Courtney Moates Paulk ’92 was a few hours into her marathon swim across Southern California’s Catalina Channel when she noticed a large shadow tracking her.
A curious sea lion observed the endurance swimmer for a bit, then nibbled on one of her toes before Paulk sent him packing with a gentle but firm kick. She had about six more hours to go in her solo journey across the 20-mile channel − the final leg in her quest to earn the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming − and even the most gregarious sea creature wasn’t going to stop her.
“I’m in their world. You just have to be all right with that,” said Paulk, a Richmond attorney, of run-ins with wildlife during open-water swims. “I think you have to prepare your head for it for months. ‘OK, I’m going to jump in the Pacific Ocean at midnight where there are sharks and whales and sea lions and jellyfish and cold water. . . . In a lot of ways, I equate it to taking out the trash: You just have to do it.”
Paulk finished the Catalina swim on Sept. 10 in just under 12 hours, joining an elite club of only 79 swimmers who have earned the Triple Crown. She finished the first leg in June 2011, completing the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in just under nine hours, and the second in August 2012, crossing the chilly English Channel in just over 14 hours. Mary Washington alumnus William Davis Lee ’98 also swam the English Channel in June 2012 to complete the Triple Crown. One day Paulk would like to return and “do a double,” she said, swimming back to England after reaching France.
Paulk, 43, started swimming in pools when she was 3, but she learned to love the ocean while in high school in Virginia Beach.
“It’s a completely different feeling than swimming in a pool, the concrete pit of death,” she said laughing. “It’s so much better.”
Paulk graduated from Mary Washington with a bachelor’s degree in theater and worked as a paralegal for five years before heading to law school at the University of Richmond. During school, she said, she didn’t have much time for swimming. But afterward, seeking a mental and physical challenge, she pursued endurance swimming.
In 2003, she entered the 4.4- mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim.
“It was cold. It was long. It was very difficult for me,” she said. “But when I pulled myself up on shore in Maryland, I really felt like I had accomplished something. I thought, ‘I want to do that again.’ ”
So she did, entering longer events in colder waters, and raising more than $10,000 each year for charities in the process.
Her husband, Matt Paulk, is often part of the crew that follows her in a boat, keeping track of her strokes − 58 to 61 a minute − and tossing her fuel: protein shakes, peanut butter sandwiches, and syrupy canned peaches, which coat the mouth and protect against the salt water.
On dry land, Paulk practices mostly construction law at Hirschler Fleischer, where she’s worked for 12 years. Since 2010, media firm Thomson Reuters has annually named her one of Virginia’s Super Lawyers based on peer recognition and professional achievement.
She said she loves the complexity of her job but finds that swimming is a great way to clear her mind.
“I think because you’re submerged in water, you really do, in a physical way, shut the world out,” she said. “So it’s a way I can reinvigorate myself. It’s meditative. I find it very peaceful.”