SHIFT Magazine: “Dear Mr. Barber, I’d Like To Swim The Channel.”

April 22, 2011 by · 1 Comment 


by Austin Reed

PLANO, TEXAS- At the end of a productive and busy day, Debbie Treece has just completed the paperwork to become president of Kiefer’s Swim Shop, a small aquatics supply store in a nondescript strip mall much like many others in North Texas.Treece has just bought this store from a Chicago-based franchise that’s planning to put more effort into online sales rather than franchised stores.

What will the new name of the store be?

She’s leaning back in her chair, wondering what a better name would be for her store. Her attire today is that kind of Western business-casual that’s pretty common nowadays- a dress shirt with lots of cowboy patterns on it like saddles, stirrups, horses. An unassuming gold watch that matches the small gold hoops in her ears. Her hair is copper in color, cut a bit short- it lends a businesslike, aerodynamic appearance to her.

“You know, Swim Zone could be a good name for the store. Something like that,” she says in a British accent– only it’s not fully British; there’s some Texas twang in there as well.

It’s just another night for Debbie Treece, small business owner, wife, mother. After dinner she’ll return to her house in the suburbs of Carrollton, and as she passes the staircase to greet her husband Steve she’ll pass a small framed photo collection on the wall.

It is this collage that gives away something about Treece that you’d never assume from talking to her. Hugging the inside of the frame are black-and-white photos of a young, athletic Debbie, no older than 13, 14 at best. She’s in a one-piece swimsuit and has a white swimming cap on. The smile on her face suggests a mixture of elation and utter weariness.

At the heart of the frame lies an old, weathered patch. A small coat of arms depicting a castle and a lighthouse, surrounded by two mermaids on either side.

The script at the bottom reads “Channel Swimming Assocn.”

* * * * *

At a young age, Debbie Gowan of Chelsea, England became aware of two skills she possessed: swimming and sales.

Born in 1961, Debbie began swimming at the age of three while enrolled in the Reedham Boarding School in Surrey. (The school, founded in 1844, closed down in 1979.) However, multiple ”jailbreak” attempts which included stowaway trips by train to Scotland and back (“It was easy to get away with things like that back then.”) eventually landed young Debbie back at home, attending a local school at the age of 11 while both her sisters were still enrolled at Reedham.
“They said they could put up with my sisters, but not me. I was too much of a wild child to ever be allowed back there,” she says without regret.

While at home, Debbie would often decide her own school schedule, often skipping half a day’s worth of class for up to five-hour swimming sessions at a local pool. Her swim coach and “role model,” Kevin Murphy, and his wife would often swim with her during these sessions.

Debbie was also working at this point to raise money for train fare to swim in the Serpentine River, a recreational lake in Hyde Park, London (and future venue for the 2012 Olympics.) She raised money making beds at hotels, selling leather coats, doing whatever it took to ensure her precocious independence as a part-time student and part-time swimming truant.

“Well, when I was sent [back home], my thoughts as an 11-year-old girl were that I would just find a coach, I’d try out for him, and he’d start training me,” says Debbie.

“I didn’t know about bills at that point, what normal 11-year-old would? Still, I didn’t feel it necessary to go to school at the time when I could be swimming, so I started picking up jobs when I could. It was two things I found that I really loved doing, selling and swimming.”

* * * * *

“Dear Mr. Barber, I’d Like To Swim The Channel.”

This is the title of a documentary produced by the National Film School of Britain. It was directed by film student Ben Lewin, photographed by Brian Huberman, and released in 1974 on Thames Television, a now-defunct channel which once rivaled BBC and BBC2 as a source of broadcast network programming.

Not much information can be found on this film. One solitary (and quite incomplete) entry for it can be found on the website for the British Film Institute. Its subject matter concerns a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl whose ambition ”is to be the youngest person to swim the English Channel.” This young girl writes to a Mr. Lionel Barber, a truck driver with a hobby of training Channel swimmers. No runtime is given, nor copyright date or production times.

This incomplete virtual index card is the sole public record of Debbie Gowan’s greatest achievement.

“People had gotten word of the training I was receiving from Mr. Barber, and then in what seemed like no time at all, I was becoming the focus of a film school documentary,” says Debbie.

(Her recollection of this memory is exuberant, spontaneous– one can tell that this is a story she’s loved telling for many years. However, whether it be the decay of memory over time or the sheer energy of getting caught up in the moment, Debbie combines the director, Ben Lewin, and photographer, Brian Huberman, into one apparently fictional ”Ben Huberman.” Then again, all the public has to rely on is an obscure and incomplete Internet page- indeed, the nationality and birthday of Brian Huberman is not even known.)

This small film crew of five to six students followed Debbie through her training and into the Channel run itself. Because of Mr. Barber’s day job as a truck driver, Debbie would often ride with him to his delivery points all across England, with an improvisational practice schedule in mind.

“I can remember how so many times we’d end up at a dock, and Mr. Barber would just tell me to hop in the water and swim for as long as I could before the next delivery,” she says.

* * * * * *

Debbie, Barber, and the film crew have been living at a campsite near the edge of England, at the waters of the internationally governed Strait of Dover. Her starting point lies on the other coast, in France, 22.5 miles away. (She will travel there by boat.) Debbie will in all likelihood have to swim a much longer length than that, as the ebb and flow of the tides have often historically increased the length and distance of Channel swims.

And after waiting through an especially stormy week for conditions to clear up in a soggy August of 1974, it’s all but a given at this point.
Debbie had already been sleepless for hours when her cold, pitch-black start time of 4:00 a.m. came around. Nerves and a sudden bout of seasickness on the trip to France had robbed her of any rest. Still, as she was covered from head-to-toe in a warming jelly lubricant, 13-year-old Debbie Gowan was not about to turn away from this.
Over the span of 16 hours and 45 minutes (officially), Debbie swam nearly 56 miles from France to England. She followed a small fishing boat, which held Barber and the film crew (her parents stayed behind in England.) Debbie by official rules was not allowed to touch the boat, even for food breaks when she would be tossed a simple snack. Treading water was the only way she could stop to rest, and even then she was in constant motion– not only to keep herself afloat, but to avoid jellyfish stings.

“Besides the huge welts I had on my body afterwards, there were a few other moments where the crew wondered if I was done for,” says Debbie.

“There were a couple of times where I bobbed under the boat, and that was especially scary to the crew in the darker hours. All I could mentally think to myself for hours on end was just, stroke, stroke, stroke.”

The English coast was in sight at the end of her nearly 17 hours of unbroken swimming, but it seemed that fate had other ideas for Debbie. In addition to the storms, which had barely relented enough to make the idea of a Channel run feasible in the first place, an oil tanker had spilled nearly 15 miles away from her destination, and the slick had already traveled to her location.

It was then that a consensus was reached on the fishing boat, unbeknownst to Debbie: For the child’s safety, it was necessary to pull her out of the water before she began swimming in the oil-infested portions of the coast.

“I fought them off as hard as I could when they tried to pull me out, which isn’t saying too much,” Debbie says with a hint of sadness.
“By that point my joints had become so frozen in their swimming movements that I really wasn’t able to put up much of a fight at all. I was tired and I didn’t have the fight for it.”

Here, suddenly, after finishing this anecdote, Debbie’s posture changes. Her face darkens a bit. Her voice sounds more contemplative, pensive.

“They all said that they’d vouch that I had done it, even the captain of the boat. They were willing to claim that I had reached land and completed the swim, especially since the coast was within vision…”
She trails off and pauses.

“I told them no.”


“Sometimes I wonder if I would have said that now.”

* * * * * *

Despite the technical incompletion of her Channel run, Debbie Gowan received a patch from the Channel Swimmers Association in 1974. Such patches are normally only given to competitors who touched both coasts.

Debbie was the exception.

* * * * * *

The rest of the story, as Debbie says, plays out by itself.

The documentary premiered on Thames Television and was later re-broadcast on the BBC. A scrapbook of old articles and photos shows that it won awards for amateur documentary of the year in Britain and also placed third at a similar competition in Sydney, Australia.

Debbie would make two more attempts at swimming the Channel. Both were short-lived and unsuccessful. Now more focused on making money through sales (she was ”promoted” to manager for one odd job at the age of 16 after multiple firings left her the only one in authority), Debbie felt that the hounding of the media and multiple sponsors robbed her of any will to compete again.

“At that point I didn’t want to do it because it wasn’t me anymore. It wasn’t me doing this for myself. It was others wanting me to do this for news and ratings and sponsors. I did this because I wanted to do it in the beginning, not for them but for me,” she says.

Her interest in swimming went on the back burner for a long time, but not her ambition in the workplace. Her family moved to America when she was 16 (ironically, right after she had become de facto manager at her current job), she graduated in 1983 from Eastern Michigan University with a major in physical education and health, with the primary focus being (what else?) aquatics.

She got waiting jobs, she was promoted to manager at one of those (the Rusty Pelican in Newport Beach), she met a man named Steve Anderson while working there, got married and had a son, Matthew, in 1988. She quit the Rusty Pelican job for motherhood and got a part-time job with Jenny Craig- which also led to her being promoted to a top manager after excelling in her now-expert salesperson skills.

After a drawn-out move to Houston shortly afterward, Debbie ended up divorcing Anderson and married Steve Treece in the summer of 1995. All three ended up moving to the Dallas area (“We wanted Matthew to still be able to see his father,”), and Debbie became focused more on raising her son.

He, too, loved to swim.

In 2003 when Matthew was entering high school, Debbie ‘rejuvenated her love for swimming by taking the aquatics director position at the Prestonwood Country Club in Carrollton, where she trained Matthew and other children to be competitive swimmers. In addition, she took a part-time job as an employee at Kiefer’s Swim Shop in 2004, where (to nobody’s surprise) she quickly advanced up the ranks up to her purchase of the franchised store to start as an independent business.

Debbie leans back in her chair, tired but still a bit giddy from the storytelling. A look of contentment crosses her face.

“You know, I wouldn’t give up any of it. Some things, maybe, I’ll look back and wonder if it would have ended up different, but in the end, no. All these things that happened, good or bad, they happened for a reason.”

She smiles. It is a weary, yet content smile.

Just like in the photograph.

SMU Athletics: Spring Break Recap

March 21, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

By Marissa Belske

While most SMU students were at home or on a beach somewhere, the devoted SMU students athletes continued to play as their season continued on.

It was a successful week for the Mustangs with men’s basketball, women’s swimming and track all stepping up to the plate and delivering for SMU athletics.

Men’s Baksetball

Over spring break, men’s basketball won it’s first postseason game since 1988 with a victory over Oral Roberts in round one of the CIT ( Tournament). This was SMU’s first postseason appearance since 2000.

In the victory, senior Papa Dia continued his regular season dominace with 17 points, 15 rebounds and five blocked shots. The victory allowed SMU to continue on to round two of the CIT.

In the second round of the CIT the Mustangs came up successful against Jacksonville. In the 63-62 victory, the Mustangs shot 63.2 percent from the field, topping jacksonville’s 35.1 percent.

Papa Dia continued to impress with 24 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. Jeremiah Samarippas had a career-high 16 points, hitting 3-for-3 from the 3-point line.

The Mustangs compete in the quarterfinals of the CIT this Monday, March 21 against Northern Iowa.

Women’s Swimming

Women’s swimming finished out their 2010-2011 season with a 36th place finish at the NCAA Championships.

Junior swimmer Therese Svendsen earned the honor of All-American as she placed ninth in the 100-yard backstoke. Freshmen Nina Rangelova and Genny Konicke also competed for SMU in the NCAA Championships.

Track and Field

SMU track and field kicked of their 2011 outdoor season last week at the TCU invitational. Several Mustangs set personal bests while in Fort Worth.

Junior Ayla Gill went for 61.70 meters in the hammer throw, topping the rest of the field by over ten meters and setting her personal best.

Egheosa Osawemsenza and Mary Alenbratt also set personal bests with a 1:03.86 finish in the 400 meter hurdles and a 2:09.81 second place finish in the 800 meter run respectively.

Viktoria Leks and Lisa Egarter took the second and third spots in the high jump while Silje Fjortoft and Lara Bodinson also placed second and third respectively in the 1500 meter run.

SMU Swimming and Diving Take Second and Third at Conference Championships

February 28, 2011 by · Comments Off 

By Marissa Belske

SMU men’s and women’s swimming and diving concluded the Conference USA Championships Sunday by setting four meet records. The men’s team earned runner-up honors, while the women placed third overall.

Senior captain Tom Cole set the example by earning top honors in the 200-yard breaststroke, earning him a time of 1:54.54 and setting a new meet record and earning him an NCAA B qualifying time. The captain was also named the Men’s Invitational Co-Swimmer of the meet along with Luca Mazzurana of Hawai’i. Cole aslo took top honors in the 100-yard breaststroke with an NCAA B time of 53.44.

Junior Mitchell Thomson excelled at long distances turning in a 15:1.78 time in the 1650-yard freestyle. The time earns Thomson NCAA B consideration.

The youngsters were also strong for the Mustangs this week. Sophomore Mindaugas Sadauskas also set a a new meet record in the 100-yard freestyle. The 43.04 time earns him an NCAA B consideration time. Freshman Braeden Newton took third in the 200-yard backstroke earning him a time of 1:29.23.

The women also put forth a strong performance last week. Junior Therese Svendsen was named Women’s Swimmer of the Meet for her second-straight year. Svendsen earned six gold medals at the event, setting Conferece USA record in the 100- and 200-yard backstrokes, breaking her own personal records and earning her NCAA B qualifying times.

Senior Audra Egenolf had a strong performance at the Championships as well, earning the Diver of the Year award with her first place finish and two second place finishes. Egenolf is qualified to compete in the NCAA Zone Diving Championships next month.

The underclassmen did well for the women as well. Freshman Alice McCall came in first in the 1650-yard freestyle with a time on 16:38.83, earning her a NCAA B qualifying time.

Watch out for these strong competitors in the NCAA Championships on March 17-19 in Austin, Texas for the women and on March 24-26 in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the men.

SMU Swimming Shines in Day One of Conference USA Championship

February 24, 2011 by · Comments Off 

By Marissa Belske

Men’s and women’s swimming and diving hit the pool this week for the 2011 Conference USA Championships. In day one the Mustangs showed up strong swimming towards a first place start for the women and a fourth place start for the men.

The SMU women’s swim team swept both events in day one competition on Wednesday. The team of Therese Svendsen, Raminta Dvariskyte, Monika Babok and Nina Rangelova placed first in the 200-yard medley relay with a time of 1:38:40.

The Mustangs also earned top honors in the 800-yard freestyle relay with a time of 7:12:50. This time earns the Mustangs consideration for the NCAA Championships next month.

The men also earned NCAA consideration in both of their events this weekend, earning runner-up honors in both the 200-yard medley relay and the 800-yard freestyle relay.

In diving, Richard Cornelius earned a sixth place finish for the men with 285.55 points.

The Mustangs continues action in the Conference USA Championships for the rest of the week. You can watch it live here.