Colleen’s Channel crossing makes it a family double

August 11, 2014

By Christine Keighery

An open water swimmer from Camlough has become the first woman from Northern Ireland to swim the North Channel from Ireland to Scotland, setting a new Irish record in the process and becoming the third fastest in the world to achieve the feat.

And Colleen Mallon’s achievement is made all the more special as she joins her brother, Padraig, who completed the same task last year, making them the first family duo to successfully swim solo the 21-mile stretch of water.

28-year-old Colleen, a highly accomplished long distance open water swimmer, tackled the notoriously difficult stretch of water on Thursday, setting off from Robby’s Point in Donaghadee at 7.30am and reaching Knock Bay at Portpatrick in Scotland just 9 hours and 56 minutes later.

The body of water between Ireland and Scotland is considered to be the toughest channel swim in the world, with athletes up against extreme and unpredictable elements including cold water temperatures and strong currents, not to mention the stinging jellyfish. Only 19 people in the world have ever successfully crossed the North Channel solo and Colleen is the latest of just seven females to do so.

Speaking to The Examiner following her remarkable triumph, Colleen admitted that, after a great start, conditions deteriorated about a third of the way in and she battled five-foot waves and gale force winds to power her way through to the record books.

“Mother Nature was very relentless during the second and third quarters of the swim but I just kept kicking through and in the end it was a wonderful achievement and a great journey,” she said, revealing she is feeling “pretty overwhelmed” at the magnitude of her accomplishment.

“I think more people have actually landed on the moon than have swum the North Channel, so it makes this achievement even sweeter.

“When you consider there are only about 20 to 25 people in the whole world who have tried to do this, compared to the thousands who have done the English Channel, it’s a fantastic feeling to have successfully made it and broken some records while doing it. I’m chuffed to have done this in my homeland too,” added the swimming champion, who has been dividing her time between her home village of Camlough and Sydney, Australia, after emigrating there four years ago.

In fact, Colleen trained for the challenge both in Australia and in Ireland, immersing herself in some intense swim camps in Melbourne and Cork and acclimatising to the significantly cooler Irish water temperatures by competing in various Irish training swims, including the Irish National Championship swim in Lough Erne and the 10km Lough Sheelin swim.

Now back home on a sabbatical year, the Camlough girl says she is delighted to be back in her native ground of Camlough Lake, where her love of open water swimming was born.

Colleen is the youngest of the Mallon family, who are renowned swimmers and triathletes both locally and internationally.  Her brother Padraig captured the World Open Water Swimming Man of the Year award in January having achieved a remarkable double triumph last summer when he swam the North Channel before repeating the feat across the English Channel just six weeks later.  Their parents are also avid swimmers, with mum Bridgeen taking part in the Camlough Lake Water Festival every year, and dad Mickey a regular competitor in national Ironman competitions and triathlons.  An uncle, Milo McCourt, is highly respected throughout the local area for his work with the community in Camlough in training open water swimmers and helping to facilitate Camlough Lake’s growing number of swim competitions and festivals.

“We’re very lucky that our parents put a lot of work into our swimming when we were young,” says Colleen. “It’s only now that we’re older that we can be really grateful for the effort they’ve put in and the magical combination their genes have given us.”

Indeed, Colleen’s North Channel challenge was very much a family affair with her mum, brother Padraig, partner Alex and training partner Keith forming the support crew on board the boat which accompanied her on her channel crossing.

“It’s not just about the swimmer on the day, it’s the support and contribution from everyone around you that makes it work.  It’s a very special, very emotional experience having my family so closely involved,” she says.

For now Colleen is happy to ride the wave of her epic achievement and is looking forward to this month’s Camlough Water Festival where she can catch up with the locals and “have a good time”.

“Camlough Lake is where it all started for me and now it has become the hub for open water swimming and triathlons, with both young and old starting to compete in these events. I’m so proud to have achieved such success at home and to once again make use of the wonderful facilities right on my own doorstep.”

As messages of congratulations for Colleen continue to pour in from various sporting bodies and swimming associations as well as friends and family, SDLP MLA Dominic Bradley added his praise for her “incredible achievement” and described the Irish Champion Long Distance Swimmer as “an inspiration”.

“Given the dangers of the crossing, and the endurance and commitment required, I know that everyone in Camlough, Bessbrook, Newry and beyond will be delighted to see one of their own achieve so much,” he said.

Adding his congratulations, MP Conor Murphy said Colleen and the Mallon family are fine ambassadors for Camlough and for sport: “They are recognised nationally and internationally for their sporting achievements.  We all are very proud of Colleen’s solo North Channel swim,” he said.