How a botched dental surgery pushed Long Island swimmer to the challenge of a lifetime

The answer as to why Marissa McAuliffe wants to make the 21-mile swim across the English Channel is simple enough. 

“I’ve always liked big challenges in my life…and I thought this would be the perfect one to utilize my skills and fortitude,” the 30-year-old Centerport, New York native who will attempt the swim this July told The Post. 

McAuliffe, an accomplished swimmer and Ironman athlete once ranked eighth in the world for ages 25-29 in 2021 by Ironman, has already crossed a number of accomplishments off her bucket list and she’s looking to now conquer the treacherous swim – considered the “Mount Everest of long-distance swimming” – that only 2,487 people and 169 American women have ever completed.

Marissa McAuliffe is taking on one of the biggest challenges of her life. Courtesy of Marissa McAuliffe

It was a life-altering crossroads in 2022 that changed everything and gave McAuliffe a new perspective on the world, helping to set up her current opportunity.

She suffered a lingual nerve injury during a routine wisdom tooth removal surgery, which caused McAuliffe “excruciating pain” and created a feeling of a flame “constantly being held on my tongue 24/7.” 

Corrective surgery and medication only worsened the issue.

For a person who had successfully jumped into long-distance swimming at the age of 23 and then transitioned into competing in triathlons and Ironman events, the medicine and pain took her to an increasingly dark place. 

“The pain was pretty much excruciating to the point where I didn’t want to live anymore with this pain. I didn’t think I could handle it anymore,” she explained candidly.  

While McAuliffe still deals with the pain, it has subsided to about a “five out of 10” most days from the “eight out of 10” it had been back in 2022 and gave her a new outlook on life for 2023. 

The journey just to get the opportunity this summer has been arguably as arduous as the challenges she’s already faced athletically, and the chance wouldn’t have come if she hadn’t endured one of the worst years of her life.

Surgery to have her wisdom teeth removed had painful side effects that changed Marissa McAuliffe’s life. Courtesy of Marissa McAuliffe

After, as McAuliffe jokingly called it, “retiring” from triathlons amid the nerve pain and chronic knee issues she eventually found herself living in Ecuador in 2023 after a vacation turned into a nearly year-long stay and led her back into the water. 

She began swimming for Carill 4, a swim club based in Riobamaba, which is 120 miles south of the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, even setting a national record in the 100-meter freestyle last October. 

“I decided 2023 was just going to be a year where I was just going to do what made me happy and that’s how swimming came back into the picture,” McAuliffe said. “I’ve always loved swimming so much and it always made me feel happy and good.”

She added:  “Just overcoming the whole lingual nerve injury just kind of set me up for even more fuel for the fire to get the English Channel done.”

McAuliffe finished second overall female at the Oceanman Manta 10k swim last June and in October she was named best overall female in the master’s category of the 2023 Masters Championship at Club Rancho San Francisco, while social media posts by Carill 4 and the Sports Federation of Chimborazo show her medaling at a number of other events last year.

Even before getting back in the water in 2023, McAuliffe had boasted first-place finishes for her age group in the 2017 and 2018 12.5-mile Swim Around Key West and in the 2018 Swim for Aligátor Lighthouse in Islamorada. 

Marissa McAuliffe Courtesy of Marissa McAuliffe

But the Channel swim remains on a level all its own.

Julian Critchlow, who has swam the Channel and maintains extensive records that are recognized by the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation, compared the swim, which was first completed in 1875 by Captain Mathew Webb, to England’s iconic tennis Grand Slam. 

“It remains that the Channel has the same kind of [gravitas] as Wimbledon does in the tennis community,” Critchlow said in a phone interview. “It’s a very particularly iconic swim and that 21 miles has therefore set the standard for what people like to think of as a decent crossing.” 

The swim, which has to be sanctioned by the CS&PF or the Channel Swimming Association to officially count, is not just backbreaking due to its length, but for the frigid water temperatures that average around 60 degrees and the strong, unpredictable currents.

McAuliffe, who now resides in Stuart, Florida, sees the Channel swim as a daunting, though not insurmountable task. 

Marissa McAuliffe is an accomplished swimmer Courtesy of Marissa McAuliffe

“When you have a goal and you want to accomplish it, you do what it takes to get it done,” McAuliffe said. “I’ve decided it’s what I want to do, so whatever I need to do to accomplish it is what I will do.” 

What that has entailed has been a two-a-day regimen of swims that total roughly 11,000 yards a day – the equivalent of 6.25 miles – in order to prepare, which McAuliffe described as feeling “like a goldfish swimming in the pool back and forth a thousand times.”

A week before her 30th birthday in December, McAuliffe set out to swim a mile an hour for a 24-hour span that started on Dec. 16 at 6 a.m. and ended just after 6 a.m. the following morning.

McAuliffe, who hopes to swim it within 12 hours, isn’t alone in her desire to complete the swim, as the trek across the English Channel has soared in popularity in the past 24 years.

Critchlow said the number of swims per year has increased every year since 2000.

Marissa McAuliffe is preparing to swim the English Channel Courtesy of Marissa McAuliffe

Vera Reid, who completed the Channel swim in 2020 and is a member of the Regis College swim team, said the trek was an important part of her personal journey. 

“I think I just learned a lot about myself,” Reid said. “It was this thing that I had a goal to do it. I trained as much as I could and I trained the best I could figure out how to train. And with the people around me supporting me, I was able to achieve my dream.”

Mark Ransom, who swam the English Channel in 2008 and wrote the book “Keep Calm and Swim to France” about his experience, which played a role in inspiring McAuliffe’s own desire to take on the challenge, pointed to the growing number of success stories of people crossing the Channel as part of the rise in popularity.

“Now that success rate has gone right up, I think more people are thinking it actually is achievable,” Ransom explained to The Post. “So let’s give it a go. And finding that it is achievable. So I think, to me, that is the biggest factor for the increase.”

Even with the increased interest in the swim, Ransom’s advice for anyone remains the same. 

“One arm in front of the other until you reach France,” he said. 

“The pain was pretty much excruciating to the point where I didn’t want to live anymore… I didn’t think I could handle it anymore.”  

Marissa McAullife

McAuliffe said she felt “very lucky” – after stumbling upon an open slot after connecting with a coach on Facebook in November – to be able to swim the Channel this summer since usually it takes swimmers two-to-three years to book their swims. 

That’s because only 12 boats are allowed out at a time on swimmable days, which limits the number of swimmers that can attempt the Channel crossing.

The peak number of swimmers came in 2019 when 159 solo swimmers made the excursion. 

And the venture can not only be physically and mentally taxing, but financially as well. 

McAuliffe is estimating the whole thing will cost around $8,000 between reserving the pilot, boat, crew, and travel costs – she’s attempting to raise some of the funds through a GoFundMe page – and she did confirm she has the slot, boat and pilot reserved already. 

Marissa McAuliffe Courtesy of Marissa McAuliffe

But the steep cost won’t stop her from following through with the swim. 

“You can’t really put a price on a dream or a goal or something you want to accomplish,” McAuliffe said.

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