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It was the ice cream that saw her through.
Thirty-four hours into her 40 hour, 41 minute swim between Grand Cayman and Little Cayman, a distance of 67.26 miles, the only thing that Penny Palfrey, 48, of Queensland, Australia, wanted was chocolate ice cream.
With a tongue and lips too swollen from sun and saltwater exposure to manage her carefully regimented program of liquid fuels, which her crew had faithfully administered for a day and a half, Palfrey asked for ice cream.
Thinking that the cool treat would numb her mouth while also delivering a wallop of needed calories, fat and sugar to power through to the finish, the request was a smart decision. It took some coordination, but a dive boat from the Caymans soon delivered a five-gallon tub of ice cream to Palfrey's support boat.
The soft chocolate ice cream, which she spooned from a cup while treading water, made the difference as Palfrey hammered to the end of a world-record setting swim. She had left Little Cayman at 5:26 a.m. June 11 and arrived on Grand Cayman at 10:07 p.m. a day later, completing the longest unassisted open-ocean trek. There was no wetsuit, no flippers, no shark cage.
After enduring two days at sea, Palfrey spent two days in a hospital room recovering. Her list of ailments was nearly as long as her swim: dehydration, blistering of the mouth, bruising, swelling of the face, legs, trapezium muscles and tongue. It took three days to feel well enough to grant an interview.
"I'm feeling better every single day," she said, "The first few days I was limited with my talking and I'm pretty hungry because I couldn't eat because of my swollen mouth and tongue. My legs have gone from tree trunks back to legs today, the bruising is disappearing," she said cheerfully.
A mother of three and a grandmother of one, Palfrey has long been a top competitor in the world of open-water marathon swimming and has quietly racked up an impressive resume over the past several years.
In 2010 she was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame for completing a range of long-distance swims including crossing the Straits of Gibraltar and the Catalina Channel, two challenges in the so-called Ocean's Seven -- think the equivalent of climbing the Seven Summits. She was also the first woman to swim the Alenuihaha Channel from Hawaii to Maui and the first to swim the Santa Barbara Channel between Santa Barbara Island and Point Vicente in Southern California.
Not just a physical challenge, ultra-long distance open-water swimmers spend nearly as much time training their minds as their bodies. Even so, as one day bleeds into two with nothing more than a quick stop to suck down some fluids while treading water every 30 minutes, a swimmer can start to lose a sense of reality. This was not a problem for Palfrey.
"Penny never, ever had any issues mentally," her husband, Chris, said. "You could see that she was thinking about absolutely everything that was going on, even the minute details."
Some of those details included the less-than-ideal weather that delayed the start of the swim for two days. Conditions were far from optimal and she dealt with choppy swells and a cross wind for the first 13 hours. Those "uncomfortable conditions" passed and for the next 40 to 45 kilometers of the 108-kilometer swim, Palfrey enjoyed "neutral currents and possibly even a bit of an assisting current," her husband said. But as midnight on Saturday approached, the wind shifted and Palfrey battled through an opposing current the rest of the way.
Currents weren't the only challenges. Palfrey reported seeing several white-tipped sharks and other critters on her journey. She also made four swimsuit changes.
After submersion in a near-weightless environment for more than 40 hours, Palfrey was wobbly as she waded ashore. Her face was unrecognizable, puffed up to twice its normal size, but she managed to raise her arms in victory and smile to the sizeable crowd that had gathered to welcome her.
"I'm absolutely proud of her," Chris said. "I think I've probably never seen such an athletic achievement in my life. I thought I'd seen some pretty special things from Penny in the past, but she was just absolutely amazing."
"It wasn't easy," Palfrey said of her record-breaking effort. "I had to dig very, very deep."
And not just to the bottom of her ice cream cup, we're assuming.