FREEPORT — Pat Gallant-Charette of Westbrook never thought she would call herself a marathon swimmer at the age of 59 – much less the third fastest woman to swim the Strait of Gilbraltar since 1928 and the fastest woman from the U.S.

Gallant-Charette’s swimming career began twelve years ago when her son, Tom, told her he wanted to do the 2.4-mile Peaks to Portland swim in honor of his Uncle Robbie, Gallant-Charette’s brother, who died suddenly of a heart attack at 34 years old.

Robbie had won the Peaks to Portland twice and Tom, a swimmer on the Westbrook High School team at the time, thought completing the swim would be a nice tribute to his uncle. Gallant-Charette was touched by her son’s determination and wished she could make the swim too.

Tom told her, “You could if you tried!”

This became her mantra. From that moment, Gallant-Charette was determined to complete the Peaks to Portland.  She knew because she was 46 and hadn’t swum since high school the race would be a personal challenge.

“I knew I was going to be a back-of-the-pack swimmer and that was ok with me,” she said.

Gallant-Charette spent the next year getting into qualifying shape for the race. She completed the race and has continued to do the Peaks to Portland swim every year always–as with every swim she completes–with Robbie written on her arm.

“I never imagined when I started training for the Peaks to Portland it would have such a profound effect on my life,” Gallant-Charette said.

She soon realized she could move onto bigger waters and completed a double cross of Sebago Lake (12 miles). Next, Gallant-Charette went on to swim the Great Chesapeake Bay (4.4 miles) and the Alcatraz to the mainland swim (1.25 miles) before attempting the English Channel in 2008.

While the channel is 20.7 miles across, strong winds and current make swim more than 30 miles, according to Gallant-Charette’s website. When Gallant-Charette attempted the cross she got caught in a strong current – just 1.7 miles from the finish. She remained in the current for four hours without moving before officials pulled her from the water.

However, on June 16, after three hours 28 minutes, Gallant-Charette completed the nine-mile Strait of Gilbraltar swim in record time.

But this crossing didn’t come easily. Because the strait is the second busiest shipping lane in the world, a boat crossing led to five-foot swells exposing her to fumes and causing her to dry heave.

Her son/crew member threw her some crystallized ginger and Gallant-Charette was able to keep going. She was shocked by her results, crediting her brother Robbie for getting mother nature on her side.

On July 24, Gallant-Charette finished fifth in the women’s no wet suit category with a time of 1:13:06 in the Peaks to Portland, the race that started it all.

Now she’s got her eyes set on the English Channel, which she will attempt to cross again in 2011.

“I believe Maine is the best place in the world to train,” Gallant-Charette said.

Sidebar Elements

Swimmers leave Peaks Island en route to Portland’s East End Beach Saturday morning.

Former McAuley standout Kristen Desrosiers (left) was the top female finisher in the 2.4-mile race with a time of 48 minutes, 3 seconds. Her twin sister, Katelyn (right), finished in 50:03. Cape Elizabeth’s Nick Daly won the event for the second year in a row with a time of 45:22.