Michael Maroney can remember when he stopped swimming. He remembers a sense of tranquility washing over him as he started sinking into the cold, dark abyss of the English Channel.
Then he felt a hand on his head begin to pull him out. It was his mum.
Michael’s heart had stopped after hypothermia had set in during his leg as the Maroney family attempted to become the first family to swim the English Channel in 1992. The next thing he remembers is his mum, Pauline, performing CPR on him.
He remembers the emotions of feeling like he was the one who had let the family down. He remembers feeling like it was his fault. Then on the plane home, Pauline turned to Michael and his siblings and said “what about next year?”
It is almost a quarter of a century since the Maroney family – mum Pauline and her children Michael, Susie, Sean, Lindy and Karin – became the first and only family to ever swim the English Channel.
It was on August 20, 1993. A year after their unsuccessful attempt, the Maroney family achieved something no other family has ever done. It is their own piece of history. Theirs to share only with themselves. Forever.
“A lot has happened in the last 25 years [but] it does seem like yesterday in some ways,” Michael Maroney told the Leader.
The achievement has taken on even more significance for the family in recent months, with Pauline diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer. It was three months ago she looked at the records and realised the Maroney’s from the shire were still the only family to do it. A 37-kilometre swim as the crow flies – though more like 45kms due to the zig zagging done because of the strong currents – from Dover in south east England to France through frigid water.
“The fact no one else has done it made it more meaningful, especially with mum in the twilight of her life. It was great for her to look back and feel good about what she had done as a mother,” Michael said.
“It’s amazing. With the precious few months we’ve got left with mum it’s nice to sit back and reflect on life and what we’d done. That conversation has come to the fore lately and mum has been so proud to reflect on that.
“The tenacity and resilience she instilled in her children is something we’ll continue to pass onto our children for the rest of our lives. We were all asthmatics, inherited off her. She didn’t want us to be confined to a life of medication. She got us into swimming and had us at the pool in the mornings. We’ve gone on to forge careers in sport, she saved our lives really.”
It took the family 10 hours and 10 minutes. They had some experience with Susie and Lindy completing the journey solo in 1990 and 1991 respectively, while Susie also successfully navigated the channel from England to France and back to England in 1991. But brothers Sean, who died in 2002, and Michael were endurance athletes, with their lean bodies not built to combat the freezing water.
Five siblings and one parent had to swim to qualify as a family crossing. Each member took turns swimming for an hour in a relay. Pauline had been inspired by a relay team who raised money to fight kidney disease the year before and wanted to do something similar for the Asthma Foundation. She got Westfield on board as a sponsor. The master plan was slowly brought together, piece by piece.
They trained by swimming in winter at home but even the 13 degree water at Cronulla Beach couldn’t replicate the breathtaking, mind-numbing six degree water and 10 degree ambient temperatures they would face on the way to France.
For their failed attempt in ‘92, the Maroney’s were forced to wait for six weeks in Dover waiting for the right day due to unseasonably cold water and hurricane-like conditions. A year later, the boat captain called them the day after they got off the plane. It was time. Some things are just meant to be.
“You have to hire two boats that can take you across. They’re fishermen and there’s only a few days you can do it. The water is so freezing cold that the conditions and climate have to be right, the tides are so powerful,” Michael said.
“Sean and I were triathletes so five per cent body fat in that water doesn’t lend itself to much. We put on 10kgs each for the second year, mum was in her early 50s at the time and working as a nurse. She had the same challenges as us.
“The challenge then was to come together as young adults and put it together on the day. The fishing boat stinks of fish, the smell of the diesel fuel and dead fish in the nets. The sea sickness. You’d do your hour and then you’re back on deck trying to get warm and cheer on your sibling or your mother.
“Conditions were tough. With the tide you could go nowhere for an hour. It was a hard slog. You’re no guarantee to get across. The tidal changes can rip and tear at you.
“When you actually see Calais in the distance you feel confidence. You see France, you see land and your attitude changes. It’s amazing. I was lucky enough to have the last rotation only a kilometre and a half from France. When I reached out and touched France I looked back at my family and had a fist pump and a little cry. We’d done it.
“It’s quite a surreal feeling. We got back into the boat and it was freezing cold and raining. The little pilot cabin should only fit two people and there’s the seven of us in there. Not a lot of words, a couple of hugs. We got home as adults and went on with our lives. At Christmas time we’d speak about it. But it’s only recently with mum being really ill that it became part of our consciousness again.
“It is an amazing achievement for her, to be able to create something no one else has done.”
And Michael, who has five children of his own, isn’t ruling out the possibility that a second Maroney family will one day make the same journey. In honour of Pauline.