Abhejali Bernardová: first Czech to complete Oceans Seven challenge

Abhejali Bernard

Abhejali Bernardová is only the tenth person in the world, and the first from a landlocked country to complete the so-called Oceans Seven, a marathon swimming challenge consisting of seven open water channel swims, including the English Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar. The Brno-based swimmer recently published a book describing her adventures and completed another challenge, the English Channel Triathlon from Dover to Prague.

Abhejali Bernard | Photo: Anna Duchková,  Czech Radio

What attracts her to long-distance swimming? How does she adapt to the freezing cold waters? And what goes through her head during the hour-long swims? These are just some of the questions we discussed during her visit to Prague, but I started by asking her which of the Seven Oceans swims was the most difficult one to complete:

“Surprisingly, it was the warmest of them, even though cold water is one of the biggest challenges for me. It was the one in Hawaii, the Molokai Channel, and I guess it was because it’s the longest one. It is a full marathon distance, which is 42 kilometres and I was seasick for about twelve hours. Overall, it took me almost 22 hours, so that was definitely the toughest swim.”

How long did it take you to complete the Oceans Seven? And which of the channel swims was the first one you completed?

Abhejali Bernard | Photo: Archive of Abhejali Bernard

“I started in 2011 with the English Channel and at the time I thought I was done, because they says that the English Channel is the Everest of open water swimming.

“I wasn’t planning to do all seven swims, because there were swims with sharks and there were swims with water that is even colder than the English Channel and that was cold enough for me! So it took me maybe two or three years to do all of the seven swims and I finished the whole Oceans Seven in 2018.”

Abhejali Bernard | Photo: Archive of Abhejali Bernard

Is there a given order in which you have to complete the channel swims or is it entirely up to you?

“It is entirely up to you, you just cannot swim by yourself. You have to have a pilot and a boat next to you, so you depend on the availability of the pilots and their boats.”

You said you started with the English Channel. How does one prepare for such a challenge?

“I trained for about eight months, but I think my big advantage was my mental training before the challenge.”

“I think I am not such a good example in how long you should train. I trained for about eight months, but I think my big advantage was my mental training or my meditation training before the challenge. I had been meditating for 15 years before attempting the English Channel and I think a big part of any of these big challenges is the mental part.

“You have to physically train, you have to swim the distance and get to acclimatise to the cold water but you also have to be mentally strong when the waves batter you and you are cold and you swim at night and it takes much longer than expected. You have to be very mentally or inwardly strong.”

What are the rules? Can you interrupt the swim? And are you allowed to eat or drink?

Abhejali Bernard | Photo: Archive of Abhejali Bernard

“The rules of all the swims are that you cannot wear a wetsuit. You have just your swimming suit, your goggles and a swim cap and you have to start on the shore beyond the water’s edge.

“You also can’t touch anything or anybody until you get to the other side. They can give you food, because you have to eat and drink along the way. I usually eat or drink every 30 minutes.

“So they would toss me a bottle with something liquid, even to eat. I have to eat it fast and just keep swimming, because there are different currents that usually don’t take you in the direction you want to go. So the faster you eat the faster you get there.”

You have already mentioned the currents, the freezing cold water, the poisonous jellyfish and other sea creatures. Which of these things is the most difficult one about the Oceans Seven?

Abhejali Bernard | Photo:  Archive of Abhejali Bernard

“I think each channel has something to offer to scare you a bit - or more than a bit. For me it was definitely the cold water and then definitely the creatures. Because somehow we have this innate fear of something we can’t see. And also there was the movie Jaws…

“So we have these feeling that there is an animal lurking and waiting for us in the water. But I didn’t want to be sorry when I am 60 that I didn’t try it just because I was scared. So it was about getting to know the ocean and also about overcoming this fear of the unknown that we all have.”

So have you actually encountered any sharks during your swims?

Abhejali Bernard | Photo:  Archive of Abhejali Bernard

“Not during the actual swims but I did meet some sharks during a training swim. They were totally not interested in me but I was still panicking…”

“Which is probably not the right thing to do, is it?

“It is definitely not the right thing to do. We are not their prey, they might be interested when they see us. So the thing to do is really to stay calms and unless they start attacking you, you are totally fine.”

Abhejali Bernard | Photo: Archive of Abhejali Bernard

What other sea creatures have you encountered?

“We saw dolphins quite a few times, which is and always very nice. We saw jellyfish – some of them looked really beautiful but you don’t want to get too close. And then we saw different schools of fish and different birds that also wondered: who is this creature?

Abhejali Bernard | Photo:  Archive of Abhejali Bernard

“But I really enjoyed the vastness. Nowadays when I go to a swimming pool, I fell really limited, like a fish in a tank. Whereas there, of course you are at the mercy of Nature, because the waves and the currents are really, really strong. But at the same time you have this feeling of freedom.”

You said cold water is not your thing. How do you prepare for the swims in cold water?

“First of all, I really try to gain some weight. Because as you can’t have a wet suit, your body isolation or your body fat is your saviour. I would also take cold showers, go to swim in cold water outside and in the end I would take a cold bath, put ice in the tub and try to stay in for as long as possible.”

What do you think about during those hour-long swims? What runs through your mind as you are swimming across the ocean?

Abhejali Bernard | Photo: Archive of Abhejali Bernard

“The best thing is when your mind is quiet. Because usually our mind tries to discourage us, and keeps asking: What are you doing here? Are you crazy?  So it is good to keep those thoughts away and I think that’s the big help of meditation and I have been mediating since I was 18 with my spiritual teacher Sri Chimnoy.

“So if the conditions were not too bad, it was usually quite easy to keep the mind occupied or quiet. And in the worst case, when my mind wouldn’t stop complaining because there were big waves or I was sea sick, then what helped me was singing inwardly, because that takes the mind off complaining.”

Was there ever a moment during your swim when you thought of giving up?

Abhejali Bernard | Photo: Vladimír Kroc,  Czech Radio

“I think most of the time I was very strong mentally. Only during the Hawaiian swim, when I wasn’t able to eat for twelve hours and I was throwing up, at one point I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep going. But then the sun came out and I could start eating and then it got much better. So that was the point where I wasn’t sure, because you can only push up to a certain limit, otherwise you can get injured.”

How did you become involved in long distance swimming? Is it something you have always wanted to do?

“I was a swimmer as a kid but then I stopped doing any sports. It was only after I started meditating that I started running, but I never really had the goal to swim the English Channel. It was my friend who actually had the idea and I was supposed to be helping her on the boat. But then her solo got changed into a relay and I became part of that relay.

“Meditation gives me joy and shows me how much strength we have inside us if we allow ourselves to use it.”

“Still I was very hesitant, because I knew how cold the water was. But the motto of my athletic team, the Sri Chimnoy marathon team, is self-transcendence. And I guess when you want to transcend yourself you need to cross some barriers within you when you think: This is not possible, or I don’t want to do it.”

And what brought you to mediation?

“I just saw posters for meditation classes and I started doing some meditation exercises and it gave me this nice feeling of quiet and peace within my heart and I decided to stick with it and I have been doing it ever since. It gives me joy and it shows me how much strength we have inside us if we allow ourselves to use it.”

Abhejali Bernard | Photo:  Archive of Abhejali Bernard

After completing the Oceans Seven, you completed another challenge- this time it was the English Channel Triathlon from Dover to Prague. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

“Since I already swam the English Channel I got the idea to add cycling and running. There is a challenge called Arc to Arc where they run from London to Dover then they swim the channel and then they bike to Paris.

Abhejali Bernard | Photo: Archive of Abhejali Bernard

“But somehow I really like the regular order of a triathlon, which is swimming, biking and running. And also, it made sense for me to get all the way back to the Czech Republic. It was only when I was cycling that I realized it was a really long distance to go on my own.”

When you are not running or cycling or swimming, you are translating -that’s what you do for living. How does that go together?

“I am definitely not a professional athlete. I am too slow a swimmer, too slow a cyclist, it just really inspires me to grow. Somehow it gives me a purpose, it allows me to get to know myself better. I try to somehow make time for everything that I need to do during my day, but I do have a job that takes eight hour a day. I think that if we use our time as wisely as we can, then somehow we can fit things in that we want to fit in.”

You have recently completed a book where you describe your experiences. What was more difficult – writing a book or completing the Oceans Seven?

Abhejali Bernard | Photo: Archive of Abhejali Bernard

“It was definitely something very, very different. I think what was similar with both challenges is that when you stand on the shore you are not sure if you can cross to the other side. And when I started writing the book, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to finish it.

“The book is called Swim until the Water Runs Out. Basically we have to go one step at a time, put one hand in front of the other until we get to the shore and it’s the same with any project that we do: we have to keep going until either we get there or we realize that it is beyond our capacity. So in a way it was more difficult to write everything down, but I really enjoyed the process.”

Abhejali Bernard | Photo: Archive of Abhejali Bernard

So what are your plans for the future? Do you already have other challenges that you would like to overcome in the coming months or years?

“My list is still very long but then only certain things come to fulfilment. This year we are organizing a six-hour swim in the pool next month, so people can do that. And then for me personally, there is a challenge called Everest Base Camp Marathon, which is a marathon that you start at the base camp of Mount Everest. It is not a huge challenge but it is still a challenge.”