Coutrney Paulk swims in the ocean. She is wearing a pink swimcap and goggles
Photo by Jamie Betts

Courtney Paulk’s endurance mindset

April 3, 2024
Open-water swimmers face immense physical challenges, but this attorney says the mental fortitude required is even more demanding — and it makes her a better lawyer.
By M.R. Badillo
There’s a calming repetition that comes from swimming laps in the measured lanes of a pool. A certain number of strokes, then the approach of the wall, the twist and push to propel yourself into yet another lap to begin a new set of strokes. Lap, push, repeat. Lap, push, repeat, a sort of lullaby to the practiced swimmer.
When I dive in, I leave everything else behind. When I hit the door at [my firm], I use that same tactic.
Courtney Paulk

Now imagine those same strokes but without the pool. No lanes, no black lines of paint keeping you moving in the right direction. Imagine yourself surrounded instead by a lake or even an ocean. The currents might help you along, or they might work you to the bone. The water itself could be freezing cold. Boat traffic brings additional obstacles, stroke after stroke after stroke taking you not to a wall to push into a new lap, but further out into the open water. For hours. Or even days.

If you’re wondering who on earth would want to battle such a scenario, meet a Spider attorney who lives for the sport of endurance swimming.

Courtney Paulk, L’00, is the first person in history to complete the Double Triple Crown of endurance swimming. This means she completed a two-way crossing each of the English Channel and the Catalina Channel, as well as a double circumnavigation of Manhattan Island. Her longest recorded swim was 33 hours and 13 minutes — the Catalina Channel crossing. In 2023, she became an Honor Swimmer in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.

In her professional life, Paulk is the first female president of the Virginia-based law firm Hirschler, a status she reached much in the way she swims. If Paulk’s writing a big brief, she thinks, “Can I just write one sentence as opposed to four? It’s amazing how you can accomplish things when you break them down into their smallest possible denominator.” Paulk tackles each task by looking at it on a micro level. Each manageable mini-task eventually builds into a completed brief.

“And that’s what I do on my swims,” Paulk says. “Can I take just 10 more strokes? And when I’ve done that, can I take 10 more strokes? Ten strokes [feels doable], and you learn a lot about yourself in those 10 strokes. You see if you can push yourself just a little bit further.” Before you know it, you’re looking back on something that felt daunting but is now a part of history.

Endurance swimming is a lesson in how to handle the overwhelming. It’s about taking on the tough moments with a mindset that offsets the enormity of a task. And not just in the water — this is a story about how to manage what feels unmanageable no matter the context.

It’s a monumental task to go from the idea of, “I’d like to swim the English Channel,” to actually accomplishing it. Thankfully, Paulk has some advice that applies to swimming and a successful legal career.


Let’s talk numbers. “Doing swims like [the ones] I do, it’s 90% mental and 10% physical,” Paulk says. It’s understandable if you’re not convinced. Swimming the English Channel, for example, takes at least 12 hours. This means 12 hours of constant physical exertion. But for as strong as your body needs to be for that, your mind needs to be stronger.

“Most people fail in the English Channel because their brain gives out,” Paulk says. “They either think they’re too cold, or they think about the enormity of what they’re doing and decide they can’t do it.” There’s a noticeable distinction between reality and perception here: The temperature of the water is an indisputable fact, as is the technical length of the swim. But whether it’s too cold or too long for the swimmer depends on how they perceive those facts. And that can determine whether they finish the swim.

Rachel Turk calls an athlete’s strengthened mindset “mental toughness.” As a sports psychologist at the University of Richmond, Turk asks athletes to consider not only how many hours they train their bodies each week, but how much time they spend training their brains.

“If your brain is not telling you the right things,” says Turk, “you’re less likely to complete something successfully. I like that cliche quote: ‘Whether you tell yourself you can or tell yourself you can’t, you’re probably right.’”

After years of mental training, Paulk recognizes those internal dark places more quickly. “Then I can use the tools I’ve gathered over the years to say, ‘OK, what am I going to do to get myself through this?’”

One of the biggest hurdles is addressing self-talk. Self-talk is what you say to yourself regularly. And if it centers on unhelpful assumptions — “I can’t do this,” or “I’m not clever enough,” — it can limit us to unnecessarily rigid behavioral patterns. It can kill our chance of success before we’ve begun.

Mental training can change that.

Train yourself to control your thoughts. You can’t control that first thought, but you can control what happens next and how you respond.
Coutrney Paulk swims in the ocean. She is wearing a pink swimcap and goggles
Photo courtesy of Courtney Paulk, L’00


STRATEGY NO. 1 | Check the facts of the situation

A productive thought isn’t necessarily a positive or happy one. It just has to be fact-based.

With a sport like endurance swimming, it’s easy to get caught up in how much your body hurts. Focusing on that pain, however, will make the swim more difficult. “Train yourself to control your thoughts,” Turk says. “You can’t control that first thought, but you can control what happens next and how you respond.”

When Paulk faces a tough hurdle at her law firm, she has a fact-based motto she clings to: “This is not as hard as swimming for 33 hours.” Perspective is everything.

STRATEGY NO. 2 | Use grounding to stop racing thoughts

Anchoring your attention on something specific — like counting those 10 strokes as Paulk does — keeps your mind focused on one thing instead of a seemingly endless stream of thoughts.

“Whenever I have thoughts creep in, I deliberately push them away,” Paulk says. “Counting my strokes helps with this. I can say I’m going to count to 100, and then I’m going to count to 100 again, and that’s all you’re thinking about, right? You’re not thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner if you’re [focused on] counting.”

You might count breaths or try Paulk’s method for breaking tasks — nautical or legal — down into micro-steps. Concentrate on something manageable to offset the overwhelm.

STRATEGY NO. 3 | Visualization

“I teach a very specific visualization,” Turk says. “You use each one of your five senses to build up a picture like you’re actually in the situation. And then watch yourself complete whatever skill successfully.” Doing this when you’re not physically in the midst of an activity better prepares you for the times when you are. Think of it like a dress rehearsal. Paulk — a theater major in her college days — learned to make the most of her time on stage through a vigilant rehearsal routine. “Leave it all at the door. You can’t [get into character] if you’re distracted by boyfriend problems. You have to leave everything else at the door.

“And that’s what I do with my swimming. When I dive in, I leave everything else behind. When I hit the door at Hirschler, I use that same tactic. You have to be present in the moment wherever you are. And whether that’s the pool or the office, that ability to be present has served me well throughout all aspects of my life.”

STRATEGY NO. 4 | Incorporate self-care into your everyday schedule

While social media may sometimes suggest that this looks like candlelit bubble baths while sipping champagne, self-care has more to do with stress management. Routinely taking a moment from your day to recalibrate can regulate your parasympathetic nervous system.

“I go to the pool for my sanity,” Paulk says. “I’ll say to my colleagues, ‘I need to go to the pool now. It will be better for all of us if I go do that.’ And they’re like, ‘OK, cool.’ I’m a busy lawyer and president of a law firm, and
swimming brings me peace.

STRATEGY NO. 5 | Adapt the above to suit your needs

Adaptability is critical, particularly in open-water swimming where the variables are often beyond one’s control. For Paulk, that unpredictability taught her to find comfort and confidence even when she had no idea what was about to happen. “I’ll have done all the training and prep work, everything I can do to get ready for that moment,” Paulk says. “But I can’t control the weather. I can’t control boat traffic. I got yanked out of the Baltic Sea once by the German marine police because they didn’t want me there. And there was nothing I could do about it. So I went and had breakfast instead.”

While being confronted by the German marine police might sound intimidating, Paulk says that having done so many swims over the years has built her sense of competency and confidence both in and out of the water. “The more you go to court as a lawyer, the more confident you become. The first time I sat at the head seat in the boardroom, I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m at the head of the table now. And that’s kind of scary.’ Now, every month I sit at the head of the table, and it’s fine. It’s normal. The more you do something, the more confident you get.”

Courtney Paulk is hearing a black suit standing on a dock over water. Her arms are crossed and she is smiling.


Of course, these strategies only work if you believe you can reach your goals. Paulk continued to push herself to such lengths as accomplishing the Double Triple Crown because, she says, “I wanted to find my limit. I would get out of a 12, 13, 14-hour swim and feel like there was still more in me — I knew I still had more.”

She sought out longer swims, double-circumnavigating Manhattan in 20 hours and 16 minutes, before finding her limit at Catalina. “I started on a Tuesday and finished on a Thursday. I was hallucinating for nine hours and for another 24 afterward. I saw two sunsets. It was bad.”

But Paulk’s Catalina swim also taught her that finding her limit wasn’t the goal. “I realized it was more about the journey. The whole journey. I like the picking of the swim, the training, figuring out how to navigate it around day-to-day responsibilities, and what you learn about yourself in each part of that journey.” The ritual of continued growth made each next swim part of a larger, lifelong goal.

“This is called self-regulation,” says Crystal Hoyt, a professor of leadership studies and psychology at UR’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies. “Growth mindsets help us achieve and engage with more beneficial goals. It helps us set learning goals, not performance goals.” It’s the difference between “I’m going to prove I can do this specific thing” and “I can develop that ability and do it better.”

The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset suggests you’re either successful or unsuccessful. You concede to defeat, thinking, “I’m not cut out for settlement negotiations. That’s why I failed.” Contrastingly, someone with a growth mindset can say, “OK, I didn’t negotiate that settlement successfully. Let me change my strategy.”

When the German marine police pulled Paulk from the Baltic Sea, she didn’t consider it a failure. Completing the swim wasn’t the sole marker for success. Success came in dressed as a new strategy — adaptability. Followed by a European breakfast with her team.

“I’m not just a 54-year-old woman who got up and decided one day that I was going to conquer these crazy long swims,” Paulk says. Nor did Paulk shock colleagues by becoming the first female president at Hirschler. She knew she could, so she made it a goal and put in the effort, shifting strategies as needed. “My husband would tell you that nobody will ever outwork me.”

As a guest on the podcast If She Can Do It, So Can You! Paulk encouraged listeners to realize just that: If you put your mind to it, you can do this, too. “If you’ve been sitting on a goal,” Paulk says, “remember that a goal without a plan is just a wish. So, take that first step to make a plan to accomplish that goal.”