An Irish Champion Swimmer & Firefighter that Swam the Channel

If you do a quick google of ‘Rachel Lee swimmer’ you’ll see a barrage of images and articles about her. She is an incredibly accomplished swimmer but when The Makers Stories met with her she didn’t betray any of this legacy. For example in 2012 she won the Liffey Swim and in 2016 she swam the English channel. She is modest and clearly doesn’t like talking about herself. She’s achieved so much and at the young age of thirty-eight. Her life, her dedication and drive is inspiring.

From nursing to the fire brigade


“I used to swim at a very high level. So that’s twice a day, six days a week at national and international level. I gave it up when I started nursing but replaced it with water polo and sea swimming.” She appreciated the head-space that it would give her from her demanding job on the lung cancer ward. Rachel’s career began in nursing in an oncology ward.

After a stint working in nursing in Australia, a country that she spent some of her childhood in, she took up her pastime of swimming again but this time she noted a lot of the swimmers she met worked for the fire brigade. “They kept telling me how brilliant their jobs were and encouraged me to apply. I did some research. I liked the outdoorsy aspect of it as well as the swift-water rescue element. So I went for it and I got it,” she laughs and adds, “I actually panicked when I got it but I just reminded myself that I will always have the nursing if it didn’t work out. But it did work out and I absolutely love it!”

She concedes that working to save victims with the fire brigade can feel isolated. “With nursing, you’re abit softer because you get to know your patient. You’re talking to them and you get to know their family and sometimes they die there with you holding their hand.”

“But in the Fire Brigade that’s not in the case. In the hospital you have your doctor’s support network there. In the fire brigade you could be on your own or just with another guy in the ambulance. So it’s a totally different scenario. You don’t know the victim, you could be in the dark of night, it could be down an alleyway, under a car etc. You don’t know what you’re going to find. It’s not like in the films where everything is perfect.” For example in 2016 she saved a man from the river Liffey as you can read in this Irish article.   

The intense physical training for the fire brigade ran over six months. “It was good craic,” she smiles, “I made some really great friends.” For her the career switch made sense, “I like helping people and I want to be in that kind of role. I like variation and you get that in that fire brigade. I think in life your needs change, maybe you really wanted to be in a certain career at a certain stage but you’ll be disappointed if your role doesn’t adapt to meet your new needs.”

Preparing for the English Channel


“My partner Tom, who also is a firefighter, did the Channel in 2012 whilst I was pregnant with twins. I went on the boat that accompanies the swimmer. I was with him while he did it. And I said, “Oh my God, that was so hard, no way am I going to do that.” But she loves a challenge, “it was in my mind anytime when I went swimming. So after I had the twins, I said I’ll get back to swimming and I did.” She did a 26K race and won it and then decided, “I’ll just apply for the Channel. I didn’t tell Tom but obviously I had to when they accepted my application!”

Anyone that is a caregiver will now how precious time suddenly becomes, “I had to juggle my time with the kids and work and everything else in life.  I’d sit down every Sunday with Tom and we’d plan the week, that way I could fit in a slot of swimming. It wasn’t like when I was younger when I could swim every morning. I had to refocus and that was just that,” she says.

She nearly died on the first attempt


Her first attempt was not successful. “It was choppy when I was starting, it wasn’t nice. Tom was in the accompanying boat. He’s my best friend and he was sharing the boat with his mother. Every other stroke I’d be looking up at them. After a while, I was up right beside them and I couldn’t see Tom’s Mum anywhere.”

She started to panic and question what was happening. The sea started to swell. “I went under the boat because the boat was up. It was absolutely horrific. Finally, the pilot took me out. I said “I’m not getting out!” The pilot starts shouting, “Get out. It’s just too dangerous to go.” So I got in the boat and I found Susan, Tom’s Mum, sitting on the ground of the boat and she was bawling. Then I looked at what we were going back into with this small boat. It was a freak storm, it came in really quickly, it was pretty scary.”

Success & an Irish record on subsequent attempts


“Within the fire brigade we did a two-way crossing the river channel, so it was over and back. There were six of us in that and we broke an Irish record at the time.” When asked what goes through her mind during endurance swims she shrugs her shoulders and laughs. “You totally zone off, your mind kind of goes. The last couple of hours I could see where I was going to land so I needed to stay focused and work really hard. It’s a challenge to land the Channel because the tides are pushing you up and out. You need to swim past that even though you’re tired from swimming for hours. And then when I made it, I was so relieved for obvious reasons but also because of the sacrifice it takes. You can’t just do it on your own, especially with kids. You need a lot of people to help you.”

The highs & lows of the fire brigade


There is no doubt that Rachel is a brave person but she doesn’t see it that way, it’s just the way that she’s made. Her striking blue eyes are the only clue of her intense focus, they hold you as you talk to her. As a member of the fire brigade she’s been punched by a member of the public, her ambulance has been stoned during the 2006 O’Connell street riots. She has seen poverty that is heartbreaking, “some houses have a big telly on the wall but no food in the fridge and children that are starving, the parents are doing their best. And you question how is this allowed to happen in this country?” It’s enough to make anyone quit but she attributes her healthy headspace to mindfulness training. “As you get older and have kids, you start thinking about things maybe a little bit more but you need to have a healthy mind for this job.”

She worked up to a week before she gave birth to her twins. “When I was too big, with the pregnancy, to drive they put me in the control tower,” she laughs. She’s also delivered twins in the course of her job. She’s made friends for life on the job and her children think she is a superhero. “Every day I tell them what I’ve done, they think it’s amazing. It’s probably pretty cool at their age but I don’t know when they’re older how cool it will be to have a Mam that’s a firefighter! But at the moment they think I’m Wonder Woman so I’ll let them think that as long as they want!”

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