ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Samantha Simon has been fearless for as long as her parents can remember.
"Sam was a toddler in her little bouncy walker thing," said her father, Paul. "One day, she went tumbling down the steps in it. My wife (Kelly) and I scream, 'Oh, my God! Sam, are you OK!?"'
She was laughing and dragging the walker back up the stairs for another go at it. "We knew from a very early age that Sam was going to be our little daredevil," Paul said.
Today, Sam is a 20-year-old distance swimmer for the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and a daring, open-water marathoner braving the high seas.
She conquered the coveted English Channel swim at 19 last summer and plans to complete the Triple Crown of marathon swimming this summer when she takes on the Manhattan Island Swim on June 12 and the Catalina Channel swim off the coast of California on Aug. 1-2.
That's more than 70 miles of swimming. Dangerous swimming. Swimming that fewer than 40 people have ever completed.
At least since Aug. 25, 1875, when Great Britain's Matthew Webb became the first known person to swim from England to France through the Strait of Dover.
Simon's 21-mile route across the frigid English Channel was stretched to 26 miles, 13 hours, 10 minutes and 45 seconds when a storm packing 25-foot swells blew her off course. She'll attempt 28 1/2 more miles around Manhattan with 24 other swimmers this month. Then another 26 across the Catalina Channel in warmer water that's more comfortable -- except, of course, for the sharks and the 11:30 p.m. starting time that's necessary because of afternoon tides.
"It's cool that not many people have done all this before, but that's not the motivation," said Simon, a Janesville, Wis., native who just completed her sophomore year at St. Thomas. "I don't care if a million people have done it. The motivation is the personal challenge. I like the saying, 'That which does not kill you makes you stronger.' When I heard it the first time, I thought, 'You know, that makes a lot of sense."'
Marathon swimmers refer to the English Channel swim as their "Mount Everest." But even fewer people have successfully crossed the channel than have reached the top of the world.
When Simon reached the shores of France in the darkness of Aug. 17, 2009, she joined a group of about 1,100 people who have made about 1,400 successful crossings. By comparison, there have been about 3,000 trips to the top of the 29,032-foot Mount Everest.
"Only 10 percent of the people who attempt the English Channel actually finish," said Tom Hodgson, the Tommies swim coach. "But when I found out Sam was going to try it, I never questioned whether she'd finish. Even when the storm rolled in and the waves were 20-some feet, I can't imagine that the thought of quitting ever occurred to Sam."
"There was no way I would have gotten out of the water willingly," Simon said. "And I told my parents they couldn't pull me out either. No matter how bad the weather got."
Paul and Kelly were in the 30-foot escort boat along with a captain, a first mate and an official from the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation (CS & PF), the governing body of English Channel swimming. The captain has the authority to end the attempt but let Simon continue because she was already 4 1/2 hours into and just past the halfway point when the storm hit.
"Mother Nature showed up and said, 'Sorry, I'm not going to make it easy for you,"' Paul said. "The swells were so high and the boat was rocking so much, there were times when we lost sight of Sam. I'd say, 'Oh, my God, where did my kid go?' Once, we were up on a wave, looked down and it looked like she was directly under the boat."
It wasn't long before Kelly, the first mate and the CS & PF official were vomiting over the side of the boat. The captain became nauseated and had to lie down twice. Meanwhile, the burly 250-pound Paul kept his eyes on Sam.
"Sam's 5-2 and weighs nothing," Paul said. "I'm the fat guy in the family. I'm there to carry the suitcases and be the anchor that keeps the boat in the water. I just hung on for dear life. I knew that if I fell off the boat or for some reason I had to jump in and try to save my daughter, I was going to die. So I just kept yelling for Sam to swim as fast as she could to France."
Sam wasn't afraid. "I didn't really notice the waves because I was going with them the whole time," she said. "A couple of times, I got too close to the boat and banged into it. But that's about it."
Normally, when a person swims the English Channel, the escort party follows the swimmer to shore. Photos are taken, hugs are exchanged and everybody gets back on the boat for the trip back to England. That wasn't the case for Simon.
The French government said it was too dangerous for a boat to reach shore. Simon would have to swim in alone and then swim back some 800 yards to the boat.
"The waves are crashing in and here's little Sam having to fight back through them to get to the boat," Paul said. "The waves kept picking her up and throwing her into the rocks. By the time she finally made it back to the boat, she had lost her goggles, her swim cap, and her legs were all cut up."
Simon slept on the boat ride back to England and for about another day after that. In 2012, she plans to attempt the even rarer double crossing. She'll swim from England to France, turn around and swim right back to England.
A birthday trip
Simon's marathon swimming career began in 2008 when she asked her parents if her 18th birthday present could be a trip to Florida for the 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon.
"So we loaded up the van and drove from Janesville to Tampa," Paul said. "As a parent, you scratch your head, look at each other and say, 'Are we nuts for letting her do this?' But as Sam says, 'You can come along and ride in the boat or I'll just do it myself.' So we ride in the boat. We're the feeding crew."
Simon's older sister, Nikki, was a more natural athlete. Younger brother Matt plays football and runs track at Janesville Craig High. Sam played just about every sport growing up, but her skill didn't always match the size of her heart.
The family still laughs about the time one of Sam's gymnastics routines went awry when she was 12. With only one hand on the bar, Sam dangled for several moments, trying desperately to get her other hand on the bar. Paul and Kelly were among those in the gym yelling, "Just let go, Sam."
"I'm competitive," said Sam, who set the Tommies' school record in the 400 individual medley this year. "So no way I was letting go of that bar. I got some terrible score. Like a 5.5 or something. But I finished. I guess I'm a little clumsy on land, but I'm OK in the water."
Nikki, who lives in London, is the one who suggested Sam attempt the English Channel. Sam took it as a challenge. She increased her time in the pool and also began swimming in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior so that her body would adjust to colder water.
Before attempting the English Channel swim, one must prove he or she can spend at least six hours in water that's 60 degrees or colder. Simon did that in March 2009 when she swam six hours in 57-degree weather off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif.
She became disoriented and had trouble moving her hands because of the cold water. But she was ready for the English Channel's 65-degree water when Aug. 17 arrived.
To show her escorts that she wasn't becoming disoriented -- a symptom of
hypothermia -- and to help occupy her mind for more than 13 hours, Simon came up with a plan that involved her favorite movie quotes.
"I had earplugs in, so I couldn't hear to answer any questions to make sure I was still alert," Simon said. "So I would yell movie quotes to them. I'd also sing to myself. A lot of Disney songs."
So which movie quotes are we talking about?
"Most of them have swear words in them, so it's not appropriate," Simon said with a laugh. "Quotes from 'The Hangover,' movies like that. Ones that make me laugh. And some of the ones that were appropriate were from 'Madagascar II,' but I can't remember those."
As she looks forward to this summer, her parents are understandably concerned.
"My mom's nervous about the sharks in California," Simon said. "She's getting something that's supposed to repel sharks. Some sort of noise thing."
It's a sonar device that hangs off the escort boat.
"It tells the sharks to stay away from that area," Paul said. "At least we're praying that's what it does."
Sam is unconcerned. "Swimming with sharks would be cool all by itself. I get to say I swam 26 miles with sharks. At night, too."
The Simons joke about the endless possibilities for Sam and rare feats of courage.
"My daughters were talking the other night on the Internet," Paul said. "They were looking at a website on Mount Everest. There has been only three people in the whole world who have ever swam the English Channel and also climbed Mount Everest. And none of them are women.
"Sam goes, 'I'm in. I can do it.' And Nikki asks, 'Sam, do you really think you could climb Mount Everest?' And Sam goes, 'Put it in front of me and I'll climb it."'