When Erica Cromwell swam for the University of Tampa, she was a sprinter, swimming the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events — in about 25 and 55 seconds, respectively — in a heated pool.
Earlier this month, the Monticello woman completed a far different kind of swim.
She and five relay teammates swam the English Channel. They took turns swimming for an hour at a time. Together, they covered 27 miles from Dover, England, to France in water that was 61 to 62 degrees.
Cromwell swam with a former Tampa teammate, who was also a fellow graduate student at the University of St. Augustine, along with a current student, another alumnus and two professors from St. Augustine.
“I thought it was a good once-in-a-lifetime experience,” the 26-year-old said.
Cromwell, a physical therapist at Carle, and each teammate covered roughly 41/2 miles apiece.
Her teammates all live in Florida or Texas, and they did their open water training in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. In contrast, Cromwell did mostly pool swimming, with two or three swims in Lake Erie while visiting her fiance in Ohio.
Cold is one of the main issues English Channel swimmers must deal with. Wetsuits are not allowed if a swim is to be counted as an official channel swim.
Cromwell said Lake Erie was about 63 degrees when she did her training swims, and when she was pretty comfortable in that water, she felt prepared for the cold.
Channel swimmers must qualify for a relay before they attempt a crossing by doing a two-hour swim in the channel (it’s a six-hour qualifier for solo swimmers), so officials know they can withstand the cold.
“That was a lot different” than the training swims, Cromwell said. “The last 30 minutes is when everything kind of goes numb.”
Those attempting a crossing must hire a boat with a certified pilot and have an observer from the Channel Swimming Association on board. The observer is the race official who determines if a crossing attempt can proceed and when an attempt must be called off because it is no longer safe.
Attempts at a crossing are allowed only in Neap tides — weak tides when the time between an ebb tide and high water are longer and the tidal flow is slower. The first crossing this year began in July, Cromwell said, and her crossing was one of the last as the water temperature was beginning to decrease rapidly.
“They try to make everybody as successful as they can, so they only allow it when the currents and weather are on your side,” she said.
She and her team swam Sept. 1. She said 12 crossing attempts — relay and solo — were made that day. Many people waiting to swim were staying in Dover, and “it was a nice team atmosphere. Everybody was helping everybody, giving pointers, motivating you through the training swims.”
Cromwell felt unprepared for how salty the channel water was. Swallowing it can lead to severe dehydration and vomiting.
“I kept a Jolly Rancher in my mouth, which helped quite a bit,” Cromwell said. “You just hope you don’t get a wave right in your mouth when you’re breathing.”
The team encountered a number of jellyfish in the second half of the swim, and one of Cromwell’s teammates was stung, “but by that time you’re so numb, you can’t feel it. She didn’t even know until she looked down and saw the welt.”
The first half of the swim went perfectly, Cromwell said. But by the second half, the wind had increased to more than 30 mph and the waves were 10 to 12 feet high. The current became quite strong, too.
Cromwell’s team began its relay just before 7 a.m. and finished in 11 hours, 22 minutes — at the faster end of channel relays.
Their relatively quick time allowed them to finish; several other swims were stopped that day because of the conditions.
“We were lucky we snuck in,” she said, adding that the race official told her and her teammates he would have called off their swim if they had still been in the water just an hour later.
“It was a great team experience,” Cromwell said. “The swim itself was quite amazing, especially as you get closer to France and see the cliffs and know you are going to finish.”
Cromwell said the team is considering another crossing in a few years to try and beat its time, and a couple of team members are thinking about solo swims.
She said the swim also renewed her interest in triathlons. Her next goal: Finishing a half Ironman triathlon in the next year or two.
Photos: Top, Erica Cromwell (second from left) and her teammates for the English Channel swim. Bottom, the team's route across the channel, calculated using Cromwell's GPS tracker. Photos provided by Erica Cromwell.