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Conquering mental health one stroke at a time across The Channel

Deniliquin High School teacher Brenda Norman has joined an elite group that has swum solo across the English Channel, but the challenge was always about helping the students in her town.

Brenda Norman swims the English Channel

Brenda Norman just short of midway on her Channel swim with the sun rising in the background.

After an 11-hour and 53-minute gruelling swim on Thursday, Deniliquin High School physical education teacher Brenda Norman climbed out of the English Channel at Calais.

In doing so, she became the fastest Australian female swimming the channel this season – a feat made all the more remarkable given Deniliquin is a four-hour trip to the nearest open water training venue at Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne.

Although incredibly sunburnt and in immense pain, Ms Norman had the satisfaction that she had conquered a massive personal challenge, and had also given remarkable impetus to her charity Channel4Change.

Her Deniliquin High colleagues and students were ecstatic about her achievement.

After she had pushed off from Dover on the English side of the channel, the school gathered to watch a live Facebook feed and sent her a video that inspired her as she battled strong ocean currents.

“Brenda is tenacious, committed and truly inspirational,” said Deniliquin High School deputy principal Robyn Richards.

“She is an exemplary role model for the young people that we teach.”

It was the young people of Deniliquin, and rural Australia, that kindled Ms Norman’s desire to swim the channel.

Recognising that mental health and suicide were major issues in rural areas, Ms Norman decided to establish Channel4Change to raise much-needed funds to develop and implement youth mental health initiatives in Deniliquin.

Ms Richards said Ms Norman saw the channel swim as a way of promoting the charity and highlighting the issue.

“Brenda is an amazing advocate and has funded out of her own pocket all the costs associated with the swim – travel, training and payment of the coach,” Ms Richards said.

“She has just been blown away by the support of the community, the school and in particular, the students. They are her biggest supporters.

“The students stopped her, asked her questions and praised her. They really understood and valued what she was doing.”

The swim across the English Channel to France is 32 kilometres from point to point, but swimmers are more likely to stroke upwards of 40 kilometres as a result of the currents.

Ms Norman faced a host of other obstacles in her preparation and swim.

Initially, her training took place in the local Edward River, but this became increasingly dangerous as the river level dropped due to the drought, with Ms Norman eventually breaking a rib after she collided with a submerged snag.

The river waters, which dropped to as low as eight degrees Celsius, also caused chest infections and pneumonia.

When the Deniliquin pool closed for winter, Ms Norman had to drive a 150-kilometre round trip to Echuca to use its pool, starting her trip at 4am so she could fit in three hours’ training before work.

The pool was not an ideal training environment as it was heated, so ahead of her departure the local Edward River Council refilled the local pool so she could finalise her preparation.

In England she faced further frustrations, including having to battle chronic sea sickness on the day of her swim.

However, her time of 11 hours and 53 minutes was almost two hours faster than the average crossing time of 13 hours, 32 minutes and 24 seconds.

With that challenge met, Ms Norman will now return to Deniliquin and hope her example and the funds raised can help overcome the challenge of improving youth mental health in the bush.

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