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Tom Gregory recalls his record-breaking Channel swim in A Boy in the Water

In 1988, at the age of at the age of 11 years and 333 days, Tom Gregory became the youngest-ever person to swim the English Channel. Now he has recalled his record-breaking achievement in A Boy in the Water, which has been shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2018. Here, Tom shares his story with Tom Greenwood.

Why write the book?

Some of the timing of the book was as with my Channel swim itself – a bit of chance and circumstance, and then the opportunity presenting itself following a BBC website article. I think I had always realised there was a story to tell, but I didn’t think there would be much interest, so when it came up I decided to have a go – largely in the spirit of embracing a new challenge I suppose. As I started writing the book on the train as a pastime, it became very clear to me that this was actually about an opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to John Bullet, to commit those events to the record, and to share the experiences of all of us club swimmers with others.

Was the effort for your Channel swim worth it? At one point, you say it ‘was not normal’ and was ‘utterly unpleasant’. Was it cruel? How do you look back on it now?

Yes it was worth it. It brought me and taught me things in life which, although hard to measure, are nonetheless real and of immense value. In respect of unpleasant / cruel (clearly a very live debate in the current climate), I think that part of the book is dealing with the feelings one has ‘in the moment’ with an endurance sport, and a Channel crossing in my case. I am not well connected to the Channel Swimming community so it’s hard for me to take a measure of how others reacted, but one of my crew certainly remarked on having felt similar feelings on the day. Over time, that trauma started to fade to the point where John and my shared ambitions were rekindled but, at the time, in the moment, it felt too much to bear. But then surely that’s the point…if it was easy, there would be no conversation and no story frankly.

It was never cruel I would add. I wanted to do it, and this was discussed repeatedly with all involved. In the hands of experienced people the risks were appropriately managed (as we might say today). Looking back I feel proud, yes, but lucky and fortunate above all else. Without those events of 1988, I think my life would be much the poorer. I can also see, 30 years on, that there are some things in the story which others may find helpful. That sounds immodest and I am not a role model, but things like this can and do inspire people to take on their own challenges, and that has to be a good thing, especially if there is a positive message to youngsters

Do you still swim? Open water maybe?

Not properly. I wish I could do more. At the moment, I get as far as Godalming Leisure Centre (where the lifeguards now know my daughters who are one and three, and I), and Guildford Lido in the summer. Life is full-on with small kids so we just go and have fun. I don’t have time to train, (plus I am actually quite lazy) but that could conceivably change in the future. I hope so. Beyond that, when I see a lake, river, or the sea, normally I want to get in it and splosh about. And quite often do these days!

Crowds watch Tom Gregory during his Channel swim

Do you feel that swimming made you as a person?

It’s really about resilience, being confident in withstanding the elements (which builds personal and physical confidence), teamwork, trust and grit. That’s a long list, but those are things which stay with you. Perhaps above all, it underlines the importance of having fun. Not everything we do in life can be fun, but it really helps when you spend time in pursuit of something you truly enjoy and in the company of people who you love. The thing about open water swimming as a youngster, with John at the helm, was the package that came with it… the camping, the self-reliance, the music, scenery, food, camaraderie and so on. I only truly realised that when I looked back on it, but it’s clear to me now that the things I did in later life (like soldiering) were probably an extension of this.

I also think endurance swimming helped develop my perspective (and by that I mean the wisdom derived from one’s life experience), especially as I get older. Perhaps I notice it more because I have become a parent.  Life can’t just be about your job, your exam results, the daily grind. There must be moments of physical contrast, adventure, a shared challenge. I learned that very young I suppose.

What are your main reflections of John Bullet – you obviously had a special relationship with the man in his blue and white bobble hat? Was he too hard on you? What drove him to drive you and others? 

I, like others, was very fond of him indeed. I loved him in the way that a young person can. Most of the folks from the club would (and do) say that he was the making of them as people, and that they owe who they are to their days in the club in his company. He was hard on people, without doubt, including me, but that didn’t eclipse his ability to care for and protect his swimmers and their club. He was kind and generous too. It was all about balance with John. He had faults for sure but they were massively outweighed by the upside. I still miss him 30 years later, put it that way! He changed people’s lives.

And why his focus on long distance/Channel swimming? Would you say he did some things that were not universally approved of? You describe him as ‘an outsider on the inside.’ and ‘a maverick with his own rule book…’ Can you explain please?

The outsider / maverick comment is a reference to the fact that, as far as we can tell, he broadly made things up as he went along in coaching terms (but over a period of years and with trial and error). But he also became a known and trusted coach on the scene, especially with regard to the Channel Swimming Association (CSA) and the British Long Distance Swimming Association (BLDSA). There must have been a technical foundation in respect of swimming, but I don’t know where it came from or how he acquired it.

Perhaps the main point is that I only ever saw us (ie the kids from Eltham Training and Swimming Club (ETSC)) actually doing what we were doing. There must have been a handful of similar organisations no doubt, but I for one never saw them. This meant that we (and he) felt we were always breaking new ground in swimming terms, and back in the 80s cold water long distance swimming was not the mass participation sport it is today. No wetsuits remember.

It is also true that John was pushing the envelope on what the CSA in particular would sign up to in respect of age-based achievement back in the 80s. After the Renata Agondi tragedy, I detected a rift between John’s view of what could be achieved and that of the governing body. I have always understood both sides and still do.

Tom Gregory's book about his Channel swim has been shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2018

Do you look back at ‘Eltham Training and Swimming Club’ with fondness – and why? Or do you think you were too young for such training? 

I look back on ETSC as the happiest and most fulfilling part of my young life – and the key thing is that others do too (a fact I have rediscovered upon writing our shared story). Being part of something like that when you are young and impressionable is so powerful. It gave us all a foundation and a sense of belonging. We believed in the project and spent most of our spare time making it happen (raising funds, racing, competing, taking on the lakes and the Channel). Just enormous fun all the way, and with a belting soundtrack on the stereo! Visually it was also beautiful, which I didn’t fully grasp at the time, but with the scenes preserved in my mind (plus when I go back and see those wild places now) I now see how lucky we were to be there. Swimming does that, if we are brave enough to escape the confines of the pool.

I have never thought I was too young. The proof of that fact is the crossing itself. The club was about youth, and so that thread of doing things which others our age didn’t do ran through all of it. Besides, in swimming terms, I knew, as the years unfolded, that I could do things on equal terms or better than the older kids. So in reality we just used the information and evidence in front of us, and that’s probably what kept it safe and sensible.

You swam Windermere before you were 11, and obviously grew to love swimming there?

Completely. The beauty of that place will never leave me. I just remember how it looked, tasted and felt from the middle of the vast lake, with the fells in the distance, and how the conditions for swimming could change, sometimes ferociously. The adventures of those weeks were special too…Remote shingle shores, deserted islands and swimming spots, boats, nature, and dramatic weather – all from the vantage point of being a swimmer. I didn’t mind the cold and preferred the fresh water to the saline Channel. I have a sentimental attachment to the place which I hope comes out in the descriptions within the book.

After swimming you moved into the military, and you mention a similarity to long distance swimming? Can you explain please with a brief summary of your career? 

After John died, I drifted away from swimming. As I became a teenager, I needed something to fill the massive void of swimming, and John himself. I found it in Cadets at school which in turn led me to becoming an Army Officer. There are strong parallels between the two. I loved being a soldier, and still miss it (just like I miss the days of swimming club) to some degree. Fundamentally, the link is about teamwork, training to overcome a challenge, and being with people you really care about. Probably also an appetite for risk.

I joined the Army on Gap Year Commission just before my 18th birthday, spent a year in the infantry battalion prior to heading off to the University of Birmingham where I read Economics and Geography and then stayed on for an MSc Economics. Then, I went to Sandhurst in 1999, commissioning into the Royal Anglian Regiment in 2000. I served as Platoon Commander in Afghanistan (2002), then as Intelligence Officer in Iraq 2005. I retired as a Captain shortly before my 30th birthday and took a job at Goldman Sachs for six years before joining Deloitte in 2013. I’m still there as a Director, where my job is to provide Managed Solutions for (mostly) Investment Banks. I love working there and enjoy my role very much.

A Boy in the Water, Tom Gregory's story of swimming the English Channel, has been nominated for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2018Are you still known as Tefal? And do you still have a crush on Alison Wetherly?

It’s a no on ‘Tefal’. That one stayed in the club. Probably for the best! Ali probably didn’t know the half of it before I wrote it all down in the book – she does now! I think that one goes firmly in the childhood ‘first crush’ category. She has always been a role model in my mind. I admired her tremendously – for good reason. She led the way, was humble, and found humour in everything.

What would you say to other youngsters considering a Channel attempt?

For a youngster, probably the same as was the case in 1988 – namely find a proper coach, and someone who genuinely knows the challenge (or how to learn about it) and ideally has a track record (remembering that John himself had to start somewhere before he earned one himself). In this era, the websites really help (CSA for me, but Channel Swimming and Pilot Federation (CSPF) too), and down on the south coast you will find hordes of swimmers training in a ‘just turn up and join in’ way in Dover harbour during the season.

For me, the challenge is two-fold (assuming the ‘old rules’ ie no wetsuits): cope with the distance, then cope with the cold and conditions too. Those two factors combine and can feed back into each other, and so create the endurance aspect. But they can both be prepared for and managed, and that makes it very do-able.

Finally, I would always say I was not an exceptional swimmer, still less an exceptional kid – it was about preparing for an event, being with others, as part of a team, and sheer enjoyment – that’s the harder bit to quantify but also essential in my case. Just make it fun… then see what happens!

  • A Boy in the Water by Tom Gregory is published by Particular Books and is one of seven books on the shortlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2018. The winner will be announced on Tuesday 27 November.