An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Our signal in Bonners Ferry and Omak is seriously impaired due to weather— Learn more here.

Spokane, Tacoma Women First American 2-Person Relay To Swim English Channel

Robin Davis

The average age of swimmers crossing the English Channel is 35 and a half. And, 63% of them are male. Robin Davis, 62, of Spokane, and Zena Courtney, 59, of Tacoma, broke the mold and set a record when they completed the historic swim in early October.

When Courtney made landfall in France after more than 12 hours of relay swimming, fellow Channel swimmers ran onto the beach with giant American flags streaming behind them.


Most who finish the swim don’t get that type of reception, but their guide boat captain had been coordinating with a team of swimmers who finished the week before.


It was a fitting celebration for Courtney and Davis. They found out a few weeks later they were the first 2-person relay from the States to finish the swim.


The initial idea to swim the Channel came from Davis back in the summer of 2017, and her goal wasn’t to set any records. It was about finding purpose.


Her career ended suddenly after a major concussion; her last child had left the house; and her marriage recently ended.


"So, I thought, ‘Who am I?' I’m no longer 24/7 mother, I’m no longer a pharmacist with a lot of responsibility, I’m no longer a wife. 'Who am I? Who am I?' " Davis said. "And I think a lot of women at that point in their lives have the same questions."


Davis channeled her competitive drive into swimming as a kid, but her mother persuaded her to hone her talent for violin instead. It wasn’t common for girls to be pursuing athletics at that time.


She didn’t get back into the water for another decade, this time as as a triathlete.


At the 1989 IRONMAN Canada, Davis was the fifth person out of the water, but didn’t compete again to prepare to be a mother.


Courtney, a manager at Boeing, followed a different path to the Channel. She and her sisters were encouraged to swim throughout childhood, and Courtney eventually earned a scholarship after walking on to Stanford’s swim team.


She holds master’s swimming records in the pool, raced in the 11-mile Portland Bridge swim, and swam the 8-mile Strait of Gibraltar. But, the English Channel at 21 miles was another beast.


"I have really bad shoulders. I’ve had shoulder operations on both shoulders for rotator cuffs," Courtney said. "I didn’t think the English Channel was doable for me, but Robin offered half. I figured I could do half."


The relay pair met in person for the first time in Dover, England ahead of their swim. Their team name was Whitney’s Wynners, a play on words with the name of one of Davis’ daughters’ friends, Whitney Wynn. She was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and is being treated with chemotherapy.


"Without her inspiration for endurance, grace, and gratitude, and tenacity, I don’t know if I could have finished this thing," Davis said. "When I hit the water in England, there was no way I was going to quit. I wasn’t going to let her down."


On the Channel, the swimmers dealt with 5-foot waves and water temperatures in the low 60s. Swimmers have to coat themselves in grease for warmth because wetsuits aren’t allowed.


In a 2-person relay, each swimmer takes one hour shifts swimming while the other rests and tries to warm up in the boat.


Courtney started at 6 a.m. in the dark wearing a headlamp and had the boat spotlight on her. During one of her later relay shifts, her anti-nausea medication failed and she became violently seasick.


As Courtney swam through it, Davis could only watch from the boat.


"I felt like I was riding in an F-350 without shocks over a bumpy road," Davis said. "It was that kind of being tossed around. And, our pilot said, ‘You’re 2 miles from shore.’"


In the end, they finished their swim in 12 hours and 18 minutes — way ahead of schedule.


The team is also up for an award from the Channel Swimming Association at their annual ceremony this weekend.


"I want to use this swim to good purpose, to show my female peers that really you can realize your dreams at a later stage in life," Davis said. "And as you have your own transitions, look back and find that dream that you thought you could never complete."