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Siesta Key training set the stage for swimmer Allen Hillman to cross the English Channel

By Ned Steele

What kind of person eagerly jumps into 10-foot storm-surge waves for a bracing two-hour swim from Siesta Beach to the Point of Rocks?
The kind of person who’s training to swim the English Channel, that’s who.
Such a person is Allen Hillman. After two years of training – including several stormy Siesta Beach adventures – the longtime competitive swimmer and software engineer crossed the Channel successfully in September, covering the 20-plus miles in 11 hours and 44 minutes. He entered an elite club: Just 127 of his fellow natators worldwide reached this pinnacle of aquatic achievement in 2023. That’s far fewer than the number of mountain climbers who summit Mount Everest yearly.

Allen Hillman in the English Channel during his impressive swim. (submitted photo)

Even more impressive: Hillman was 55 at the time, and just three years removed from suffering a stroke that landed him in intensive care.
“I’d always thought about it,” recalled Hillman, a swimmer since age 5 in his native Pennsylvania and a competitive aquatic racer since moving to this area about 15 years ago. “When one of my swim teammates did it in 2021, I decided I would go for it.
“It just required bumping up the level and the intensity. I like swimming long distances. The longer the better, the more comfortable I am. Once I’m warmed up, I stay nice and relaxed and I can keep going.”
But Allen … warm up? Relax? It’s cold in the Channel, with water temperatures from the mid 50s to the mid 60s – chilly enough to intimidate most, and do-in many, would-be crossers.
“I did the qualifying swim you have to do to make the try,” Allen reported. “A six-hour swim in water below 60 degrees. I did it in Lake Tahoe.”
Oh, and there’s an ice-plunge pool at a wellness center in Sarasota where the mercury – if it doesn’t freeze over – reads 35 degrees. Hillman’s been there, too.
Those locales can test cold-water mettle, but it was the Gulf waters off Siesta where Hillman confronted another great challenge to a successful Channel crossing: choppy waters.
That’s where the swims to Point of Rocks came in. Whenever a storm kicked up, Hillman waited for the surge – and dove in.
“Siesta Key is my favorite swim when I’m trying for distance over open water,” he explained. “You need the cold-water acclimation, but open water swimming in waves and chop is a big part of the training. It’s a two-hour swim, a good warmup for the Channel.”
And for this swimmer, it’s enjoyable.
“I like those waves; they are fun to swim through. Once there was a 10-foot wave, it was amazing. Impressive and fun.”

Receiving his certification of his accomplishment at a ceremony. (submitted photo)

Have we mentioned that when he’s not swimming, this man is a sensible software engineer?
Fun aside, those storm-surge sessions off Siesta were key to Hillman’s training. (And let’s note that he did not attempt one during Ian or Idalia.) Swimmers encounter rough surf often on their Channel crossings. Although through plain luck of timing Hillman did not, he had to prepare for it as bodies use different muscles, it turns out, when swimming in waves as opposed to calm waters.
Aside from some forearm pain in the last hour, Hillman reported that his Channel swim was uneventful.
“I get into a focused meditation state. I think about nothing, absolutely nothing,” he said.
Surely some unwelcome thoughts crept in somewhere in those nearly 12 water-bound hours?
“I did think a few times, ‘This is a freaking long swim,’” he said.
For his accomplishment, Hillman received a certificate last month at a gala dinner in England of the Channel Swimming Association.
“I knew his steady tempo would carry him across, not too fast and not too slow,” said Rick Walker, a former Siesta Key resident who heads the Sarasota Sharks swim team. “Quite a feat and something he will recall fondly for the rest of his life.”
What’s next after this extraordinary achievement? Doing it again blindfolded? With one arm tied? Or perhaps tackle another slice of the Oceans Seven challenge – the famed list of impossibly demanding crossings around the world, of which the English Channel is one?
“That’s it,” Hillman solemnly declared, looking as if he meant it. “There are no other major challenges I want. I have no desire. One and done.”

Above, Hillman on Siesta Key, home to his training. (photo by Ned Steele)
Below, supporters and Hillman at the end of his swim. (submitted photo)
Ned Steele
Author: Ned Steele

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