Karen Gallichan

Karen’s Santander International Channel Swim in aid of Autism Jersey 

‘I’m just an ordinary middle-aged menopausal single mum who likes to swim!’

That’s what Karen Gallichan might say about herself. But we beg to differ.

Karen is a manager at the Autism Jersey Boutique, she has a son who has autism and she is going to swim the English Channel to celebrate turning 50.

‘Swimming has changed my life,’ she says. ‘If someone had said to me five years ago I’d be swimming the Channel in my 50th year, I’d never have believed them.’

Karen’s Santander International Channel Swim, from Dover to Cap Gris Nez on the north coast of France, is scheduled to take place in the week of 2-7 September 2018, tides and weather allowing.

Karen has taken on the challenge of the Channel Swim to raise £10,000 to be ringfenced for an Autism Jersey bursary, specifically to help adults on the autism spectrum to fund opportunities that will improve quality of life or enhance employment prospects.

Karen’s swimming journey started five years ago when she was separating from her husband. Her friend Billie Cave, seeing that she needed something in her life, asked Karen to be the swimmer in a triathlon team the following July, in 2014. ‘I was very overweight and unfit. I knew that Billie and her husband wouldn’t mind how fast or slow I was but they would be annoyed if I didn’t train properly,’ Karen said. ‘So I got back into lessons with Channel swimmer Sally Minty-Gravett.

‘It was a huge challenge for me just to do a training swim of 750 metres. I just can’t believe how far I have come in four years.

‘If Billie had never suggested the triathlon I would never have got back into lessons and started with the Jersey Long Distance Swimming Club. That request changed my life.’

One day, over a glass of wine, Karen asked her coach whether she was capable of swimming the Channel. After a moment, Sally’s response was straight: ‘Worse swimmers than you have done it.’

That was enough to set Karen off on her truly awesome challenge – which has brought the added benefits from a new lifestyle. ‘The people I swim with – we laugh a lot, it’s fun, you’re exercising, out in nature, exposed to the elements, and you have camaraderie. For me, swimming is like moving meditation. Nobody can get to me. No phones, no internet. And that is part of the joy of it, getting away from everything.’

At one time, Karen felt that her life was open to everyone to scrutinise because she needed a diagnosis and help for her son who is on the autism spectrum.

Every single area of my son’s life was collapsing

‘The challenges of having a child with autism start when you suspect there is something different. I used to be terrified to pick him up from nursery, to be honest, because there was always something. He was suspended in his first term at primary school and it was just awful.

‘I still feel it now. I had to open my life to everybody, to get a diagnosis and to continue to get my son help, you have to speak to everybody. Our life was documented every single day, and you have this layer of professionals around you and they know the intimate details of your family life.

‘As he grew up, things deteriorated and we were in crisis, I would say we were beyond crisis. I couldn’t go anywhere without having a phone call from school. Everything was falling apart. Every single area of my son’s life was collapsing.’

It was decided that Karen’s son needed to be sent for specialist schooling only available in the UK, and at the age of 13 he was sent there, which brought with it new problems for Karen, like guilt, and practical issues of travelling back and forth to England.

Her son continued to struggle in the classroom even with a high level of support but when he was at college in Bournemouth he discovered a love of the sea. ‘He did his Powerboat Level 2, he got his VHF licence, and he was able to complete his Day Skipper qualification while he was there,’ she said.

It got Karen thinking about how much support there is for young adults who have autism.

‘I was really concerned how we were going to pay for qualifications like that on his return to Jersey and that led me to think about using my swim as a fundraiser and using it specifically for adults on the spectrum,’ she said.

‘I think there tends to be an emphasis on family support but our children with autism grow up to be adults with autism. The potential to learn is very clearly still there. People with autism might mature at a different rate to other people and it shouldn’t all be over at the age of 18.

‘Where are you going to go as an adult to help pay for what might enhance your employment prospects, if you haven’t got family here who can support you?

‘The bursary will be for people who need a qualification or perhaps a piece of equipment that will really enhance their employment prospects or indeed their quality of life.’

In preparation for her Channel challenge, Karen swam around Jersey last summer – the fastest local female round Jersey in 2017, in 11 hr 5 min.

‘It was one of the best days of my life,’ she says. ‘It’s the longest swim I have done but it’s quite different to the Channel because you can see land the whole time – and there’s an advantage of knowing where you are, recognising the landmarks and the bays.’

It was also made special because her son – as a surprise – was there on the pontoon when she arrived back in harbour on the pilot boat.

My strength and resilience comes from having a child with autism

And in September Karen had an introduction to Channel swimming when she took part in a relay team. She joined some Americans who needed a replacement swimmer at the last minute, and she did three one-hour legs for them. ‘Actually, swimming was easier than being on the boat,’ she said. ‘I was so seasick.’

It also introduced her to swimming in the dark, something she will have to do at some point on the Channel swim, which is likely to take 20 hours.

Her real fear though is jellyfish. ‘I’m terrified of them,’ she said. ‘I was doing the round-Jersey when I was stung for the first time, on the face. But, you know what, I can’t give up on my challenge because of a fear of jellyfish.’

And the Jersey-France swim planned for July this year is quite a different swim to those she has already done. It will be her first ‘land to land’ swim which poses the new challenge of being the first time where she will be in open water without being able to see land ahead.

‘They say that 80% of Channel swimming is mental,’ she explained, ‘and 20% physical. But I think that’s probably where my strength lies. That comes from maturity, and the experience and resilience of having a child with autism, because you have to keep going, don’t you? You have to keep fighting for what your child needs.’

With six months to go, all the planning has started to come together and Karen said that she was incredibly grateful for the sponsorship of Santander International.

‘It makes a real difference. It takes a huge financial pressure off me, having their support. Now I can concentrate on my training and my fundraising. I, and Autism Jersey, are really glad they are on board.’

As she reflected upon the strength she will need for her challenge, Karen said: ‘I do use that slogan “Life is not waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” When you’ve got any issue in your life that is not just going to go away, something you have to deal with, day in and day out, you can’t stop your life because of what’s going on. You have to find a way of learning to dance in the rain. You can’t change your circumstances but you can change how you respond to them. I really believe if you want anything badly enough you can make it happen.

‘This will be a day out of my life and I am sure it will be tough in places but it’s only one day, and it’s nothing compared to what my son had to cope with… And hopefully it will raise a lot of money to help adults with autism do worthwhile things.’

Fundraising events

*Karen is holding a Fashion Show at the Grand Hotel on Friday 4 May. Tickets are available from the Autism Jersey Boutique.

*Karen is organising Dip at Dawn on 1 April, a swim in the sea at Anne Port to launch April awareness month.

*You can sponsor Karen here.