Alumna Makes Big Waves With Channel Crossing

Solo Swim is Just the Latest Feat for School's 1st Truman and Marshall Scholar

July 16, 2009

Firsts are nothing new to UT Dallas alumna Sophie Rutenbar. She received the University’s first Truman and Marshall scholarships and earlier this week, she became the first graduate — and one of only about 1,000 people in history — to solo swim the English Channel.

Channel swimmers generally put in at Dover and reach shore near Calais.

More About Sophie Rutenbar

“Just Giving” Site Set Up for International Rescue Committee Donations in Honor of Rutenbar's Swim

BBC (2008): Relay Team Swims Channel to Raise Money for Afghan Women

Dallas Morning News (2006): UT Dallas grad to study global relations in U.K.

Rutenbar made the crossing Tuesday in 14 hours and 33 minutes. The achievement comes almost a year after the alumna completed a relay swim across the channel in September 2008.

“Just wanted to let everyone know that I made it across,” Rutenbar messaged afterward to friends who were following her adventure. Rutenbar’s admirers included current and former UT Dallas McDermott Scholars. Rutenbar, who graduated with a political science degree in 2006, was a McDermott Scholar.

Rutenbar, who has studied the hardships faced by victims of international conflicts, used the swim to draw attention to the work of the International Rescue Committee. “I'm thrilled to be able to help these people, whose lives in such difficult circumstances make a Channel swim seem easy,” she said.

Only about 1,000 swimmers are known to have completed solo English Channel crossings. Swims traditionally begin at Dover, England, and end between Calais and Boulogne in Northern France. This distance is 18.2 nautical miles, the equivalent of about 20.62 land miles. Shifting tides can increase the effective distance of the swim to about 30 miles.

The water is a frigid 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit and often choppy. Athletes call the English Channel the Mount Everest of swimming because of the extreme challenge this stretch of sea poses.

“It isn't every day you have an alumna swim the English Channel, but it seems like it is every day that Sophie does big things,” said fellow McDermott Scholar and spring 2009 graduate Felicity Lenes.

Rutenbar’s achievements were many at UT Dallas. In 2005, she was the first student in the University’s history to receive a Truman Scholarship. The highly competitive scholarship is awarded to college juniors with exceptional leadership potential who are committed to careers in government, the non-profit sector, education or other public service fields. She interned with a development organization in Zambia and later worked in Washington, D.C., as an intern for The Fund for Peace.

The next year, Rutenbar made history again as the first UT Dallas student to receive a Marshall Scholarship. The award, presented to about 40 Americans each year, is funded by the British government and allows American students to attend graduate school in the United Kingdom on full scholarship, including living and travel expenses.

Rutenbar was selected in 2004 for the Bill Archer Fellowship Program, which enables a select group of top students from University of Texas System schools to earn credits while working in the nation’s capital. She interned that fall with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“To say that Sophie is an amazing young woman is a colossal understatement,” said Jenifer Sarver, former director of the Archer Center. “Where others achieve she excels. Some people volunteer; Sophie traveled to the jungles of the Congo to deliver aid firsthand. Some people study hard; Sophie became UT Dallas' first Truman Scholar. Some people go for a swim; Sophie swam the English Channel. The world needs more people with Sophie’s passion, intensity and commitment.”

On campus, fittingly, she was an active member and co-founder of the UT Dallas Swim Club. She also was part of the University’s Collegium V Honors program and helped in the planning and development of Collegium V activities. She actively participated in UT Dallas Student Government and served as student body vice president in 2004. A bassoon player, Rutenbar played with the UT Dallas Chamber Music Ensemble.

“Sophie's gifts to UT Dallas are immeasurable, mostly because of her positive vision and tireless work ethic,” Lenes said. “She is an inspiration.”

Media Contact: Jenni Huffenberger, UT Dallas, (972) 883-4431, [email protected]
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected]

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Sophie Rutenbar after landing on the French beach

Sophie Rutenbar rests on the French shore 14 hours and 33 minutes after setting out from Dover, England.

‘It was such a great feeling to finally enter the calm French coastal waters’


Sophie Rutenbar offered these remarks via e-mail from the U.K. after her English Channel crossing:

“It was a really rough swim from about five or six hours to 12 hours, but with the help of my wonderful crew and pilot, I managed to make it through. It was such a great feeling to finally enter the calm French coastal waters and to watch the cliffs of France inch closer and closer.

“When I stood up on French soil, I almost couldn't believe I was feeling sand under my feet! My time was 14 hours and 33 minutes. It's funny, but even though those six or seven hours were the toughest of my life, and they slowed me down a lot, they made the whole thing worthwhile. I fought for that swim, and that makes it all the more wonderful that I made it.”

On preparing for the challenge:

“I was asked to join an English Channel relay team last summer, which was not only a great experience, but which also inspired me to do a Channel swim of my own. It was a bit late notice to find a slot, but my pilot for the relay, Alison Streeter, Queen of the Channel with 43 crossings, managed to find me one with her brother, Neil Streeter.

“I've been training intensely since December. I've been swimming about four times a week, an hour and a half to two hours each time, plus one longer session a week of three or more hours, which all works out to at least 25k a week. Since the beginning of May, I've been training down at Dover Harbour every weekend with a group that swims there, building up to two ‘split weekends’ of six or seven hours on Saturday and six hours on Sunday, essentially doing a Channel distance over two days to build confidence and strength.”

On her previous swimming experience:

“I come from a pretty extensive swimming background, which has made training for the Channel a lot easier. I did synchronized swimming at a pretty high level for six years, which gave me a real comfort in the water. Then I swam for the team at Richardson High School for four years, in addition to swimming for the City of Richardson club team for a while. I've also had a good amount of experience swimming in lakes and the sea, so I've felt comfortable transitioning from pool swimming to open water swimming. So when I started training for the Channel, the relatively efficient technique and comfort in open water that it requires were already there.”

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July 23, 2019