Behind Political Lines
Goucher senior Nicole Craver embarked on quite a journey when she went across political lines to visit Cuba despite the embargo the United States has enforced with the country since March of 1958.
With the issues between the United States and Cuba, one might wonder how Craver ended up there for a study abroad program.
“My business professor approached me,” Craver – who is a business and economics double major – said. “He was taking a group of students down there and asked me if I wanted to go.” Craver was one of about sixteen business majors who went on the trip. The logistics of the trip went something like this: Americans are banned from vacationing in Cuba, but it is possible to obtain permission for study permits. Craver’s group applied through a program that does study abroad with foreign countries. The other requirement was a tour guide who spent the duration of the trip with the group, providing an insight into the culture.
While there, the students had the opportunity to explore the business opportunities the Cuban government had made available for locals. “In Cuba, they’re moving from a firmly controlled market to a more open market,” Craver explained. “We visited restaurants which were previously all government owned, but as of recently they’re opened by families.” These restaurants provided a learning opportunity for the students.
“It was really interesting to see what the families have done with their restaurants,” Craver said. “[We talked with the families] about the process of opening it and everything they’ve done.”
The entrepreneurial take-aways weren’t the only ones Craver had. “I learned how different Cuba was from the United States,” she said, before elaborating. “They have a ration system [in Cuba]. Rice and beans are every meal. So it was very interesting to experience something completely different from the United States.” The government also played a huge role in the lives of Cuba’s citizens, Craver noted.
With all the differences, one might expect Craver to announce with patriotic fervor her adoration of her home country. However, while Craver did say she was tremendously happy to be back in the States, she did add: “I really liked being able to experience Cuba, and see the differences and see what else is out there, besides the United States.”
This brief trip has sparked a wanderlust that may take Craver farther in her post college years. “Cuba has opened my mind to traveling,” she said. With an eye towards international business, travelling will also be a must.
“Right now I’m just looking into internships,” Craver said. The hope is that these internships might open doors and start her on her pathway to success. But besides joining an established business, Craver also has a desire to – eventually – start her own.
“My dad has his own business, so it’s always been something I was interested in,” Craver explained. “Maybe in the future I’d be open to opening my own business. […] I really am interested in food and I also like sports, so maybe one of those areas.”
While Craver was crossing political boundaries, Paige Christie, a Smith College senior, was busy crossing the English Channel.
Smith College has a history of women training for – and making – the English Channel crossing. With Christie’s successful swim, the total number of Smith athletes who have done the crossing is now six. According to Christie, two women made it in the 80s, one in the 90s and two in 2012. Now they will add her to their number.
When Christie was looking at colleges, one of her attractions to Smith was the chance to try this swimming marathon. “I was recruited at some DI schools and some DIII schools,” Christie said. “I went to visit Kim Bierwert, my swim coach, and he was talking about how he trains swimmers to do the English Channel swim and how he trained them in the past, and – at that time – he was in the works of training the two swimmers who did it in 2012.”
The allure of open water swimming and the challenge the Channel presented was too great for Christie to resist. “I had always been a pool swimmer,” she explained. “I was a good pool swimmer, and strong and I liked to race, but I knew I had a mental capacity that [would enable me to face] the challenges that require mental stamina.” Since first meeting with the man who would eventually become her college coach, Christie had been training and working for this eventuality of the Crossing.
Now for some stats. The English Channel is about 21 miles across. The water is a frigid 60 degrees. There are two federations that ratify channel swims, but since they don’t compile results, the exact numbers are difficult to know for certain. About 350 women have completed the crossing. One woman crosses for every 2.5 men who do it, so that’s about 1000 men for a total of about 1350 people to have made the swim.
There’s really no such thing as “perfect conditions” for a swim across the English Channel, but there is a watch for a window of time with acceptable weather. “Tides change and it can make the water really choppy, and the currents can be really bad some days, so you can’t have a 12 hour window or a 13 hour window of perfect conditions,” Christie explained. “We had been there two weeks, waiting for good weather.”
After two weeks of waiting, Christie made a trip out to the harbor to visit the monument erected to commemorate Captain Matthew Webb, the first swimmer to successfully cross the Channel. The captain had made the crossing at the end of August in 1875. “That night when I went home,” Christie recounted, “I got a phone call and they said, ‘Okay, you’re going to go.’”
The next day was the 139th anniversary of Webb’s crossing.
Christie entered the water, fully aware of the dangers she was facing. Her biggest threat was the chill of the water. “A lot of Channel swimmers are a lot larger and a lot older,” Christie explained. “A lot of people who do these extreme kinds of swims have a lot more body fat, so hypothermia was the biggest risk for me.” She and her coach combated the water’s chill with a specially mixed custom drink blend, specifically formulated for Christie’s own caloric needs in the cold water.
“If you were to swim and you ate a cheeseburger that would just sit in your stomach,” she explained. “During a Channel swim, you want something that’s going to be absorbed quickly and not just sitting in your stomach, because that’s not going to be utilized by your body when you need it.”
At every feeding, the bottle with Christie’s drink mix would be tossed out on a rope so she could consume her optimal calories. Additionally, her coach – who stood on the boat deck for the entire swim – quizzed her during stops. “He would ask me questions just to make sure my cognitive function was still there,” she said.
Additionally, there was the wildlife to worry about. “Jellyfish – if you don’t get stung, you’re one in a million,” Christie said. Then there was the weather, waves, seasickness – and simply the sheer size of the undertaking.
So what do you think about to get you through 21 miles of swimming?
“The Channel is broken into portions,” Christie said. “You start in England, and you start on Shakespeare Beach. And so from the shore of Shakespeare Beach to the first shipping lane it’s six miles.” To keep from freaking out, Christie decided to just focus on the little bits in front of her (as though a six mile swim could be considered “little”). “I knew I had been training pieces that were over six miles,” she said. “I knew – I got it.”
The first shipping lane is four miles. The intermediate zone is one and a half miles. The second shipping lane is another four miles. And the final dash in from there is another six miles. For those swimmers who complain about ladders – I dare you to find a more challenging one than this, measured in miles, not yards.
“I had mantras in my head that I’d repeat over and over again,” Christie added. “Things like, ‘I’m strong. I can do this. I’m warm. I got it.’”
A hundred thousand reps of those phrases, the “World’s Best Support Crew,” and twelve hours and fifty-five minutes later saw Christie up on the far shore, Cap Gris Nez in France.
After such a massive undertaking, there are lessons that come out of it. The importance of preparation, for example.
“You learn a lot about preparation,” Christie said. “How important being prepared for, whether it’s the Channel swim or whether it’s a presentation you have to do in class. Or just showing up to class – doing your homework and your reading on time.”
Christie has already harnessed her powers of time management as a student-athlete for the past four years, but post-college, she’s thinking about engaging them again. The plan is law school, but Christie isn’t willing to give up open water swimming, either. Doing either might seem like a full time gig to anyone else, but this middle distance (yep, she races 200s in the pool, not the mile) swimmer is not prepared to sacrifice anything she has a passion for.
“I don’t think you have to sacrifice [passion] if you prepare for it,” Christie said.
Below is a video put together by the Smith team documenting Christie’s successful crossing.