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Volume 26, Number 3May/June 1975

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Queen of the Nile

"After the Channel, the Nile will be easy!"

Written by Anthony Hogan
Photographed by John Feeney

Cairo's Abla Khairy, the youngest swimmer ever to beat the English Channel, wants to try it again. This time, though, she wants to break the Channel record and sees no reason why she can't. "Now that I've done it once, the psychological factor no longer will be as important," Abla said. "With better conditions than I had in August, I can concentrate on the stroke. I know I can do it."

She probably can. Last August, at the age of 13, stocky, determined Abla made the grueling 21-mile swim from England to France despite five-foot waves and chill temperatures dismaying to a girl accustomed to Egypt's tepid waters. She made it, furthermore, in 12 hours and 30 minutes, three hours under the mark set by 14-year-old Leonore Modell—previously the youngest Channel swimmer—and only two hours and 45 minutes more than Lynn Cox's record for women 16 and over.

In the meantime, Abla is preparing for another go at the annual Nile River race—a swim she now views with confidence. "After the Channel the Nile will be easy." She also shops a lot—for clothes mostly—goes to the movies and, with some prodding, reminisces about the now-famous swim and the circumstances that led to the decision to try it.

In a sense, that decision goes back to her birth. For Abla's mother, Inas Hakky Khairy, was also a long distance swimmer who, 22 years ago, tried the Channel herself. She didn't make it but never lost hope that one of her three children would. "I tried to interest my two older daughters, but it didn't take," Mrs. Khairy said. "I had more or less given up when Abla, at seven, began to show interest."

The actual decision, however, was made in 1974 when Abla finished second in the annual Nile River race in which swimmers trace a figure eight around the Gezira and Rhoda islands in the Nile. The distance, 21.5 miles, is supposed to be the same as the usual Channel route from Dover, England, to Cap Gris Nez, France, but in fact, because of tides, the Channel distance is close to 34 miles.

Heartened by that victory and encouraged by the Egyptian Long Distance Swimming Federation—which for 20 years has been backing Egyptian swimmers in such international competitions as the Naples-Capri and Lake Michigan races—Abla began to train in earnest. Each day for six hours she swam at the Gezira Sporting Club pool, concentrating on short-distance spurts to build endurance. At other times she swam in the Nile. She also undertook exercises—working out with weights and doing pull-ups—to build up her arms and legs for the punishing hours ahead. Finally, she spent a few days in the Mediterranean off Alexandria—in an attempt to prepare for the fierce channel chop—and headed for Britain.

Swimming there, she said, was a shock. Although she finished third among women competitors in a 17-mile tune-up race across Lake Windermere on August 4, she was dismayed by the temperature of the water compared to the tepid waters of Egypt. "Windermere was so cold I didn't see how I was ever going to last in the Channel," she said. She was so nervous, in fact, that on the morning of the swim—August 18—she remained in her room at the Amsterdam Guest House until 11 a.m. But then, with her mother, her coach, Abul Fattah Shafshak, and other members of the swimming federation she went down to the shore, eyed the slate-gray sky and the rough seas breaking on the Dover beach and, at 12:29 p.m., entered the Channel.

As she had expected, the water, despite her head-to-toe coating of grease, seemed icy and after two hours she wanted to stop. But except for pauses to gulp black coffee and swallow hearty helpings of apple sauce, bananas and glucose, she didn't stop. Hour after hour she swam on.

Then night came and with it fear. "My mother was holding a light over the edge of the boat but I'm myopic a bit and I couldn't see it," Abla said. "I thought I was lost and that I'd never get out of the water even if I died."

But again she kept going, her arms feeling as heavy as the weights she had lifted back in Cairo. "I knew I was close," Abla said, "but I thought I would have to quit."

So did her mother who, poignantly remembering her own efforts in the same waters, knew exactly what Abla was going through. "The waves were four to five feet high and smashing into the side of the boat," Mrs. Khairy said. "I started to cry because I was sure she wasn't going to make it and she had come so far."

But Abla did make it. At a place called "Bloody Rocks" on the French coast, her foot touched land and she was hauled aboard. It was 12:59 a.m. August 19, 12 hours and 30 minutes after her departure from England.

Later, Abla shivered as she recalled that moment. "All I could think of was that name: 'Bloody Rock!' " She remembered that everyone was shouting as they pulled her into the boat and that someone told her she had beaten the time of Leonore Modell, the previous youngest Channel swimmer, by just over three hours. "But I was just happy to be out of the water," Abla said, "and on the way back to England I was seasick. It took days to get over it."

In the meantime she had become a celebrity. In Britain headlines read "Queen of the Nile Conquers Channel," which she liked, and "Water Baby Beats Channel," which she didn't. Her two older sisters, it seems, had teased her about being the baby in the family.

In Cairo the treatment was even more enthusiastic. Newspapers there splashed photos of Abla giving the thumbs-up sign after the swim, crowds of spectators cheered her return and friends kept telephoning congratulations. But the high point was her presentation to President Anwar Sadat, who awarded Abla and Jihan Metwalli, 17, another Channel swimmer, the Order of the Republic for Sports, First Class. "It was a dream come true," said Abla, "because that's why I swam the channel—for Egypt."

Anthony Hogan is a veteran newsman now living and free-lancing out of Cairo.

This article appeared on pages 20-25 of the May/June 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1975 images.