After Swimming the English Channel, Nothing Can Stop These Israeli Women

With ages ranging from 43 to 61, a group of Israeli women overcame freezing waters and strong winds. Now they want to empower other women

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The five Israeli swimmers, who crossed the English Channel in under 11 hours earlier this month.
The five Israeli swimmers, who crossed the English Channel in under 11 hours earlier this month.Credit: Guy Shmueli
Ido Rakovsky
Ido Rakovsky
Ido Rakovsky
Ido Rakovsky

Avishag Kofman Turek has an illustrious list of achievements to her name. She was the first Israeli woman to complete the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming (crossing the English Channel, the Catalina Channel and circling the island of Manhattan); she holds the fastest time for crossing Lake Kinneret (20.5 kilometers, or 12.7 miles, in five hours and 34 minutes); and was also the first person to swim it twice lengthwise (41 kilometers).

Despite all this, she admits she doesn’t always feel so capable in other areas of life.

“For many years I didn’t break up with my partner because I didn’t know how I could support my daughters alone,” she says. Therefore, she adds, tackling the challenge of crossing the English Channel as one of a group of five women on behalf of the Women’s Spirit (Ruach Nashit in Hebrew) foundation was “sheer perfection.”

From left to right: Noa Zvi, Naomi Lippin, Avishag Kofman Turek, Meital Saiski and Tamar Choshen,Credit: Amnon Khoury

According to its mission statement, the nonprofit “works to promote the economic independence of women survivors of violence in Israel and strives for social change from a feminist perspective and commitment to social and gender justice.” The English Channel crossing was designed as a fundraiser for the group, and the swimmers bore all the costs themselves.

“We wanted something that would empower us, and also contribute to helping women who are in a less fortunate place in their lives,” says Kofman Turek, 47, who describes herself as someone who “connects people with water in all kinds of ways.”

But she was not alone in this 41.63-kilometer challenge through cold waters. She was recruited for her experience, and had four others in the group with her: Tamar Choshen, a 51-year-old management consultant; Meital Saiski, a 43-year-old senior manager in a startup company; Noa Zvi, a 53-year-old senior stock market analyst; and Naomi Lippin, a 61-year-old psychologist.

“My story is a little different,” says Lippin. “When I was in my early 40s, I learned how to do the front crawl. I took a few lessons because I really wanted to know how to do this. Before that, I didn’t swim.”

An old adage among swimmers is that when you go to the sea, it’s very hard to go back to the pool.Credit: Guy Shmueli

She says that although she had no prior connection to swimming, she had often dreamed of swimming. She took some lessons and started going to her local pool in Moshav Beit Yitzhak, near Netanya. One time, a young swim coach saw her and asked her what team she swam for. Lippin was sure he was kidding. “He said, ‘You’re a swimmer, right?’” she recalls. “I said, ‘No, but that’s a wonderful compliment.’” She was 43 when the coach told her she looked like a swimmer from birth.

His comment struck a nerve: It seemed to explain the unexplained passion for the water she had felt for years. “At first, I thought this guy wasn’t quite right in the head,” she smiles, “but a year later the exact same thing happened with someone else. I couldn’t believe it.”

Kofman Turek, who herself had taken a 20-year break from the pursuit, says you can start swimming at any age, and believes the state should be doing more to support athletic activity for adults: “If our government invested more in sport for adults, it wouldn’t have to spend as much on adult health,” she says.

‘Totally shocked’

Lippin joined the adult team at Beit Yitzhak and began swimming longer distances. A friend got her to try open water swimming too. “Swimmers have a saying: ‘If you go to the sea, it’s very hard to go back to the pool,’” she explains. “And then I went totally solo.”

The same friend also suggested she try one of the toughest open water challenges: swimming through the Strait of Gibraltar. “I told him, ‘Yallah, that sounds amazing.’ I kept feeling that the older I got and the more I improved my swimming, the more boundaries I wanted to break,” Lippin says.

Although the idea of swimming the strait between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean fell through due to logistical issues, then came a proposal to join the group that would cross the English Channel.

The five swimmers. Had to contend with much colder waters in the English Channel than at Lake Kinneret.Credit: Guy Shmueli

Lippin recalls that when she got the phone call from Zvi, who was assembling the group together with Kofman Turek, it was “way more exciting than getting a call that said you’d won millions on the lottery. I sat there holding my cellphone, thinking: This can’t be, they must have called me by mistake. I was totally shocked.”

Like Lippin, Kofman Turek also sees herself as a solo swimmer. “Being part of a group can be a chore,” she says, adding that as a kid she wasn’t “in the center of things: I was never a part of things, I grew up on Kibbutz Shefayim [just north of Herzliya] and I wasn’t popular. I was happy that they welcomed me with open arms, because in a lot of places that’s not the case. Being a part of this group of women closes a lot of circles. Being in a group is much harder than going solo: I need to accommodate four more [women], because it’s just as much theirs as it is mine – and I also have to trust them. When I’m solo, I’m able to cope with difficult things but I don’t know how others will take it.”

The preparations for crossing the Channel lasted just six months, during which general training guidelines were given and the women learned what they were required to accomplish week by week.

One of the weekly training sessions involved all five swimming together for an hour at night. Kofman Turek, meanwhile, felt it was important for the final training session to be swimming the length of Lake Kinneret – at night. “I wanted us to be ready for the possibility that we would get into the English Channel at night,” she says, adding that the swimmers also had to deal with a northwesterly wind that was blowing at 17 knots (over 31 kilometers per hour). “I’m sitting on the boat, watching the girls swim, and I can hardly believe my eyes – I can’t believe that we’re in such good shape. They were so strong in the water. I told myself: this is really happening.”

The five Israeli swimmers.Credit: Amnon Khoury

The women even felt a sense of competence during their first training session in the English Channel, where the water was 12 degrees Celsius (21.6 degrees Fahrenheit) colder than in Israel. “We were very prepared, but still we were used to the very warm water in Israel,” Kofman Turek says. “You have to make an adjustment, because the difference between 28 degrees and 16 degrees is major.”

In two days, the five women were able to hold four training sessions. Usually, people who attempt to swim the Channel take at least eight days to adjust. One reason for the shorter adjustment time was that the weather forecast two days before the window when they could attempt the crossing promised “fantastic” conditions.

“We had to decide if we were going for it, so I said that we absolutely are,” she says, recounting how she urged her companions to jump into the water just a few hours after they arrived in England from Israel. “After the first training session, the girls were on a high; they understood that they could do this. Do you know how great that feels?”

Lippin agrees: “Suddenly, entering 16-degree water was pleasant; we shouted for joy and knew we had this. Beforehand, we’d been very fearful of what the cold would be like, but it was really nothing.”

Lippin was nursing an ankle injury at the time, but wouldn’t let that stop her from taking part in the swim. “I just knew I had to do it,” she says. Kofman Turek, who was uncertain whether to allow Lippin to swim with the injury, admits she was quite worried, “but I intuitively knew what to decide. And also in terms of the connection with Women’s Spirit, I felt they gave me the option to decide.”

On July 10, the five women completed the crossing of the English Channel in 10 hours and 52 minutes. “We were the first group made up just of women to cross the Channel, and we did it with the fastest result of any Israeli relay team,” Kofman Turek says proudly. “But it’s not a record, because you can’t compare the conditions.”

After reaching the coast of France, the group returned to England – but this time on the escort boat. Lippin went to the hospital to make sure her ankle injury was not serious, and then returned to Israel with Zvi. The three others continued with their original plan for a trip to England. “Walking all around London was a lot harder than the crossing. My legs were exhausted,” Kofman Turek laughs.

On a more serious note, Kofman Turek says that talk of “women’s empowerment” is still a relevant conversation. “We’re told that this isn’t really needed anymore, but unfortunately we’re still not where I’d like us to be,” she says. “It doesn’t have to come at the expense of men. A situation arose in which men are very much on the defensive, but that’s not what this is about.”

She says that although she is a renowned swim coach, she still encounters a lot of discrimination. “I’m not looked at the same way as the men,” she says. “It’s not that you [men] do this on purpose; it’s because you’re not aware. I want to see myself and these women who are caught in the cycle of violence be given a place, and for them to give themselves a place too – just as we gave ourselves a place to be in the Channel and to tackle this challenge.”

Lippin believes the same idea applies to all spheres of life. “A much healthier and stronger society is a society in which women have a more important place,” she says. “When a society gives women a better place, it strengthens the entire society.”

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