magazine-category: Alumni

Crossing Boundaries

Crossing Boundaries cover

GWU Alumna Completes English Channel Swim to Record 10th Fastest Solo Crossing of Year

With each stroke through the 64-degree waters of the English Channel, Heather Roka, a 2008 Gardner-Webb University alumna, thought about all the people in her life who inspire her. Roka finished her incredible solo swim in 12 hours, 13 minutes and 53 seconds, making her the 10th fastest swimmer of 48 successful crossings in 2017. The 31-year-old first talked about crossing the channel when she was a member of the GWU swim team. She has trained since 2012 to tackle a feat accomplished by only 1,832 solo swimmers, according to

About 300 meters off the French coast, a changed tide with a strong rip current came between Roka and her dream. “The last 90 minutes of the swim nearly broke me mentally,” she confessed. “When I finally pulled myself up the rocks, it was mainly just an overwhelming sense of relief and a little disbelief that I was standing on France. It took about 24 hours for it to sink in that it had actually happened and now I smile every time I think about it. Thankfully, I had trained enough that I was physically able to keep going, and I can’t wait for the next challenge.”

In the months leading up to the swim, Roka felt blessed because of everything that happened to make the attempt possible. She has an ideal job as a travel physical therapist and randomly met two channel experts. One, Marcy MacDonald, lives 10 miles from her and has completed the channel swim a record 15 times. “MacDonald helped with my training, has provided unending support, and then helped guide and reassure me while I was in England,” Roka praised. “I have also been overwhelmed and blessed by the huge amount of support from so many of my GWU classmates and friends.”

Former Gardner-Webb swim coach Mike Simpson is not surprised that Roka reached her goal to swim the channel. “Heather has always been a tough cookie,” he observed. “She is tough physically. She is tougher mentally. Heather has always had an incredible work ethic.”

Simpson built a winning program with student- athletes who are also honored for their academic excellence. “We decided from the beginning to find great fits for Gardner-Webb,” Simpson assessed.

Athletes who get this place. Value the education. Desire to get better athletically, but most importantly, have character and integrity. Heather definitely had all three. She fell in love with this place, and we knew she was a fantastic fit for Gardner-Webb.”

She made the crossing with the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation. Her toughest challenges were the cold water and swimming about five hours in the dark. Her crew—sister Lyndsey, friend Isabel (both former GWU swimmers) and Isabel’s husband, Dean—gave her warm soup and drinks. To maintain her mental focus, she thought about her patients: teens with spinal cord injuries, adults recovering from strokes, and a 70-year-old amputee. “All of these people have undergone a traumatic situation that has forever changed their life, and yet it is inspiring how many embrace all the challenges I can throw at them,” Roka described. “They work so hard, pushing past sweat, tears, frustration and pain. Without saying anything, these people encourage me to do more and try harder.”

Since crossing the channel, Roka has taken a permanent job in her hometown of Fort Myers, Fla. She’s training for her next major swim, a four-day, four-lake swim for a total of 40 miles in Arizona in April 2019. “It will be a cold-water swim, so I am excited to tackle a different type of challenge,” she informed. Roka has also competed in swims to raise money for an orphanage in Bolivia and to help cancer patients pay for their treatments. “I am also doing the Swim Across the Sound in New York/Connecticut, which is 15 miles and is a fundraiser for the St. Vincent Society focusing on helping people cover medical expenses due to cancer. As I work in healthcare, I see firsthand how often insurance falls short in covering those huge bills.”

Roka said swimming at GWU taught her the basics,
like pacing and focusing on techniques, but also instilled something more. “The team taught me how to learn to love a challenge, and the wonderful lifetime friendships formed during hours of training, bus rides and meets still impact my life on a daily basis,” she affirmed. “The only reason I even attempt these swimming challenges is because of the love of swimming and all the positive memories. Upon graduation, I found myself unable to walk away from the swimming world. No words will ever describe how grateful I am that Coach Simpson decided I could be a valuable part of the GWU team and family.”

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