When an 11-year-old could try to swim the English Channel... and triumph
PUBLISHED: 18:02 03 September 2018 | UPDATED: 11:24 10 September 2018
Tom Gregory is still the youngest swimmer to conquer the English Channel and probably always will be
Just shy of his 12th birthday, Tom Gregory made history as the youngest person to swim the English Channel. Eleven hours and 54 minutes of tiredness and triumph – and not long after another swimmer had died making an attempt.
The days of Twitter and Facebook frenzy were still far off, so there wasn’t a massive hoohah when he took three wobbly steps on the shingle at Dover on September 6, 1988, but he was on the 10 o’clock news, in the papers, and later opened a local brass fittings shop called Knobs and Knockers.
There was even an appearance on Blue Peter and an embarrassing kiss from presenters Caron Keating and Yvette Fielding to go with his gold BP badge.
While the swim itself might have taken about 12 hours, it was the culmination of four years of planning, practice, determination and trust.
Tom had joined his local swimming club at the age of seven. It was run by John Bullet, an old-school disciplinarian “built like a cannonball” whose day-job was managing a pool at Eltham in the capital. In his own time, he coached young swimmers, and had the enviable knack of producing winners.
“By any standard, he was a world-class coach, and he was operating out of a council pool in south-east London,” says Tom. “He took kids from estates and helped them do amazing things.”
It wasn’t a slick operation by modern standards. Tom honed his skills in Lake Windermere (he swam it at 10), London Docks and the sea at Dover to get used to the cold and distances.
Youngsters (including his older sister, Anna) would go off in an ageing minibus for camps and training. Tom, at eight, caught the eye as a potential Channel swimmer.
Much later, grown-up Tom became an adopted East Anglian. There were tours of Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq with The Royal Anglian Regiment. There were more-relaxed moments: Proudly carrying the “colour” during civic services at Norwich Cathedral, for instance, and getting to know virtually every corner of Suffolk and Norfolk as the soldiers staged recruitment drives.
Quite a bit of humour and memories, too, from playing rugby. Tom remembers being slightly apprehensive when soldiers took on inmates at Highpoint prison, between Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill.
“There was a great moment during the warm-up when someone kicked the ball over the wires and all the prisoners volunteered ‘I’ll get it!’, which made me laugh.”
He’s still the youngest person to swim the Channel, by the way. The Channel Swimming Association, worried about the strain on youngsters and the risks, soon banned under-16s from trying.
‘A peculiar kind of desperation’
Tom’s telling his story for the first time in A Boy in the Water, written mainly during his daily commute to Waterloo over about a year. It’s catching the public imagination – BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week, even. (Catch the episodes on iPlayer.)
It’s funny people seem so interested, he says, because for him the facts haven’t changed since 1988.
“Thirty years ago, no-one was asking me to defend anything. As people read the book, there’s a bit of a theme emerging of me having to defend something because the language” – culture, maybe? – “has changed. People are asking if that was OK and almost looking for something bad. I have to remind them ‘Nothing bad happened here; this is a good story. This is a happy event,’” he laughs.
I imagine readers will wonder about two things: The physical and mental strain on a swimmer of tender years, plus the danger of the sea; and (coloured by our knowledge now of child abuse) the wisdom of allowing a man to become a quasi-parent-cum-guru to so many children.
Well, Tom genuinely wanted to tackle the Channel. And there was never any question of impropriety. “It was,” he insists, simply “a good news story – the Union Jack flying high and a record claimed”.
So how does he reflect on the 1980s? “Happily. Entirely.” The endurance challenge was hard, of course – “it’s a peculiar kind of desperation” – and the isolation of effectively being alone in the water was difficult. But the years in the swimming club were immensely happy.
“We wanted to be there. It was the package that came with it: the adventure; the wild surroundings; the pop music; the camaraderie; the sheer fun of doing something like that when no-one else was. I treasure those memories.”
‘A kid who asked for the wrong Christmas present’
The book shows just how joyful and hard were those never-to-be-forgotten years. Sleeping with just one sheet in spring, the bedroom window open, to get accustomed to the cold. No hot showers or baths; no jumpers or coats – for the same reason.
There was a diet to add body-fat to combat the cold water. (The daily breakfast featured a whole tin of Heinz beans, three scrambled eggs and two thick slices of buttered bread – plus a porridge starter with a dessertspoon of soya flour.
A Lake District swim of about 15.5 miles that summer, lasting more than seven hours, confirmed the attempt was “on” for autumn.
At the end of August, Brazilian long-distance swimmer Renata Agondi died five miles from the French coast. It was the 25-year-old’s first attempt at a Channel crossing bid. Hypothermia?
Tom’s attempt was less than 10 days away. He wasn’t worried about dying. “Doctors, medicals and consent were all very well, but also largely irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was John. John Bullet would keep me safe. Of that I had no doubt whatsoever… I trusted him with my life,” he writes.
So he stepped into the water, in the dark, after 5am on September 6, 1988. The swim was tough – sustained by small bottles of soup drunk in the water and the odd biscuit tossed into the sea.
Later, when he hit the pain barrier, his shoulder blades felt as if they were rubbing together across his back, his hip hurt, and the tears mixed with seawater in his goggles. His body began to shut down. There were clearly times when he hallucinated; times when he momentarily fell asleep.
“I felt like a little kid who had asked for the wrong Christmas present; pushing and demanding that I got my way, only to unwrap the thing and discover that it was not what I thought it was, and that I had to live with the consequences. ‘This will end. This will end,’ I began repeating to myself.”
And it did. His left hand touched pebbles. “I lifted my head above water for air and looked up, gasping. This was England.”
No euphoria inside, though. His pre-swim daydream of triumph had evaporated. “Just me, sitting on the pebbles. I had been through something terrible that had finally ended, and felt only a deep and extreme sense of relief.”
Little wonder. Tom had swum 32 miles – longer than expected, because of the tides.
In the weeks to come he found himself on a big stage in Hyde Park, wearing a Sport Aid VIP badge and a Run the World T-shirt. DJ Bruno Brookes introduced him to the crowd and Tom introduced pop band Five Star.
Heady stuff. It wasn’t to last.
Between Christmas and New Year John Bullet had a stroke at the pool, followed by others. By the end of January, 1989 – less than five months after the Channel triumph he’d masterminded – he was dead. A 51-year-old man with no known family beyond the community of the club he ran. “I fell to the carpet and wept,” Tom admits. It was like losing a father.
He says John had been a clever coach – “a taker of calculated and controlled risks, and a master of patient psychological persuasion. He was tenacious, fought for his people, and for the things he believed in…
“John had many faults too, impatience, stubbornness and irascibility among them, but they were outweighed by kindness, humour and, in his own unique way, love.”
Over time, Tom drifted away from swimming, and during “an extended wake” often misbehaved and broke rules. The Cadet Squadron at school proved his salvation: fun, adventure, togetherness, structure. Again.
He went on to university and, in 1999, The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, becoming an officer in the Royal Anglian Regiment.
The 1st Battalion was stationed in Londonderry. “Northern Ireland operationally was very intense and there was active threat. There was dissident activity and the ceasefire was effectively broken. As a young officer straight into an operational tour, that felt like a real challenge.”
The year 2002 brought Afghanistan and Kabul, and a security operation to help the elections take place. “In military terms, compared with what happened later, the threat was relatively benign, but it was still there. But I would not put it in the same category as the stuff the battalions did in Helmand later.”
Iraq in 2005 posed probably the biggest threat. Tom was intelligence officer for south Basra. “My job was to help think of ways of catching the bad guys. That was a fascinating job,” though he says he “didn’t see any really nasty stuff”.
Counter-balancing the rough stuff was East Anglia.
Companies of the 1st Battalion are traditionally aligned with counties and recruit from those areas. Tom was in ‘A’ Company (Norfolk). Suffolk was B, Essex C and Cambridgeshire D.
Soldiers would return to attend comrades’ weddings, for instance; to take part in civic services and homecoming parades.
“With all the soldiers from the same towns and villages, you get to know the place. So I became very connected to East Anglia. And of course we were always in the papers and talking to reporters when we were on tour.”
Tom remembers Anglia TV making a documentary called Anglians in Afghanistan when the troops were in Kabul. He appeared in it. And there was often an Archant reporter out with them, sending back stories to our newspapers about what the Royal Anglians were facing.
Tom was a platoon commander. “If you’re an infantry officer, you spend all your waking time with your men, and they’re all from local towns and with that special accent I came to know and love. It’s a proper county regiment. You can’t help but absorb that heritage.”
The company nickname was The Fighting 9th, after Norfolk’s former 9th of Foot. “I’ve still got the T-shirts! Very important in the army to cherish your T-shirts!”
The parades also reflected being part of a community. “The highest honour you can have as an officer is to carry the regimental colour, and I got to carry the colour at Ely and Norwich – the big cathedral services.”
Much time was spent at the Stanford Training Area near Thetford – home to simulated Afghan-style villages. “A lot of our pre-operational tour work was done there.”
Recruitment work was different, and fun.
“I’ll never forget being at a windswept Lowestoft, on the promenade there. A lot of teenage boys would just kick around. There wasn’t a lot else to do, maybe, and I would have done the same thing.
“We used to roll up in a Land Rover, in our combats, with a beret on, and have a chat with them and say ‘Do you know what it’s like in the army? Do you want us to tell you about it?’” It was different than the more formal “high street” recruiting offices.
Tom opted to leave the army in 2006. He retired as a captain, and with a heavy heart, “because I loved the regiment and I loved being a soldier”. But he’d had three tours, was about to turn 30, and life was moving on.
What if daughters want to swim the Channel?
There was six years with Goldman Sachs, learning about banking and the City. For the past five and a half years he’s been with accountancy firm Deloitte.
Today, Tom and wife Helen live in Surrey, with daughters Rosie (three and a half) and Beatrice (one and a half).
While Tim still loves being in a pool, the only time he goes now is with the girls. “Rosie’s quite fearless. I want them to feel confident and enjoy it as much as I did.”
What if, one day, they announce they want to swim the Channel?
“I would support them if that’s what they wanted to do. I think it’s a little bit unlikely. They won’t be allowed to do anything too young, because the rules prevent it. But if they’re interested, that’s fine. They’d have to find a coach, because I’m not sure I’m going to do it!” he laughs.
You do need the input of others for such an undertaking, he reckons – and it was particularly selfless of his dad to allow John Bullet and others to be so pivotal.
Tom’s parents are “true role models”, he says, and writes: “Your love, wisdom, humour and tolerance have never faltered.”
It must have been difficult for them to so often place their son in the hands of a surrogate parent, so to speak, and to quell any worries about the safety of the challenge.
“Some people have asked me if I had pushy parents. I can honestly say nothing could be further from the truth! My parents were on the sidelines, but checking that was what I wanted to do.
“They were thoughtful about what they could observe. We all trusted John, but we had reason to trust John. There was a whole gang of kids doing this; a whole bunch of families around it. So I think they had enough evidence to be comfortable with it.”
And the attempt itself was the culmination of steady progression over four years – not something that happened overnight.
He thinks Renata Agondi’s death did spook them a bit, but the key factor was this was his free choice.
“It was absolutely what I wanted to do. As a child, I was allowed by my parents to make that determination – and that’s a good thing.”
Tom feels it’s a shame no-one will get the chance to push him off his pedestal, after the rule change, because he thinks records are there to be broken.
“They were backed into an impossible corner, and I understand that argument. But it is a shame if protecting things gets in the way of endeavour. That’s where I think we might lose something.”
A Boy in the Water is published by Particular Books at £14.99