Sally Minty-Gravett MBE is a well known name in Jersey. What she has achieved in the world of island swimming is second to none as she is integral to teaching many islanders how to swim, including myself (calling me Nemo).
It was great to catch up with Sally, and she was full of fascinating stories.
Q: When did you start to learn how to swim?
Sally: I started to learn at three years old, here at Havre Des Pas as there were no other pools when I was a little girl. I left the Congo when I was three, my parents wanted me to swim fairly quickly. For a long time the only option was swimming at Havre Des Pas bathing pool in the summer. The first pool, which was De La Salle pool, wasn’t open until I was twelve, at which time I was already number one female, as there were no age groups back then, just male and females. Fort Regent was built when I was fifteen, which was near the end of my indoor career, as I preferred swimming in the sea. I didn’t like the competitive nature both in and out of the water in competitive swimming at the time, so I opted to stay in the sea and found a coach, who coached Denize Le Pennec, and it just went from there.
Q: When you did indoor swimming, what was your favourite stroke?
Sally: Front crawl or Butterfly, but breaststroke is the only stroke I didn’t like and I still don’t like it. You need big hands and big feet, and I have little hands and little feet, so it doesn’t work for me.
Q: Was there a time when you decided swimming in the sea was for you?
Sally: At the age of twelve or thirteen I knew I wanted to be in the sea and Maurice Lakeman, who was a teacher of mine at the time, took me aside and said ‘lets do some swimming’. At the age of thirteen and fourteen I had already completed swims such as Gorey to Bouley Bay, and because Denize Le Pennec was a breast stroke swimmer, I had broken her records, and done those swims in faster times because I was a front crawl swimmer, which is natural and would have been broken anyway because she was a slower swimmer.
Q: In 1975 you did your first channel swim. Was it something you always wanted to do?
Sally: No, not at all. I watched Blue Peter, and there was a young girl called Tina Spry who was training to do the channel and she lived in London, with her parents taking her to train in the lakes. I wanted to swim Lake Windemere, so I looked into that, nobody from Jersey had ever done it, and I went and did that when I was seventeen. Tina’s father helped me through that, crewing for me. It was at the end of that swim when the organisers said ‘You know lass, if you can do that you can do the channel.’ So I came home and spoke to my parents and Maurice, and in those days you could book a channel swim, and do it the next year, which you can’t do now. It just so happened that 1975 was their centenary year of channel swimming, so the Channel Swimming Association, who were the only association at that time were organising a cross channel relay race in celebration. Maurice decided to put a relay team in for the race, and Linda Devereux, who was thirteen at the time, said she wanted to do a cross channel swim, so we trained together, and had a really fun year. We did the relay in the August of 1975, then Linda and I went back two weeks later, I swam the channel on the Saturday and she swam it two days later. There were only seven minutes difference in time on two completely different days. That’s how it came about. It was never ‘I am going to swim the channel’, it was a natural progression for me. I didn’t find it hard because I didn’t know enough about it, and in this case naivety was a good thing. However, I overtrained big time, which I have learnt from since then, which is a good thing, as I did eight or nine hundred miles of training that year and after the swim I couldn’t move my arms for four days.
Q: What was it like to see the French Coast?
Sally: I couldn’t actually see it! It was a really thick, foggy day. That was a good thing because when you coach people who are swimming the channel you tell them not to look. I was a bit sick in the middle, which was down to what I ate during the swim. It was a very big learning experience and it was a fast swim, under twelve hours. I couldn’t see the French coast until I was three feet above the beach, I had gone through lots of jellyfish which I hadn’t done before. I didn’t find it hard because I was trained well. That’s what I encourage people to do, swim so much that when they swim the Channel, its just a swim and its not on a pedestal as ‘I am training for the Channel’ and then come out and say it was the hardest thing they have ever done. It wasn’t like that for me, it was natural.
Q: You have done it every decade since. Is it an addiction?
Sally: It didn’t start off to be done every decade, it’s just the way it has ended up. I wanted to swim from France to England to say that I have done it both ways. I started working in a bank, and was there for two and a half years and then became a Nanny and during that time, my brother swam the channel, making us the only brother and sister at that time to swim the channel from England to France. In 1979, the Saudi Arabian’s were organising an individual relay race across the channel and I was asked to represent Britain, but because of my work I hadn’t done the training, so my brother who was only sixteen said he would do it and he represented Britain. This meant he had done it twice compared to my once, so I really wanted to do it a second time, but with work this was the wrong time as I was moving to Vancouver, which I did do. However, my mum passed away whilst I was there, so I came home and spent time with my dad and my family. I then decided to think of another challenge, but couldn’t settle and moved to England in 1984 and that is where I concentrated on training to do the channel again. This was going to be my France to England swim, however in 1985 we got to Calais and the wind direction was wrong so I had to go England to France, resulting in my brother and I being the only brother and sister in the world to have done two England to France swims.
I still wanted to do France to England though. I met my husband after my second crossing and then returned to Jersey in 1986 as I wanted to start a swimming school. One chap said to me, ‘I want to build a pool in my garden, would you like to run it as a swimming school’ and I jumped at the chance. I then thought, I shall do my France to England swim and that would be a very good advertisement to start up my business. In 1992, I finally swam from France to England , which happened to be the third decade. I came back, gained planning permission to build the pool and started working very hard doing ‘Swim Right’, which was my swimming school, and I did that non stop for ten years. There was no way during that time I could train to do another swim.
Q: How did the idea about a two way swim come about?
Sally: In 1993 the French Coastguards banned people from swimming from France to England, so the only way you could do France to England swim was to do a two way. I got head hunted by Serco Jersey and at the opening ceremony they said if you’re going to do a two way, we will pay for you. I started training and did more sea swimming and then in 2005, a fourth decade, there were five other people in Jersey wanting to do the Channel, so I was coaching them and training myself. I got into the water, and because I put so much pressure on myself, about eight hours into my swim my pilot said ‘you’re in a really good place, do you want to turn around when you get to France and swim back’, but I had nothing left inside me, no fuel, so I didn’t and a did my fourth single swim in four decades. The two way niggled at me. My friend, who had completed the one way twice in 2006 and 2008 unfortunately contracted cancer, and she said she was going to do a two way in 2013. As I was planning to do mine in 2015, she said I may aswell train with her, so we both trained together. We both booked a two way. I went in July, but again I put too much pressure on myself, I was really sick for twelve hours, but managed to finish a one way. Even if i had turned around I would have been taken out because of a large storm. It just wasn’t meant to be that day. Wendy went on and did her two way, which was fantastic. As soon as I came out of the water I immediately re-booked my two way for 2015, but the weather was not good again. At the end of 2015 I stepped back from a lot of roles, took the pressure off myself and focus on me. 2016 was my year. I was in a much better place both mentally and physically, and I finally did my two way. It was a relief, it was a long day but I managed to finish it on my 41st anniversary of my first channel swim.
Q: Do you enjoy teaching people how to swim?
Sally: Yeah, it’s in my blood. I love getting people swimming and I love seeing people achieving. I love coaching and mentoring a lot of people all over the world, as far afield as India and America. It is fantastic to see them achieve their dreams. I just love it.
Q: Has anyone that you have taught reached their dreams?
Sally: Yes, yes. I have been coaching and mentoring a young Indian boy. When he was thirteen his father contacted me and said I want him to swim the channel when he was sixteen, as the minimum age is now sixteen to swim the channel, which is a good thing. I said, he will need to come to Jersey to acclimatise, because living in Mumbai you don’t have any cold water.
He came to Jersey in the summer of 2016, he was fifteen when he arrived, swam round Jersey just after he had turned sixteen. Then he went to Dover and spent six weeks there. He did the channel and I was on his boat for both of those swims. He wants to do the Ocean Seven which is a big challenge where people try and chase the oceans across the world. That was his first of the seven. In 2017 he went and did the Tsugari channel and the Molokai Channel, I went out with him for his Catalina channel. Last year he did the North Channel and again, I was on his boat. In April we are heading to do the Gibraltar Strait and by the time that comes, and should he complete it, he would have done six out of the seven. He has the Cook Strait booked for next year, so if all goes to plan he will be twenty when he completes it, making him the youngest to do so by eight years. He is a driven young man and I am going out to California to do a swim with him. I am good friends with the parents and they want me to be there at the end of this challenge, just like I was at the very start.
That is the epitome of swimming, but I am just as proud seeing the kids I have taught from babyhood now being swimming teachers in their own right, lifeguards, they are all working. A lot of them have done the channel swim and around Jersey swim. The legacy I have given to them they are now imparting onto others. It makes me very proud.
Q: Do you think we have enough swimming facilities in Jersey?
Sally: Personally yes. A lot of people would disagree. When Fort Regent was here people hated it because of the access issues. As soon as they decided they were going to get rid of it, they suddenly started to like it. The Aqua Splash has a great central position, its easy to get to and access, with it also being cheap to use. However, people just don’t like it because its new and its different, even though its not new anymore. Les Quennevais is great for people in the west. That’s also very accessible and easy to use. There are also school pools which the clubs use, so I think we are more than adequately provided for.
Q: You won the Churchill Award for Courage. How did that feel?
Sally: That was amazing. I was very honoured. It was a big surprise. It was two years after because they had forgotten to do it in 2017 (they apologised). The four people before me are amazing people. It was an honour.
Q: And how about the MBE? Do you remember the day they called?
Sally: The Governor rang me when I was at home with my husband. I knew John as I taught him swimming years previously. He said I needed to keep it a secret for six or seven weeks. So because it was the Queen’s 90th birthday I invited a selected number of family and friends to a birthday party at my house. They thought it was odd but didn’t say anything. The night before I was at governments house and that was when it was all put in the public and that’s when they all realised. Again, it was a great honour.
Q: You recently took part in Strictly and won it. How was that experience?
Sally: That was great. Again, the BBC rang me and said we are hoping to run Strictly Come Dancing for Children In Need and we are looking for eight Jersey names, would you like to do it? I jumped at the chance. I have always wanted to dance. I danced to Moonriver as it had to be something water related, and that is what Dragos Patrascu, my instructor/partner, chose for us. I came back from my holiday, and Dragos was sick for the week after and we didn’t start dancing until a month before the night, which was a month after everybody else! We managed to cram in about twenty lessons between then and the competitions, and then we won! I was quite determined, it was great fun and its opened up a whole new chapter for me. I have been going to dancing lessons and I have met different people. It is a nice new hobby.
Q: Do you follow any other sports, and if you weren’t a swimmer what would you have been?
Sally: In 1992, interestingly, I was asked to do the Halifax Super Shooting competition. I had never shot a gun in my life before. It was five different things; air pistol, full bore, pistol, archery and clay pigeon. I had one go at each and I won, beat Colin Mallet on the day. It was a fluke but apparently to be a good shooter you have to have a very slow heart rate, and I had friend who did well too because as an endurance athlete you have a big heart, so you can control the heart rate right down. I think if I had the time, I would love to do that. I would also love to do more Kayaking, which I feel I will do more in the next couple of years.
Q: What is your biggest achievement?
Sally: My two way English Channel swim is the biggest thing I will ever do, and I am never going to do that again, ever! I am also in the Guinness World Record book now too, finally made it! It’s very small, but I am in there, page 124. There is a lady who swam the Channel aged 73 so that puts pressure on me, meaning I might even have to go into my seventh decade. We will see, tomorrow is never promised so I always take a day at a time.
Q: Finally, is there anything that you haven’t done that you want to do?
Sally: Quite a lot of things actually. I would love to do the Cook Strait if I can. I would like to do a lot more coaching too I think. It is quite nice as even though I didn’t get paid to do it, you get free trips, so that is lovely. I should spend some time with my husband and family though too.
A detailed insight into one of the biggest names on the island. It was my pleasure to speak to Sally, and I wish her all of the best for the future.