Wars forced her to cut short her race.
But that's all part of the challenge. To break a "solo swim" world record (previously set at 63 miles), the swimmer can't wear any type of protective gear, not even a wetsuit. To protect from sharks, Penny was trailed by a device that emits an electric current within 5 meters of her. It was attached to a support craft loaded with medical supplies, an electrolyte drink that was dropped in the water every 30 minutes, and a team of underwater professionals including her husband, Chris, who tailed her throughout her journey, offering words of encouragement.
"They keep me company and coach me and tell me what to look out for," said Penny, adding "it can get a bit spooky at night when water's pitch black."
Back home in Australia, Penny trained for this journey with her husband, a fellow marathon swimmer, around 70 hours a week. "I've been swimming around 80 kilometers a week and training with weights an hour every day."
But her biggest challenge was mother nature. She was originally scheduled to start her quest on Thursday but strong currents pushed it back to Saturday at 5:30 am.
Today, she can add her latest stunt to her roster of accomplishments. Last year she inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame after crossing the strait of Gibraltar and winning multiple long-distance races. And this past Monday, she set a new record swimming from Cayman Brac to Little Cayman when she crossed a five-mile wide channel in a little under two hours.
But Penny's feats go beyond the water. As a woman in the gender-divided world of sports, she's one of the few females to compete against and beat both women and men.
"I think when it comes to ultra-distance, women come into their own," she said. "We're used to not sleeping to take care of a baby and blocking out pain to go through hours of labor."
For Penny, being a mom of two sons and a daughter was the best training she's had for this weekend's challenge. And even though her kids are all grown up, they still keep her in check. "My daughter's quite proud of me though she doesn't admit it," said Penny. "To her, it's just what mom does."
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