team wild waves from nicole swickle

Two Extreme Athletes Explain What It Takes To Become A World Record Breaker

Charlotte Harris and Jessica Oliver are about to take on the World's Toughest Row. Here's what we can learn from them about what it takes to become a record breaker.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 07, 2024

In 2022, Charlotte Harris and Jessica Oliver shattered records and made waves by becoming the fastest female pair to row across the Atlantic Ocean. Covering a grueling 3,000 miles with nothing but sheer determination and human power, they completed the journey in an astonishing 45 days, 7 hours and 25 minutes—beating the previous record by an impressive five days.

Their remarkable feat has not only etched their names in the annals of rowing history, but has also set the stage for their next daring adventure. On June 8, 2024, Charlotte and Jessica will embark on another epic voyage—this time from Monterey Bay, California, aiming to conquer the 2,800 miles of Pacific Ocean to Hawaii. Their goal: to claim the Pacific title and once again push the boundaries of what's possible in the world of ocean rowing.

I recently spoke to the duo regarding the motivations, mental preparations and support systems involved in undertaking such an extreme challenge. Here's a summary of our conversation.

What initially drew you to extreme ocean rowing, and what keeps you motivated to continue pushing boundaries?

We became Team Wild Waves in early 2020 when we signed up for the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. Little did we know how much that adventure would change our lives. Our friendship has always been dotted with incredible challenges; Marathons, Triathlons, and an unbelievable 'Fight Night' with the White-Collar Fight Club. However, TWAC 21 took us to a whole new level.

The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge had the potential to be the biggest, most rewarding, life-changing experience—and wow, did it deliver. We completed our Atlantic Row on January 26th 2022 after 45 days, 7 hours and 25 minutes at sea to become the fastest female pair to row the Atlantic Ocean.

These challenges are not just about adventure for us. We are committed to raising vital funds for charity. During the Atlantic Challenge, we raised over £100,000 for Shelter and Women's Aid. A feat that was as rewarding as the row itself, especially when seeing first-hand the people that money has helped.

Inevitably, after a gazillion "What's next?" conversations, we just couldn't pass up the opportunity to try and conquer another ocean!

On Saturday, June 8th, we will launch from Monterey Bay, California and row 2,800 miles across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii. Our goal with the Pacific is to raise £50,000 for Shelter and to set another World Record, becoming the fastest female pair to row across both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean.

Being good and doing good (winning!) has been our motivation. Not to mention, we have more fun than any other team out on the water. We have to have the fun element, otherwise the winning doesn't happen.

We're grateful to have incredible partners like Ryde who share the same ambition for adventure without taking life too seriously. Big waves. Small wins. Good vibes.

How do you mentally prepare for such a daunting challenge, both in the months leading up to it and in the final days before departure?

We break everything down into small chunks. Instead of looking at the whole race as one long race, we break it down into two hour slots… five miles... six miles…etc. And then that's our KPI. That's our focus.

In terms of how we prepare the mind, that's a really interesting one. I don't think we do, if we're being honest. We rely on our internal team. We chat everything through. We have really good support networks who understand these kinds of challenges. So we don't sit down and consider the mind, but we just know that we work together as a team.

We also communicate when we're overwhelmed. We have a very, very open channel of communication, which actually means that we don't have to spend so much time being like, "This is how I'm gonna protect my mind." The relationship itself protects our minds.

We speak our own language. We know that these situations out on the water can make or break even the strongest of relationships. When one of us is tired, cranky or disengaged from the conversation, we say "LT." Nothing more, nothing less. LT stands for Low Tolerance. The other makes a hard stop, no questions asked. Our goal as a team is to be flexible without overthinking.

What role do mantras, rituals, routines or affirmations play in your mental preparation and resilience during the long days at sea?

We have this saying: "It is what it is. F*** it. Lessons learned." We think that's really important. You can't hold onto something that you think is going to happen if it goes wrong. If something goes wrong or it doesn't go to plan, we are very much like, "Okay, change, move on." This mantra has transcended the water into all areas of our lives.

We've learned to control the controllables, but also to learn from the lessons along the way. If there is a lesson to be learned, then you take that and that's actually the win.

On the Atlantic, we spent a lot of time getting upset about the weather. People kept saying, "Oh you know, the weather is going to be with you." It just never came, and we got really frustrated by that. Finally, we thought—look, let's control the controllables. Are you eating well? Are you resting well? Are you looking after yourself? Are you growing as much as possible? And then the rest kind of doesn't matter. You can't get annoyed about that kind of stuff.

What type of psychological support do you receive from your coach or support team before, during, and after the expedition?

When we first set out on our Atlantic journey, there were a lot of people who doubted us. Admittedly, we are quite silly, and we do like to have a laugh. People were like, "Well, they're obviously not taking this seriously."

Our coach, Charlie, believed in us from the get-go. He saw our strength, determination and willingness to learn. We're so grateful he latched onto that, and was like, "Girls, I believe in you."

Having that belief system from someone who is so integral to ocean rowing has been critical to our success. There is power in someone who can help you drown out the noise.

Our parents are super supportive as well. They don't love it because obviously they worry a lot. It's dangerous, but they are supportive. There's also our partners, our friends, our family—everyone is behind us, which is great. So, we do feel like we are doing it for other people as well. Not just for ourselves.

Our cabins on the boat are small, but we like to add sentimental personal touches—including a few photos and letters from loved ones marked with labels like, "Open when you need a pick-me-up" or "Open at the end of week three." It's the simple gestures that go a long way after an even longer day.

When we arrive on shore in Hawaii, we will be so excited to see our friends and family. When we rowed the Atlantic, it was all new. We didn't have our partners back then. We were running off on our own team. We were running away. This time, we think it's going to be much more emotional. We'll be running to the people we love.

What lessons have you learned about mental resilience and perseverance from your experiences as an extreme athlete?

Four lessons stand out to us:

  1. If you're having a really tough time (because it does get really tough out there), eat some food, go to sleep and wake up fresh. Our mental state is oftentimes determined by how hungry we are, if we're tired and how we're feeling physically. So if we go to sleep, wake up and feel better—then that's great. We also have to communicate with each other. You can't keep it in your own mind because it just doesn't get better that way.
  2. From a training perspective, the best thing that worked for us is the really uncomfortable training. We learned not to wait for the good weather or the perfect situation out on the ocean. You're not going to have perfect situations. You're gonna be absolutely, extraordinarily tired. Things will go wrong. We did a row once where our steering was broken. We didn't realize, and it took us like 24 hours to get back home. We didn't sleep. We had to keep rowing. It was horrendous, but such good training, because nothing was as bad as that training session on the ocean.
  3. We're nimble when it comes to changing the success criteria. If we've given ourselves a goal that is too easily reached, we're not afraid to change it.
  4. We keep our heads in our own lane. The competition is very hot in the pairs division. In the Atlantic Race, we were up against collegiate athletes and world-class sailors. If we had rowed based on our resumes, we wouldn't have made it very far. Instead, our blind optimism, fierce friendship and humor helped us power through a record-breaking feat.

Most of these lessons have served us beyond the water. We don't look at something like, "I've got 3,000 miles to go" or "I have to finish this project." It's the small wins. It's breaking things down into achievable chunks, focusing on those tasks and then moving on to the next ones.

What advice would you give to aspiring athletes looking to push their limits and achieve their own extraordinary goals?

Don't get deterred by other people's perception of you. At the beginning, we went into this whole ocean rowing space as two fun-loving girls who like to party and have a really good time. But we were also super serious. We've always been athletes. We've done hockey, we've done athletics. People on the outside looked at us and thought we were silly girls who were out there to have a bit of a laugh. We learned it's OK to be our complete selves, and we attracted the right people to help us. Authenticity and consistency always win.

© Psychology Solutions 2024. All Rights Reserved.