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‘An itch to do something stupid’: Towson grad Nik Haynes sets record swimming backstroke across English Channel

Nik Haynes, a Towson graduate, waited 30 years to make good on his promise, but on Aug. 7, he completed the 21-mile trek from Abbot’s Cliff Beach along the Folkestone/Dover coast in England to a beach in Wissant, France. (Courtesy photo by Katia Vastiau)
Nik Haynes, a Towson graduate, waited 30 years to make good on his promise, but on Aug. 7, he completed the 21-mile trek from Abbot’s Cliff Beach along the Folkestone/Dover coast in England to a beach in Wissant, France. (Courtesy photo by Katia Vastiau) (HANDOUT)

When he was 11 years old, Nik Haynes thumbed the pages of a Guinness Book of World Records until he discovered that Thomas Gregory of the United Kingdom was the youngest swimmer to cross the English Channel at the age of 11 on Sept. 6, 1988.

“I can do that,” thought Haynes, a swimmer himself who had emerged as a blossoming talent in his hometown of St. Michaels.

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Haynes, a Towson graduate, waited 30 years to make good on his promise, but on Aug. 7, he completed the 21-mile trek from Abbot’s Cliff Beach along the Folkestone/Dover coast in England to a beach in Wissant, France. Not only did he become only the third person to swim the channel via the backstroke, but he finished the stretch in 12 hours, 52 minutes, eclipsing the previous record of 13:22 set by American Tina Neill in 2005.

“I had no idea how long it had taken,” Haynes, 41, said from his home in Devon, England. “In my mind, I was just happy to have done it. I didn’t actually think I had beaten the overall record.”

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Some of Haynes’ former teammates followed his journey online and celebrated his accomplishment even if they were five time zones away.

“I keep thinking of Nik as this 20-year-old kid that’s good at everything, but now we’re both in our 40s, and that is an exceptional accomplishment because of our age,” said Rob Kinnear, who is a year older than Haynes and swam the butterfly for the Tigers. “Not just the fact that it was the backstroke, but he’s 40-something years old with kids, and just to do that, it was incredible.”

Haynes graduated from Towson in 2000 with a bachelor’s in geography and environmental planning to go along with a swimming career that included America East Conference championships in the 100-meter backstroke, two conference titles in the 200 backstroke, and the freshman record for the 100 backstroke. Haynes then moved from Baltimore to Colorado to England in 2005 after marrying British native Katherine Williams.

A geography teacher for middle and high school students at St. Luke’s Church of England School in Exeter, England, Haynes has been a vocal supporter of WaterAid, a nonprofit organization committed to bringing clean water and reliable toilets to developing communities. But a student’s challenge to attach an action to his words prompted Haynes in 2014 to consider a physical activity, and he returned to Guinness.

“I started researching it and realized that of all of the Channel swimming records, the backstroke record was kind of the easiest to beat,” he said. “Only two people had ever done it before, and neither of them were terribly fast. So I was like, ‘Yeah, this might be a good fit.’”

Haynes made his first attempt in early September 2015 and swam for about nine hours before getting pulled out of the water because of hypothermia. Although the water temperature was 64.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the air temperature began at 41 degrees and topped out at 57.2 degrees.

The biggest lesson Haynes learned, however, was how unprepared he was for the open waters.

“I took away that the difference of swimming in a cold, salty sea and swimming in a warm, non-salty pool or lake is massive,” he said. “The main difference in the training this time around was being in the sea constantly and getting used to the salt water.”

A frustrated Haynes originally did not consider taking another shot. But encouragement from Marcus Teixiera, who had piloted a support boat with Haynes, convinced him to make a reservation in 2017 for another guide boat with an eye towards aiming for a window between Aug. 10 and Aug. 17, 2020.

After training in the open sea for more than 45 hours in July, Haynes tapered his regimen. But when Teixiera saw an air temperature forecast high of 89.6 degrees for Aug. 7, Haynes left Abbot’s Cliff Beach at 1:44 a.m.

Haynes was stung five to six times by jellyfish and suffered painful sunburn on his face. But the greatest hurdle occurred about four hours into the swim when he experienced a throbbing left shoulder that he speculated occurred from looking frequently to his left to stay parallel to the support boat carrying Teixiera and photographer Katia Vastiau.

“I knew that I still had a really long way to go from there,” he said, adding that he downed Ibuprofen thrown to him by Teixiera in a waterproof Tupperware box. “So that was the biggest obstacle.”

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Haynes said he was less than a mile from the beach in Wissant when he realized he could finish. Climbing out of the water onto a rocky sea defence at 2:36 p.m., Haynes said he reflected on a quest that began in 2014.

“I went into the 2015 swim with a massive amount of confidence and a huge ego and everything else and just got squashed,” he said. “When I was sitting there, I thought, ‘This is what it’s supposed to be like the first time around.’ It just felt so good because I had to work so much harder for it than I initially thought I had to.”

Setting the backstroke record was a bonus for Haynes.

“I’ve always wanted to do something that not many people can do,” he said. “It’s always something that has intrigued me.”

Former teammate OJ Keller, who swam distance freestyle for the Tigers, said he was confident that Haynes would complete the task.

“He is the type that when we would pick a crazy type of athletic thing to do, he would see it through,” Keller said. “He would never shy away from a challenge.”

Haynes, who has raised a combined £10,900 ($14,548) for WaterAid with his two attempts, has had to deal with a little newfound celebrity as he has been a guest on radio programs and been profiled by television and print outlets.

“It’s a bit strange,” he said with a laugh, adding he isn’t sure how his students will react when school re-opens Sept. 1. “It’s blown up a lot more than I expected it to. But it hasn’t been overwhelming. There are no groupies knocking at the door or anything like that.”

Haynes said he intends to take some time off to rest his left shoulder, which he said is still not fully recovered. He is uncertain what the future will hold for him.

“In the past, it seems that every five years, I get an itch to do something stupid,” he said. “So 2025, I don’t know. It’s a long way in the future still.”

Keller, the former teammate, said he doubts Haynes will ride off into the sunset.

“It’s almost like saying, ‘Hey, I just climbed Mount Everest. What is there left to do?’” he said. “He did something only a handful of people have ever done. … But it wouldn’t surprise me if he focused his efforts on something else and was extremely successful at that something else. I don’t think he’ll just go sit down and read a book.”

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