Mike Miller had been swimming in the green water of the English Channel for 12 hours last August when he noticed his crew looked worried.
He needed to pick up the pace, the crew told him from the bobbing support boat a few dozen feet away.
If he didn’t hit a certain window, the tide would make it difficult – if not impossible – to reach the northern coast of France and possibly prevent him from successfully swimming across the English Channel after 10 months of training.
He called to the boat: Did he still have a chance?
“At that point, I knew he was going to make it,” says his sister Maureen Kafkis, who was on the boat. “Then he just did it.”
Fifteen hours and 15 minutes after leaving Dover, England, Miller climbed onto the beach near Calais, France, one of 58 solo swimmers to traverse the 21-mile-wide English Channel in 2014.
Two weeks shy of his 55th birthday, Miller, who lives in Charlotte’s Stonehaven neighborhood, was the oldest swimmer to cross the English Channel in 2014.
“It still is sinking in, almost,” Miller said. “I don’t know how to describe it.… I’ll just have moments where I’m like, ‘I swam the English Channel.’… It’s rare. It’s an accomplishment. Years ago I thought, I don’t know if I’ll ever do it.”
Miller now has set his sights on the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in 2016, which – along with the English Channel and the Catalina Channel Swim he completed in 2011 – would give him the open-water marathon swimming “Triple Crown.”
‘This is wild, this is great’
Miller, the rehabilitation director at The Pavilion in Ballantyne, swam for clubs in his native Ohio from age 10 to 18. He later competed in triathlons but quit those to focus on swimming.
“If you ever saw me run, I’m a much better swimmer,” he said.
His entered his first open-water swim – the 11/2-mile Alcatraz swim – in the late 1980s while living in San Francisco.
“I was smiling and laughing the whole time, literally, because I kept thinking… ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this,’” Miller said. “You have the Golden Gate bridge to your right, there was 800 swimmers, getting clawed at and kicked at, and I just thought, ‘This is wild, this is great.’ It’s kind of an adrenaline rush.”
He made shorter open-water swims until 2006, when he completed the 12.5-mile Swim Around Key West. That got him hooked on longer distances.
In 2010, Miller attempted the Catalina Channel Swim, a more than 20-mile swim off the coast of California.
The water was unseasonably cold – it fell from 62 to 57 degrees – and Miller quit after seven hours. The next year, he came back and finished.
But from the moment he started open-water swimming, Miller’s goal was to swim the English Channel.
‘He needs a challenge’
Miller, soft-spoken with traces of gray in his close-cut hair and goatee, thrives on long-term goals. He currently is training for September’s Swim Around Charleston, a 12-mile swim along the city’s rivers and harbor.
“He needs a challenge,” said his husband, Brian Harstine, who has been with Miller for 12 years and helps him train. “He needs something to focus on like that to challenge himself. He would not be happy sitting around.… His personality is to do something extreme like that; that’s totally him.”
Miller’s training for the channel swim started with pool swimming and weight training, progressed to lake swims and finally four- to five-hour swims in the ocean off Wrightsville Beach, where the rough waves helped him deal with the 4-foot swells of the English Channel.
He mostly swims alone, with Harstine kayaking beside him to support and pace him. Harstine once spent 12 hours on a kayak on Watauga Lake in Tennessee.
“It’s just unbelievable,” said Harstine. “You sit there and watch him, and after 10 hours of swimming, he has the exact same stroke count as he did the first hour. It always just amazes me that he can do that.”
Miller also prepared his body for the cold of the water by packing 25 extra pounds onto his 6-foot-3-inch frame to get to a swimming weight of 230 pounds. He took cold showers for six months, sat in an ice tub in his backyard and walked his dog – a black lab named Luke – in a T-shirt and shorts in cold weather.
When he jumped into the English Channel with his brief-style bathing suit, swim cap and goggles, the 63-degree water didn’t feel cold, he said.
Making the swim
English Channel swimmers are assigned a seven-day window, and one of 22 boat captains decides when the weather and water is right to start. Some swimmers never get the opportunity to cross.
Miller was assigned Aug.2-8. His captain, Andy King, decided he would start at 3 a.m. Aug. 4. His crew included Harstine, Kafkis and friends Alan Cook and Marcie Rollins.
His swim was broken into 30-minute segments. Between each, he treaded water, got his heated high-carbohydrate energy drink from the support boat – named the Louise Jane – and drank it for about 30 seconds before starting again.
Miller decided to think about a different person in his life for each 30-minute segment. At the beginning, he thought mostly about his mother, Sally, who died in 2005.
“I just talked to her a lot of the way,” said Miller, who also thought a lot about his father, Dutch. “Stuff like, ‘Do you believe I’m doing this? I’ve got to be nuts. Just watch over me, keep me safe.’”
The English Channel is 21 miles wide where Miller crossed, but the current forced him into a zig-zag pattern, and he actually swam about 27 miles.
He knew he was getting close to the end when one of the captain’s crew members got into a dinghy to escort Miller to the beach.
“With England, I was in a fair amount of pain, and that went away when I knew I was going to make it,” Miller said. “When I touched bottom for the first time… I started almost crying underwater.”
Miller stood on the beach for two minutes. Any longer and his body could begin shutting down or hypothermia could set in.
He turned to the boat and raised his arms in the air. A French man was playing on the beach with his daughter; they clapped.
Then Miller got back into the water and swam to the dinghy, which took him back to the support boat for the nearly three-hour return trip to England.
“I was totally in awe that he did it the first time,” said Kafkis, one of Miller’s nine siblings. “It makes me feel proud of him. It just makes your heart swell with love and pride.”
Back in Dover the next day, Miller visited the White Horse pub, where the walls are covered with signatures of successful English Channel swimmers from around the world.
He was so tired that he had to hold his arm up to sign the wall in black ink. He was so tired that he misspelled his name – “Mike Mille” – and he was so tired that he only noticed it later when friends and family were taking pictures of it.
He added the “r” in blue pen.