In the entire world, only 19 people have ever completed the Oceans 7 challenge, which involves swimming across the world’s open water channels. Among this handful is Mariel Hawley, the very first Mexican woman to achieve such a feat. Mariel joins John Solleder to talk about this incredible experience, particularly when she spent 14 hours and 33 minutes swimming across the English Channel. She also shares how her career impacted the way she sees life, navigating the sharks of reality and allowing the lighthouse within us to serve as a constant source of motivation. Mariel also reflects on how she dealt with her husband’s untimely demise, inspiring her to support charitable institutions for cancer patients and more through her swimming events.
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Mariel Hawley: Meet One Of 19 People To Ever Complete Oceans 7!
It is my distinct pleasure to welcome the very first motivational guest to the show. That’s my new friend from Mexico, Mariel Hawley. Welcome, Mariel. How are you now?
It’s a pleasure for me to be here. I feel honored that you invited me to share with you and to people who will read this about my life story.
I want to tell everybody a little bit about you. Here is a little bit about your background. You’re one of nineteen people, according to Wikipedia, who has swum the Ocean Seven Project. What exactly is that? It’s number one, swimming in the North Channels between Ireland and Scotland, which is 21 miles of swimming. I’m tired already just saying that. Secondly, the Cook Strait between New Zealand‘s North and South Islands, sixteen miles. The Moloka‘i Channel between Moloka‘i and O’ahu, 27 miles. The English Channel between England and France, 21 miles. The Catalina Channel between Santa Catalina and Los Angeles, 21 miles. The Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido islands in Japan, twelve miles. The Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco, ten miles. On top of that, you were the first Mexican woman to complete the Triple Crown, which is the English Channel, Catalina, and Manhattan Island. You were the first Mexican female to do all of these things. All I can say is, “I’m tired of reading it,” to say the least.
For the last, probably, twenty years in my life, I’ve been swimming.
It’s incredible what you’ve done and inspirational. Of course, you’ve done a lot of other inspirational things that we’ll talk about, but let’s stick to swimming for a minute. Which was the toughest and why?
I think the English Channel. The English Channel has a special history in my family. I had a grandfather who had crossed the English Channel. This was a part of my family. The English Channel was something that I’ve heard since I was a young girl. I listened to my granddad. He told me the story about his crossing of the English Channel. He was not crossing the English Channel. He didn’t cross it swimming. He was part of the English Army for the First World War. The very first time I heard this story, it was something that I couldn’t understand. It had no meaning for me being in the war, being a soldier. When I started growing up and I could realize what had been his story, I was impressed with this.The sharks that we have in our minds are more dangerous than those found in the ocean. Click To Tweet
I found out that you could swim on the English Channel. My favorite sport or my favorite activity since I was maybe 3 or 4 years old, was swimming. I said, “I want to swim the English Channel just like my grandfather did.” At that moment, I didn’t realize what I was saying. I had this dream of swimming the English Channel. I think that I worked very hard for the swim. I have been swimming for the last maybe ten years, not every day, having the English Channel in my mind. I even was part of a Mexican relay team. We did a four–way crossing of the English Channel. That was my door, to say it in a way, in order to become an English Channel swimmer.
At that moment, I did it on a relay. I was part of the relay. We did it in 2007. We did a four–way crossing of the English Channel. We did great because we did almost an hour less than an Australian team that had established the record. At that moment, I was like, “This is the English Channel.“ We did it with a four–way crossing. We did our Guinness Record, which is still I don’t know the name of the work. It’s still became paid. I realized that what I wanted to do next was my individual swim of the English Channel. I started working since maybe 2007 in order to become an English Channel swimmer, but not as part of a team, but as an individual.
I shared all this with my father. My father was great as a team member, as to say it in a way. He was a doctor so he was going to be my doctor on board for the boat on the English Channel. He passed away three months before my swim. That was a very hard moment. I had to make up my mind if I was ready to do the English Channel swim or not. I finally decided that I was doing the swim. It was very hard because of both things. First, I had this emotional part that was very personal. I was missing my dad. I knew he was going to be so proud of me swimming the English Channel. I had worked with him a few years ago in order to raise funds for surgeries. I knew that I was swimming, at that moment, on the English Channel. That part of what I was doing was also raising funds for surgeries.
My father was not alive anymore, but I knew that in a sense, in a way, he could realize everything that I was doing. Also, I had a terrible day to swim the English Channel. That’s something that I didn’t know it was going to happen. I started swimming around 8:30 in the morning. Mike Oram, who was the captain of the boat and he’s still captain of the boat for escort boat for swimmers in the English Channel, called me the night before. He said, “Mariel, you have your opportunity tomorrow. The only thing is that you’re going to start with wind. We are wishing for the wind to decrease during the day. The call is yours. You decide whether you want to try it or not.” I had been waiting in Dover for almost nine days.
When he told me that the next day was going to be my last opportunity, I said, “I want to try it. I’m going to give it a try.” I was there swimming for almost 9.5 hours. I was becoming very cold. I had started at 8:00 in the morning. I knew it was around mid-afternoon. It was going to be dark soon. I thought I was going to be colder. The wind had increased instead of decreasing. I was swimming with high surf. It was a very hard swim. It was a little bit rainy. It was very windy and cloudy. I was getting very cold, and I thought, “What am I doing here?“ I couldn’t even see France from the point I was at that moment. I was almost about 9.5 hours into the swim. I was there in the middle of the Channel, not knowing if I was going to be able to keep on going or not.
That was a hard moment because I knew I had to stop drinking my feed. Every 30 minutes, I have a drink. At that moment, I was very cold. I was shedding water. I don’t know how to say this in English. I was there, waiting for my bottle to be thrown from the boat. I was in a terrible moment in my life because I shouted, “I can’t keep going. I want to get out of the water. I can’t keep going anymore. I don’t want to swim anymore.” When I realized that I was saying these words, I started crying. I was giving up. That’s what I realized after shouting, “I don’t want to be here. I want to get out. I’m not ready to keep swimming. I’m very cold. I don’t want to keep swimming.” When I realized I was saying these words, I started crying because I realized I was giving up on a dream that I had for almost half my life. I decided that I was going to swim for 30 minutes. In that 30 minutes, I had to make up my mind. I had to decide if I was going to jump into the boat or keep going.
It was a very complicated moment not only for my swim but for my life because that meant I had two options. Either to keep swimming until I got to France. How long was it going to take me? I didn’t know at the moment, or jump into the boat, hold the swim, forget about it, and have another try. During that 30 minutes, many things came into my mind. My father, grandfather, and children were waiting for me in Dover. They were hoping for their mother to finish the English Channel swim. I had the surgeries in my mind, surgeries for children with cleft lip and palate. I didn’t have to think anymore. I had to keep swimming. That’s what I did. I kept swimming and swimming until I got out of the water, 14 hours and 33 minutes.
We can stop the interview right there and everybody just got inspired. It’s an incredible story. It’s so motivational. Let me ask you this. Thinking of your granddad as you swim, your granddad was going for a much different purpose way back in World War I, what were your emotions or maybe inspiration thinking of his journey there versus your journey there?
At that moment, when I was almost about to quit, I remember what he had told me a few years before. He said that when he was on the boat crossing the English Channel, the only thing he wanted to see again in his life was the Dover Cliffs. When you start crossing the English Channel, Dover has this very high cliff. He was there in the middle of the Channel, and he was watching the cliffs. He said that’s the only thing he wanted to see again in life. I realized at that moment that what he was meaning is that if he saw the cliffs again, it’s because he returned alive from France. He returned victorious, as to say it in a way.
I was there swimming and I said, “This is such a different story.” I also want to see the cliffs again. I also want to go to Dover again, but I also want to return victorious in a way that I know I can do it. The only way for me to return victorious to Dover is because I had finished the swim. Otherwise, it was going to be like, “What happened?” I could say the water was very cold. I had a terrible day. It was very windy. It had a huge surf. It wasn’t enough. The only way I feel I could return victorious from this swim was to finish the swim. That’s what I did. I finished the swim.
What was the coldest water of all those channels?
The North Channel. After swimming the North Channel, the English Channel is like jacuzzi time. It’s only about a 4 or 5 centigrade difference, but it’s such an impact on your body. Also, the North Channel, swimming from North Ireland to Scotland, is longer than the English Channel. The English Channel is about 21 miles, and the North Channel is about 23, 24 miles. The two–mile difference impacts on you, but also the temperature of the water. Let me tell you this story. I felt I was very acquainted with cold water because I had swum the English Channel, and then I swam the Catalina Channel, and then I swam the two other channels. I felt confident with swimming in cold water.
In Mexico, it’s complicated to have cold water. I live in Mexico City, but I’m in Tijuana, which is northwest of Mexico. The water in Tijuana doesn’t get below 14, 15 centigrade. I needed to train in the water around 10, 12 centigrade. I flew to San Francisco, California. The first time I got into the water in San Francisco was the year 2018 in January. I wanted to be in San Francisco in January because I wanted to swim maybe during the weekend. I was going to spend maybe six hours in San Francisco, not continuously. I got into San Francisco on Friday, and I wanted to swim for two hours. On Saturday, another two hours, and then on Sunday before coming back to Mexico, after arriving in San Francisco.
It was a beautiful January day, blue sky, sunny day. I went into the water. I could only swim for about 35 minutes. It was so cold that my teeth hurt. It was terrible. I got out of the water. I started crying because I said, “How on earth am I going to swim for six hours or more with this cold water?” I had to do a test. I had to swim for six hours, and I had to swim six hours in water less than 13 centigrade. I was there for 35 minutes, and I couldn’t keep going. I was like, “How on earth am I going to do this?” That was complicated. The next day, I swam for an hour. I was so proud because I could be in the water for one hour. In April, I came back to San Francisco. I swam for six hours continuously. The water was 13.2 centigrade. That was not good enough for the North Channel.
I had to do eight hours in water at 13 centigrade. After doing this training of eight hours, I came out of the water and said, “I’m going to swim the North Channel.” Four months ago, I couldn’t even stay in the water for more than 40 minutes. Now, I swam for eight hours in San Francisco Bay. I went to the Golden Gate and then back, and then went to the Bay Bridge and then back. Around the Aquatic Park, I felt like a seal and I could do it. That ensured me that I was going to be able to swim the North Channel. I traveled to Northern Ireland. I was in the place where the swim starts. It’s called Donaghadee. It’s a little town bit near Bangor. I was there for about 2 or 3 days before my swim. I wanted to swim in the bay to see how I felt.
I felt so strong because I thought that I had my training and then I was ready to swim. Yes, I was ready to swim. I had an extraordinary day on the North Channel, very cold, but I could do it. Also, what helped me to do the swim is something that maybe you will do a phrase like, “What are you talking about?” The jellyfish. I had so many jellyfish stung during the whole time. That kept me thinking on something else instead of thinking of the cold water. It was impressive. I had never had so many jellies during my swim. I swam the North Channel in 13 hours and 15 minutes. It was the coldest.
I know you’ve encountered sharks as well in the water. Let me ask you this, Mariel, sharks in the water, and then there are sharks in life, how do you deal with them? Be it in both cases.
The hardest sharks are not in the water. It’s complicated. I had this encounter with the sharks during my swim at the Moloka‘i Channel in Hawaii, which you have to swim from Moloka‘i Island to O’ahu. It’s a very long swim. It’s the longest of the Ocean Seven swims. It’s almost 40 kilometers. It’s longer than the English Channel and the North Channel. It’s very complicated. You have to swim through the night because you start swimming around mid-afternoon. You swim during the whole night because weather conditions are much better during the night. You have less wind. It’s better to swim during the night. I had a lot of jellies also at that time, but the water was not cold. I was swimming comfortably during the night. The only thing I wanted is to see daylight again.
I was getting a little bit cold. I have been in the water for almost twelve hours. I knew that after twelve hours, I was going to be very near O’ahu. I was wishing for the morning again. When it started dawning and I could see the light from the sun, I said, “The worst part is over.” I was thinking this until I listened to a shout that said, “Mariel, there is a shark.” I was like, “No, please. I thought that the worst was over. Where is the shark?” Maybe you saw the movie, Jaws. I was there in the water, treading water. I was looking around me because I wanted to see the shark. The shark was below me. I wanted to walk on water. The man who was kayaking for me said, “What is it, Mariel? Come on. Don’t get distracted. Keep on swimming.” I was like, “How can you tell me not to get distracted? There is a shark.” He said, “Come on. It’s only a shark.” He said, “What were you expecting? You’re swimming in the ocean.” That was very impressive for me.
He said, “Mariel, in order to swim the Kaiwi Channel, you have to overcome a lot of fears. Sharks are one of those fears.” I was like, “This is a life lesson. I’m here in the middle of the Kaiwi Channel receiving this life lesson.” I’m going to repeat what he said, “In order to swim our life channel, we have to overcome a lot of fears. Sharks are only one of those fears.” Maybe you’re going to tell me, “Mariel, come on. We won’t encounter sharks.” I’m going to answer you, “The worst sharks exist in the mirror, when you look at the mirror.“ Those sharks are terrible. We don’t want those kinds of sharks around in our lives. That’s the reason I say that the most complicated and dangerous sharks are not in the water. The sharks that we have in our minds are the most dangerous. Everyone has their sharks.
I read your book a couple of times, Water Days, which we’ll talk about as we get to the end. I read Water Days a couple of times and enjoyed it. It’s very well-written and inspirational. There’s so much to it. We could talk on hours for it. One of the metaphors that I picked up that you used is about the lighthouse that you saw on one of your swims. You use that in such a way as inspirational. It seemed like not only a motivational moment, but also a spiritual moment. Talk about that a little bit about how that kept you going on one of our swims.
Thank you. That’s also during the Kaiwi Channel in Hawaii. I was swimming during the night, and I started feeling dizzy. You never have a point that you can see. Everything moves. I couldn’t see anything. I was very dizzy swimming. At that moment, I saw a light. At first, I thought it was the light from the guiding boat. The guiding boat was a little bit further in front of me. I thought that was the light from the boat. That light started moving against. I was dizzier than before. I saw two lights. I said, “What is it? Why do the guiding boat have two lights?” I realized that the second light that I had seen was the lighthouse from O’ahu. It was such great news for me because I said, “That’s where I need to continue swimming. That’s where I want to get to. That’s my finish point.”
I remembered when I was very young, I was spending a few days in Acapulco with my parents. Acapulco is a place and beach in Mexico. We go and have vacations there. I was about 5 or 6 years old, during the night, watching the ocean. I saw a light that appeared and then disappeared. I asked my dad, “What is it? Why is that light appearing and disappearing?” He said, “That’s the lighthouse.” I had never heard of the word lighthouse. I didn’t understand what the lighthouse was. At that moment, he explained to me that the lighthouse is like the guide for the boats that are traveling the ocean. When they see the lighthouse, the light from the lighthouse, they know where to go. It’s like their guide during the night. When I started seeing the lighthouse from O’ahu, I realized that I was near. I was swimming in the correct way. The lighthouse became my guiding point.
One of the statements in your book is, “A warrior must know pain.” Sometimes we hear people doing amazing stuff like what you’ve done in your life. We think, “This person has no problem. She gets up, she swims, she eats, she goes to sleep, she rests.” No, you have gone through not only any incredible athletic accomplishment, but you raised a family. Unfortunately, I know your husband passed away at a fairly young age during this whole process. That statement, “A warrior must know pain,” got to be something very personal to you. Do you want to talk about how you’ve used that to motivate yourself and keep yourself going through the difficult times as well as the good times? The good times are easy to get through. It’s those other times. Talk about that a little bit, if you would.
When I’ve finished the English Channel, a few years after that, I swam the Catalina Channel. My family and kids were growing up. My husband was a lawyer. We were both working. One day, he started not feeling well. He said, “I’m not feeling well.” We never thought he had something complicated. What happened is that he had brain cancer. The doctor had asked for a meeting because he wanted to let us know the results of all the studies he had performed on Eduardo. We were there and maybe we didn’t know what to expect. He was not feeling well, but we never expected this complicated diagnosis. When the doctor said that Eduardo had brain cancer, at that moment, my world started to fall apart. It was so complicated to listen to this.Always desire to have a heart just like the heart of the sea, which is at peace at all times. Click To Tweet
I was afraid. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I don’t want to talk a lot about this, but I can tell you that Eduardo went under three surgeries. He had all the chemotherapy and all the radiotherapy a human can have. I can tell you that he was so strong and so brave. He was a great warrior. Every day in one year that this cancer lasted in his life, he woke up smiling. All the time, he was like, “What’s next? I’m going to leave now. I’m not in fear.” I was so impressed with his attitude. I can tell you that after a year, while we won a lot of battles, but now he’s a star in the sky.
When he passed away, it was so painful for me and my children. I thought that I was drowning in life. I could swim the English Channel and the Catalina Channel, but this kind of swim is much more complicated than an ocean swim. During his almost last week of life, we didn’t know that, my son, Lalo, didn’t want to go to school anymore because he wants to stay at home to take care of his dad. He didn’t need to do that because while was my husband was well taken care of, I was here with him. Lalo, my son, wanted to spend most of his time with his dad. I told him, “Lalo, would you like to swim with me in the Gibraltar Strait?“ We were hoping that my husband was getting better. We didn’t know he was not getting better, but that’s what we were told. A few weeks after that, he passed away.
At that moment, I didn’t have any swim in my mind. I thought that I was never going to return to swim again. Lalo, my son, said something to me that shocked me. He said, “Mother, I want to swim the Gibraltar Strait.” I was like, “What are you talking about? We’re not swimming anymore.” He said, “Yes, mom. I’m going to swim with you in the Gibraltar Strait. Diane,“ my youngest daughter, “is going to come with us because I want to swim this in order to honor my dad.” How could I say no if I had done the same thing with my own dad maybe three years before?
That’s what I mean when I say that a warrior must know pain. This is the kind of pain that makes you feel that your world is falling apart, and then you have to start over again. When we swam the Gibraltar Strait, it was a very special swim. At that moment, we, as a family, realized that life keeps going. It’s very hard to say it in this way. When a person you love passes away, the pain is so strong that you feel that you cannot keep living, but then you realize that life keeps going and that you have to keep living. That time, I swam the Gibraltar Strait with my son and with my daughter, taking care of her mother.
Mariel, it’s amazing the life that you’ve led and the people that you’ve inspired. As we get to the end of this, let me ask you this. I know there are some things that you’re doing to help other people. How can our readers help those people as well?
Thank you for asking me this because this is very important for me. I think it’s been part of my life since I was very young. My father, as I said before, was a surgeon. He worked all his life in order to help people. My mother is a nurse. I think that I grew up with is this being a daughter of a doctor and a nurse. When I started open water swims, at that moment, I decided that I wanted to do something for someone else through my swims. I wanted to raise funds. I wanted to help other people, so Mexican, poor, or low-income people that had certain medical problems. For many years, I swam in order to raise funds for children with cleft lip and palate for their surgeries. That’s something that my dad also did for many years of his life. That was very important for me. I shared this project with him.
That’s the reason I swam for surgeries for children with cleft lip and palate. After my husband got sick and he had brain cancer, I decided that I also wanted to help other families that were dealing with the cancer problem. I decided that I wanted to help a Mexican institution that works with low–income Mexican children with cancer. The name of this institution is Casa de la Amistad para Niños con Cáncer. The name in English would be like Friendship House for Children with Cancer. If someone you know or someone who is reading this would like to donate, it would be great. I think that’s something that we can do. What I’ve seen through these is that it’s a way of thanking every blessing that I have. When you donate, when you help other people, when you put your hand for someone else, it’s a way of saying, “I’ve had so many blessings. This is a way I would like to thank all for the blessings that I have.” I’m thankful for giving me the opportunity to express this, to ask for your help, and for letting me share my story with you. It’s CasaDeLaAmistad.org.mx.
If you’d like to help, that would be a wonderful organization. What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m working on translating Corazón de Mar, which is a book I shared with you. I’m also working on opening new swimming routes in Mexico. We have beautiful sites. I swam the Bahía de Banderas. Maybe you know where Puerto Vallarta is. That is in a huge bay, the second largest in America, just after the Hudson Bay in Alaska. Bahía de Banderas is the largest bay in Mexico and in South America. I swam from Punta de Mita to Cabo Chimo. That’s a long–distance swim. It was 34 kilometers. It was almost the distance of the English Channel, but it’s from one point of the bay to another one.
It was a great swim. I’m trying to open new swimming routes in Mexico. Also, the year before that, I swam from San Jose del Cabo to Cabo San Lucas. Maybe you know Los Cabos. It’s a 32-kilometer swim. In 2021, I’m looking forward to swimming to Marietas Islands and also in Bahía de Banderas. I’m working in a Mexican nonprofit organization as my day–to–day basis work. That’s something that I need to be very concentrated on. I’m going to keep swimming and writing. I’m going to keep working in order to swim, write, and share more adventures with you.
You’ve had an adventurous life, to say the least. Last couple of quick questions. I know you met Michael Phelps. What was that like?
He was great. He was in Mexico a few years ago. They were having a dinner party for him to celebrate him. I was invited to the dinner party. The most important thing I had to do that week was to go to the dinner. When he arrived at the dinner, he was so normal like you and me. He was smiling all the time. Maybe at that moment, he was not this huge figure he’s now. I haven’t seen him since that time. Maybe he continues to be like that. He was so nice to me. He was interested first that I was Mexican. He didn’t know I was an open water swimmer. When I told him that I had swum the English Channel, he was like, “Really? You swam the English Channel?” I was like, “Yes. I’m here with you.” I had a picture with him. He was very nice. He was very young at that moment, but he was this incredible swimmer. He had been the top Olympian. It was about several years ago when he was here in Mexico. It was very special for me.
Let’s talk about Water Days a little bit. That’s your book that is in both English and Spanish. I know it’s on Amazon. Tell us a little bit about it.
I wrote that book after I finished the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. That’s the book I mentioned my English Channel swim, Catalina swim, and Manhattan Island swim. People who have read this book came to me and told me, “Mariel, you made me cry.” I was like, “I’m just sharing my emotions with you.” I think that instead of it being a swimming book, it’s more like an emotional book. Maybe you can agree with me on that. I think it’s still on Amazon and Kindle in English. If someone is interested and you cannot have it by Amazon, you can write to me and I will send it to you.
How do they get in touch with you?
They can get in touch with me by email, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. My email is MarielHawley@Yahoo.com.mx.We have to overcome a lot of fears in life, and the sharks are only one of those fears. Click To Tweet
Mariel, I know we’re a little bit limited on time on your end, but this has been inspirational, motivational, and incredible. You have had an incredible life. You have motivated so many people. There are so many people who are going to hear this and be motivated by everything that you’ve done. A good friend of mine, Jim Rohn, wrote a book a number of years ago called The Seasons of Life. It was a metaphor for the seasons. He said, “Since the beginning of time, what’s there been? Seed, soil, sunshine, rain, a miracle of life.” You’ve taken all of those things and turned them into an incredible life. Congratulations. As we say in Mexico, fantastico.
I’m going to finish with something that I know that I’m sure that you know. When I swam the first time in the Tsugaru Channel, I had a storm coming. I was so mad because I was swimming during the storm. That was my opportunity to swim the Tsugaru Channel in Japan. I was so mad because the captain of the boat asked me to quit the swim. I couldn’t keep going. I was swimming. When I had my head on the water, I saw that the heart of the sea was in total peace. It was calm. It was a shock for me because I said, “This is what I want to have in life. For all the storms in my life, I want to have a heart like the heart of the sea, which is all the time at peace.“
Thank you so much. I‘m signing off. Our show is on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and a number of other shows around the world. I’m also the author of Leave Nothing to Chance and Moving Up: 2020 and Beyond. It’s available on Amazon. Once again, I want to thank my good new, inspirational friend, Mariel Hawley. Thank you once again, my friend.
Thank you, John, for inviting me.
- Mariel Hawley
- Water Days
- The Seasons of Life
- Leave Nothing to Chance
- Moving Up: 2020 and Beyond
- Apple Podcasts – Leaving Nothing To Chance