FORT MYERS, Fla. – Heather Roka broke down the most challenging parts of her swim into 30-minute increments.
“You can do anything for 30 more minutes,” she told herself.
When it got tougher, she would reduce it to 100 strokes. Thirty strokes. One meter. She even imagined each of her supporters swimming along with her. Anything to keep an impossible-sounding human feat attainable.
Last month, Roka, of Fort Myers, completed the English Channel double-crossing, a 21-mile swim between Dover, England to Northern France – and back. Roka swam the 42 miles, non-stop, in 25 hours and seven minutes, becoming the 38th person and 10th American to accomplish the unthinkable open-water swimming challenge.
“I figured it would definitely be the hardest thing I had ever attempted and definitely push me to the limits and really risk failure,” Roka said.
Roka overcame the chilly water, fatigue, physical pain, and mental exhaustion to complete the arduous swim.
“I want to say I’m still recovering from it,” she said.
To swim that long a distance requires intense concentration and mental strength, said Ginger Tompkins, a Masters’s coach on the Gulf Coast Swim Team and Roka’s training partner.
Roka refused to let doubts creep in or divert her from her goal.
“Her mental fortitude, from just a human performance standpoint, is just exceptional and extraordinary,” Tompkins said. “I just think she is an inspiration.”
A decision to take on the double
A Fort Myers graduate, Roka was part of the Green Wave’s 2003 girls’ swimming state title team. She continued her athletic career as a distance swimmer at Gardner-Webb in North Carolina.
Her swimming career allowed her to see the benefits of physical therapy, which inspired her to pursue that field. Roka specializes in assisting patients recovering from strokes.
“Being able to help people figure out that life will go on, you will be able to get back home, you will be able to do things again … it was challenging but very fulfilling,” she said.
Her dreams of swimming on the English Channel began as a teenager.
“Most distance swimmers, if you’re interested at all in open water, English Channel’s always like that goal,” Roka said. “The toughest people do the English Channel – that just has so much fame and attention.”