Anne Marie Ward – turning the tide to inspire people

Carolyn Farrar


Carolyn Farrar

Anne Marie Ward’s successful swim across the North Channel is a powerful measure of her determination.

Anne Marie Ward’s successful swim across the North Channel is a powerful measure of her determination.

In 2010, Anne Marie, one of Donegal’s two People of the Year 2011, became the third woman ever to make the swim.

First, a word about the North Channel: it’s considered the world’s most difficult channel swim because of the cold and unpredictable waters, and the large pods of jelly fish that appear when the waters are calm. The crossing has been attempted nearly 80 times, but the success rate is very low.

“Most swimmers wouldn’t touch it,” Anne Marie said.

Here’s the thing about Anne Marie: she undertook the challenge three gruelling times before she succeeded.

The first time, in 2008, Anne Marie was in the water for 17 and a half hours before she could no longer battle the tides that pushed her backwards.

Still she said, “After the first attempt I came away very happy. I thought, ‘This is do-able’.”

During her second attempt, in 2009, the weather turned. Winds drove her on to the Copeland Islands and she was separated from her pilot boat. “You can’t plan with the sea,” she said. “It’s got a mind of its own.”

But Anne Marie and her team returned in 2010. After five hours in the water, her joints began to seize from the toxins of the numerous jellyfish stings she endured. She was hospitalised in Belfast after returning.

“It was our third time back over the Glenshane pass, disappointed,” Anne Marie recalled. She had to think hard about whether there would be a fourth attempt – she was thinking not just about herself, but her dedicated team.

“Is that too big an ask?” she thought to herself. “They were absolutely brilliant.” In the end, it was personal for her team, too.

“They said, ‘We’re going to conquer this channel,’” Anne Marie said. And in September 2010, they did.

She couldn’t believe it when she was informed that she had been named Donegal Person of the Year.

“It’s a fantastic honour, it really is,” she said. “I’m just getting used to it.”

Born in Pornablagh and now living in nearby Ards, Creeslough, Anne Marie Ward has inspired people around Ireland and abroad with her remarkable story. Though she only began swimming in open water seriously about a decade ago, her achievements have been the stuff of dreams.

“What happened to me over the last 10 years was not something I ever planned,” she said.

The second oldest of Paddy and Marguerite’s four sons and three daughters, Anne Marie has been swimming as long as she can remember. As a child she would spend time with the Sheephaven Sub Aqua Club, and when the team went diving, she’d go for a swim around Horn Head. Club members are among those who have become crucial to her success, supporting her on her swims.

It was 2002, when she was nearly 36, that Anne Marie and two colleagues swam two miles from Rossnowlagh to Creevy Pier near Ballyshannon, to benefit the Share a Dream foundation. They had been assigned to select a personal goal in a management development programme at work – Anne Marie is a trained nurse and disability manager with the Health Service Executive – and that was the goal they chose.

Anne Marie was hooked.

She thought to herself, “What would really challenge me after that?” And then, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to give Tory a go?”

She swam from Magheraroarty to Tory in 2003, and was part of the five-member relay team, along with her brother Ryan, that undertook the 830-mile swim around Ireland in 2006. She received the Pierre van Varan Award for the best swim in arduous conditions for her 2007 swim across the English Channel – she finished the swim in a Force 5/6 storm.

Family, friends and other supporters waited for Anne Marie on the English coast. She had been in the water for 20 hours.

“Everyone in the boat was so subdued,” she said. “Everyone was pure exhausted.” Anne Marie was also dehydrated. But the lessons she and her team learned on that demanding swim set her up for the North Channel challenge.

She has two big swims this year: This summer, Anne Marie will be part of an international relay team to take on the frigid Bering Strait, swimming from Siberia to Alaska; and in late March she will travel to Tunisia to swim three, 10-kilometre legs over three days with a Tunisian Army colonel who is swimming along the coast to Egypt in a staged relay to promote peace in the Middle East.

In November of 2010 Anne Marie was named World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year, accepting her award at the United Nations in New York City.

“I suppose I had to pinch myself,” she said. “I was gobsmacked to even be listed in that shortlist.” Her parents and her team accompanied her to New York to see her receive the honour.

Anne Marie never mentions a swim without crediting the teams that have supported her. There’s Noel Brennan, founder of Sheephaven Sub Aqua, who she’s known for 35 years, and who takes early-morning training swims with her; Brendan Proctor, who has accompanied her on all her swims; her brother Ryan, a member of Sheephaven Sub Aqua, Derek Flanagan, a member of the Coast Guard and Sheephaven Sub Aqua, and Team Delta members Gus O’Driscoll, Joe Devenney, Ivan Irwin and Owen Fogarty, as well as other Sheephaven members who have provided valuable support and assistance.

Open water swimmers are accompanied by a team in a boat. There can be no physical contact between the swimmer and the boat or the team -- the swimmer is alone in the water, challenging the dark seas. But the team passes the swimmer vital liquid nourishment, minds the tides and other obstacles, and keeps an eye on the swimmer, even when the sky is dark.

“You don’t just go out on a boat for a day,” Anne Marie said. “It’s a big responsibility on them.”

She said she believes that aspect of her story – the idea of people working together toward a goal and achieving it – has struck a chord with people.

“I think everyone needs hope now, more than ever,” Anne Marie said. “Especially now.” In her telling, the importance of the team is always foremost.

When Anne Marie made her successful North Channel swim, one of the mantras she repeated to herself in one of the last hours was this: “The boys will bring me home,” she said to herself. “The boys will bring me home.”