Abhejali Bernardová is a peace ultrarunner who has done 6-day runs, 24-hour runs, and 100 km runs. Before and after she completed the Oceans Seven – as the 10th person in history, 4th woman and 1st person from the Czech Republic, she has promoted endurance sports, long distance swimming and self-transcendence via media appearances and speeches to the public and at school.
The Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team member achieved the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming and crossed the English Channel (14 hours 37 minutes), the Strait of Gibraltar (4 hours 35 minutes), the Catalina Channel (9 hours 46 minutes), the Tsugaru Channel (11 hours 7 minutes), the Molokai Channel (21 hours 52 minutes), the North Channel (10 hours 23 minutes), and the Cook Strait (13 hours 9 minutes) between the ages of 34 and 41 to complete the Oceans Seven, all successful on her first attempt.
She organizes a new popular 6-hour pool swim in Zlin in the Czech Republic and had a record number of swimmers in 2018, shortly after her last Oceans Seven channel swim. She talks about her development in the sport:
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What inspired you to start swimming in the open water, especially since you live in a landlocked country?
Abhejali Bernardová: I used to swim as a kid, from ages 6 to 14, mainly breaststroke. Then I stopped and got back to sports when I was 18 and started practicing meditation.
My meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy encouraged me to do sports as part of a daily routine, to help the body to stay healthy, and also to discover the so-called limits of the body. I started with running (5 minutes at the beginning all the way to a 6-day race some 8 years later). I also knew some of my teammates not only ran, but also swam, nothing shorter than the English Channel.
I remember thinking that if I was ever to swim, it would have to be breaststroke. My first open water swim was a relay across Zurich lake, the swim organized by my team, Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team. It actually started as a training swim of one of the members to train for the English Channel. I remember we were so slow we did not make the cutoff time. It was the year 1996, I just started meditating and I was swimming breaststroke.
The night before we stayed at the lido and I remember admiring a girl who was to swim a solo. Five years later we did make the cutoff and finished. If the race was not organized by my team, I am sure I would not even think of getting back to swimming. Zurich lake is a beautiful lake, but I still had no clue swimming would become such a great and fulfilling part of my life.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What was your first marathon swim? How did you feel before, during and after that swim?
Abhejali Bernardová: In 2009 my friend was supposed to swim the English Channel and since I used to be a swimmer and she was my friend, I was on her support crew. She was new to swimming and went to some freestyle courses and I joined her for one Total Immersion lesson because freestyle has always been sort of a nightmare for me when I did pool training as a kid.
Her solo swim turned into a relay two months before her swim date. I was then very skinny and we did not have much time to acclimatize or get fat. While waiting in Dover for a swimmable day, I still remember calling my friends at home and telling them how cold the water was and that they should remind me of that fact if I ever considered doing this on my own – which I was pretty sure would never happen. Sri Chinmoy, the founder of our team, said that he or she who braves the English Channel becomes an immortal friend of the Channel.
So to that, I attribute the fact that I felt drawn to come back. The year following our relay, I was on the Peace Run in the U.S. and I applied for the Zurich lake swim. Being on the Run, I did not have time to really train, but I felt inspired to do the swim. So this was my first marathon swim.
I remember the water felt really cold (19°C), I weighed 57 kilos and we applied so much grease – not knowing that it would not really help – that I had to throw out my swimsuit after the swim. I asked for hot drink every 20 minutes and tried to swim as fast as possible so as not to freeze. We even had a man’s wetsuit on the boat and I was seriously contemplating putting it on in the middle of the swim, even though that would disqualify me and it would be too big anyway. Towards the end, we ran out of hot drinks, but I made it – in a time that is still my fastest.
This swim was to be very important for me – it was very tough, but it showed me that if I trained, acclimatized and got some more body fat, I should be able to swim the English Channel. Two month after this swim in October 2010, I booked a slot for a Channel swim in July the following year. I was very excited and started training outdoors in January when I was on our meditation retreat in Nepal. I signed up for the Channel Group and started to read all I could, getting great help from my teammates Vasanti Niemz and Karteek Clarke.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How do you train for your marathon swims, especially for your colder, longer swims?
Abhejali Bernardová: Over the winter, I train in an indoor 50m pool, working on speed and trying to focus on technique based on my very limited mostly self-taught knowledge. Once the lakes are not frozen, I start with short dips. There is also an small outdoor pool in the company next to my work which I was allowed to use before my cold water swims.
I would usually start at the end of March and try to prolong my stays in the cold water. In May, we would start going to some lakes within a driving distance from my town. Depending on the water temperature, I would stay in for 1-2 hours, then the swims would get longer as the temperature rose. The problem always was that by middle June, all the lakes would be too warm, so I would have to take cold baths, sometimes ice baths.
Before my North Channel swim, I went to Scotland twice – at home everything was over 18°C’ in Scotland it was 11°C – and I could last only for little over an hour. But the body is an amazing instrument and if we give it time, we can train it really well. I am not really good with cold water and it has always been the greatest challenge in all my swims. It was also why I was not thinking about Oceans Seven for a long time – because I know that North Channel was super cold. I remember reading what Freda Streeter said about that swim – that the North Channel is definitely not for everybody and that she saw how Alison suffered so much.
The whole story of my Oceans Seven swims is like a spiritual journey, I was led from one swim to another, learning along the way, one swim preparing me for the next. My third swim of the seven was the Catalina Channel – and it was so beautiful and magical I knew I could not stop after that.
I signed up for Robben Island swim as it had always been my dream, and I met some people who helped me organize the swim, and also made some friend on the Peace Run who could come and help me on that swim. I knew it was a cold swim and that’s why I did not dare to do it sooner, but I got the confidence that I could possibly last for 3 hours in 13°C water.
But when we came to South Africa for the swim, the water was only 11°C, at some places only 9°C. After I successfully managed this unusually swim, I thought that maybe it was so extremely cold to show me I had the capacity to do the North Channel after all. That was when I decided I would love to do all the seven swims. It was in March 2016. It has been an incredible path of getting to know myself better, of inner and outer discovery, which I am really grateful for.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What is your favorite feeding or drink during your swims?
Abhejali Bernardová: I like blended oatmeal with chocolate, or soup from root vegetables – without any salt if swimming in sea water. And ginger tea.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: During your Oceans Seven channel swims, what point did you feel the absolute worse? How did you overcome this situation?
Abhejali Bernardová: It was during the Molokai Channel crossing. The swim started at around 5 pm, it got dark by 7 pm, and I started to be really seasick. We arrived just 3 days prior to the swim – it was before my swim period, so I was tired and jet lagged on top of being seasick and depleted.
After being seasick for quite a few hours, I asked how far we were. I usually don’t do it, or much later, but I felt so exhausted physically – we also had to battle some strong current at the beginning of the swim. I was told we are not yet in the middle. I remember thinking that some miracle will have to happen for me to have enough physical strength to continue for another maybe 10 hours – it turned out to be much more. The team on the boat notified our friends around the world and they all ate on my behalf, sent their good wishes and prayers. Once the sun came out after maybe 12 hours of darkness, I was fine and could start eating. When all seemed back to normal I got badly stung by a jellyfish and then there was another strong current that had us moving only 1 mile per hour, but the worst was past.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Out of the water, what do you do?
Abhejali Bernardová: I started organizing a 6-hour swim race, to give people the chance to get a glimpse of long distance swimming, which gave me so much over the years. I remember standing on the beach in Dover harbor in 2009 when we were there for the first relay, waiting endlessly for a good weather. I remember pleading with the ocean and wind gods to cooperate – that if we got to do the swim, I would organize a swimming event. It took me 8 years to really do it, but I am very grateful for the opportunity to organize that race, which is becoming very popular – the 2nd edition we had to do 2 days, one for relays and 1 for solo swimmers.
As for my job, I work in a book publishing division of a company that also has gift stores, sells tools and runs vegetarian restaurant The books we publish are focused on meditation; the Sport and Meditation book is one of my favorites. I am very lucky because my employer is very supportive of my self-transcendence activities.
I give free meditation classes and we also have a music group.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How can you compare your other endurance sporting achievements with the Oceans Seven?
Abhejali Bernardová: The 6-day race was my longest race. The big difference between ultra running and swimming in open water is that many more things are out of your control. You do not know when you will swim, how long it will take, and the most important thing is – when you stop during running, you stay at one place, and when you run, no matter how slowly, you still move forward. Which is not true with swimming. But I believe the inner attitude is pretty much the same, and the longer the race, the deeper you have to dig to stay happy and focused and keep moving.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How do you balance your swimming and training with all your other responsibilities?
Abhejali Bernardová: When I train, I definitely use my time much more wisely. That is also what the 6-day race taught me – to really try to use time wisely. But to have fun sometimes is also a wise use of time. I believe that when I do what I can in my training, there is some special grace that covers the potential lack of training, if there is any. But for it to work, you really have to be sincere to yourself and do your best, I think.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What did you feel during your last stroke of the Cook Strait when you completed the Oceans Seven?
Abhejali Bernardová: I got stung by another jellyfish. Well, that was not actually the last stroke, but a few before that when it was already dark. I was really grateful we finished. Thinking more about that particular swim than the whole Oceans Seven at that moment. That swim was not easy and I was happy for all the team and people at home too, so many people helped me along the way.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: If there is one word in your native language that describes open water swimming, what is it? What does it mean in English?
Abhejali Bernardová: The term most commonly used would be long distance swimming: Dálkové plavání. We have long distance swimming and winter swimming. Many winter swimmers turn into long distance swimmers over the summer. But I like open water swimming better, because I think you can feel the joy of swimming outdoors without having to swim for long distances. Nevertheless, winter swimming is really popular in Czech Republic, one of the oldest races is held on December 26th in front of the national theatre in Prague – it has been happening since 1928.
For me open water swimming means freedom, oneness with nature, becoming more conscious of myself.
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