Channeling a goal: Rebecca Nevitt '84 conquers swimming's triple crown

Swimmer Nevitt swims the English Channel and sets her sights on the next goal

Craig Morgan '84
February 5, 2018
Rebecca Nevitt swimming around the island of Manhattan in 2015.

Rebecca Nevitt '84 swam around the island of Manhattan in 2015. 

Rebecca Nevitt ’84 shrugged off myriad challenges in her quest to complete the triple crown of open-water swimming: a bathing rattlesnake in a canyon lake in Arizona, excruciating foot cramps on her swim around Manhattan, shifting currents that pushed her off course in Maui, and a curious blue shark, which crossed the bow of the boat just after she had swum past, in the waters off California’s Catalina Island.

As she approached the French coast near Wissant at the end of a 21-mile swim across the English Channel on Aug. 1 last year, her quest delivered one final, psychological test. “They’re never quite sure what the currents will do at the very end, so it can be extremely long,” says Nevitt, whose husband, Tony Manzella, was in a nearby escort boat with an English captain to feed, encourage and monitor her. “You can see the coast for hours and it looks like you are very close, but you have to swim alongside of it because of the currents.

“I think at one point I stopped and said, ‘I don’t know how far I have to go. Is it an hour? Is it four hours?’ The captain just looked at me and said, ‘Probably not four.’”

Nevitt is one of 1,834 solo swimmers to complete the English Channel crossing, walking ashore and posing for pictures while shivering after a 14 1/2-hour swim that began at midnight in Dover, England. The feat earned her membership into a far more exclusive club: She is one of only 168 people to conquer the English Channel, the 20-mile crossing to Catalina Island off Los Angeles, and the grueling 20 Bridges Swim, a 28-mile lap around Manhattan.

Getting her feet wet

Nevitt served as captain of the swim team at Exeter and later at Wellesley College. She stuck with the sport after school to maintain her fitness and to carve out meaningful solo time, but her pursuit of open-water achievement began 10 years ago when she swam a leg of the Maui Channel Relay from Lanai to Maui. “It’s a really beautiful swim; the water is so clear,” says Nevitt, who provides visual advertising clients. “It was one of the first times that I had really swum out in the middle of the ocean. I thought it was amazing to be that immersed in nature and I realized that I wanted to do more of that.

“My inspiration was the English Channel. It’s something that was always out there. It’s kind of like the Mount Everest of swimming, and I knew that I wanted to do it, but it takes a lot of resources and a lot of time.”

It also requires disciplined training and adherence to strict rules. Swimmers must wear the same bathing suit (no wet suits or bodysuits) and the same cap, and they cannot touch other humans while completing the swim.

“The idea is we’re all swimming without any assistance in terms of flotation or retaining heat,” says Nevitt,  whose husband perfected the art of tossing bottles of food, tied to a rope, so that they would land within easy reach for what she calls her “feedings” at 30-minute intervals. “The English Channel is generally pretty cold, but I was lucky because it was 63, 64 degrees for my swim, which is considered very warm,” she says. “In general, people would have hypothermia after a few hours in those temperatures, so you have to get used to it. You have to have completed a six-hour swim in 60 degrees or lower to show you have done enough training to withstand cold water. It has to be witnessed and signed.”

Nevitt, who lives in Los Angeles, checked the first box of the triple crown when she completed the Catalina Channel in 2014. She rounded Manhattan in 2015, with an eerie and touching inspiration guiding her through those aforementioned foot cramps.

“My dad [who has passed away] was from Brooklyn,” Nevitt says. “As I went under Brooklyn Bridge, spontaneously, I started hearing him singing in my head: ‘Start spreading the news ... .’ I was so happy and so buoyed by that song (“New York, New York”) that it just changed my mindset and it kept me going until my feet stopped cramping. I was down on myself for not doing a good job and then I imagined my dad, if he were still alive, standing on that bridge. He would have been giggling, happy that I was trying something so crazy. He would have been tickled pink.”

Nevitt readies to swim across the Catalina Channel in 2014. 

Swimming through darkness

Once you commit to swimming the English Channel, you are assigned a boat captain, and your chances of starting the swim are entirely dependent upon the weather and tides. Nevitt found herself third on her captain’s list when she arrived in Dover with Manzella and their son, Nico. After a couple of restive days, the captain told Nevitt the swimmers ahead of her were not ready. She had her opening between a pair of forecasted storms. “Then he said, ‘You’re fine with night swimming, right?’” Nevitt says, laughing.

“In those few hours, I went out to dinner with my family and I don’t think I said a word because I suddenly realized this was happening. I didn’t think I was going to be going so quickly. I wasn’t ready and now it was happening at night.”

As she plunged into the channel in heavy winds, she was submerged by several waves before finding her rhythm. Nevitt gave herself tasks to occupy her mind and make sure she wasn’t experiencing hypothermia, which can dull cognitive function. For the first three hours, she reminded herself of the gratitude she felt toward Manzella for supporting this venture, and for being on the rocky boat that night. For hours four through six, she thought about how hard she had trained to get to this place. As she neared the midpoint of the swim, she watched for boats to see if they were coming from the opposite direction, a clear sign she had passed the halfway point. Over the final half, her thoughts turned to her dad, her sisters, her mom and her son.

All the while, she kept reciting a simple phrase of encouragement: “I’m brave, I’m strong, I’m fast, I’m long.”

Nevitt says she received a massive outpouring of encouragement from family, friends and Exeter classmates. She even received mail in Dover from her Exeter roommate, Alexis Simmons ’84. “It helped me emotionally that I had told everybody I was doing it and they were all following me on this tracker on Facebook,” she says. “I said, ‘You can’t quit now. Everybody is watching.’”

When Nevitt finally walked ashore, she was both elated and exhausted as Frenchmen snapped pictures of her like swimming paparazzi.

I was down on myself for not doing a good job, and then I imagined my dad, if he were still alive, standing on that bridge. He would have been giggling, happy that I was trying something so crazy. He would have been tickled pink."
Rebecca Nevitt

Finding the next inspiration

Now that she has completed the trifecta, Nevitt has set her sights on an even rarer challenge: the Oceans Seven, which includes the frigid North Channel (between Ireland and Scotland), the Cook Strait (New Zealand), the Molokai Channel (Hawaii), the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, the Tsugaru Strait (Japan) and the Strait of Gibraltar (between Spain and Morocco). Seven people have accomplished that feat.

“I’ve already completed Catalina and the English Channel, so I only have five more to go,” she says, laughing.

Her passion for swimming, she says, keeps her young.

“When I lifeguarded at the Wellesley College pool, there was a woman who came in every Saturday to swim,” Nevitt says. “She was in her 90s, and she was energetic, happy, healthy, and swimming! We lifeguards used to say, ‘When I grow up, I want to be like Betty.’ I have a long way to go still, but I hope to be as active as she was in my 90s.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.