Colorado State University Professor Aims to Become Oldest Man to Swim English Channel

Note to Reporters: Photos of George Thornton are available with the news release at

George Thornton’s whole life has led to this moment.

Actually, make that a moment sometime between July 10-18 when Thornton, a semi-retired psychology professor at Colorado State University, hopes to become the oldest man to swim the English Channel.

At 72, he hopes to beat the record that 70-year-old Roger Allsopp set last year.

“The English Channel is the iconic long-distance swim,” Thornton said. “It’s the ultimate test – what can the body do? It’s just the challenge – that’s the intrinsic part of it.

Thornton has already been practicing informally for the past 12 years swimming the length of Horsetooth Reservoir as part of the Horsetooth 10K Swim (it takes him about four hours). He has participated in 100 triathlons over the past 20 years, including 12 Ironman events.

More recently, he’s been training in La Jolla, Calif., and Lindenmeier Lake near his home by swimming 12 to 15 hours at a time. He expects the Channel to take 18 hours or more.

Thornton said he was inspired by his friend Joe Bakel, a Colorado State alumnus who swam the English Channel in July 2010. While Thornton has been swimming his whole life, he has been seriously training for the Channel for the past two years.

“I went over with him – I was on the support boat, and that was kind of what got me fired up,” Thornton said. “I didn’t know whether I could do it, so I kept it a secret and began increasing my time in the water.”

Although he’s semi-retired from CSU, Thornton still goes into the psychology office regularly for his research in industrial psychology. He works as a consultant in assessment and development of managers, particularly with municipal officials who are assessing candidates for promotion within police and fire departments.

“I’ve got baby pictures of me in the water. I grew up at the YMCA in Dayton, Ohio, and swimming has been part of my family and our activities throughout my life,” Thornton said. “I was out of it for a long time, but for the past 20 years, I’ve been involved in master’s swimming and triathlons.

“My wife says it’s eat, swim, nap, eat, swim, nap. It’s been nearly a full-time occupation.”

Technically, Channel swimming is not a competition – in the water, at least. In fact, Thornton set up his swimming “window” of July 10-18 nearly two years ago because there are strict rules per the Channel Swimming and Pilots Association. The association requires swimmers to register and assigns swimmers to a boat captain who is trained to monitor Channel swimmers. On any given day, 10 to 12 swimmers may be in the water, Thornton said, but they’re going different speeds and taking different routes between England and France.

“You have to have a good experienced pilot – he can see all the boats, he knows your speed and takes you on a route that’s hopefully going to get you there,” Thornton said.

He’ll get calories for endurance from a high-carbohydrate liquid thrown to him from the boat every half hour.

There’s a slight chance – if the weather doesn’t cooperate – that Thornton won’t be able to swim at all, so he’s going a little early before his swim in July. The window for Channel swimming is narrow – between June and August – but the water is still only about 59 degrees, he said. He worries a little about his throat getting raw from the saltwater.

He tries to seek inspiration from others to keep him on track.

“I have these little sayings,” Thornton said. “Mark Allen, one of the big triathlon champions said, ‘Pain is temporary, fame is forever.’ Another said it may hurt for an hour or two hours or 10 days afterward, but if you stop, that failure will be with you forever.

“I’ll probably be the slowest – I’m very realistic about it,” Thornton said. “It’s been a great adventure.”