August 09, 2005

Un RÍve Modeste et Fou

Happy 40th National Day, Singapore!

It's been a painful couple of days as I've tried to recover from my swim. It's been very difficult to get food down or to sleep. Ali Streeter, Queen of the Channel, told me it is typical: you've ingested so much carbohydrate and seawater that your body is going to feel full for a while, and your muscles are so sore that it will be hard to relax and fall asleep.

I'm slowly recovering, though, and when I think back it feels a little surreal. I spent so much time with my wits dulled by pain that most of the swim is a haze. I can recall specific incidents if I think about them but it seems incredible that I spent almost twelve and a half hours swimming continuously from England to France. It hasn't really sunk in yet, but perhaps it will as I settle down and recover.

It actually started out really well. I had been confident of swimming it in under ten hours. In retrospect, I was a little overconfident. I was easily holding my ten hour pace until we unexpectedly hit some extremely rough weather about 3 hours in. The waves came crashing down on me and tossed me about like the insignificant speck that I was. I was flipped about and the boat went up and down so much I thought it was going to capsize. Such is the power of mother nature as a great leveller. No matter who we are or how great we are, we are all helpless before the great forces of nature.

After battling this rough water for about an hour, I was exhausted and ready to give up. I paused for a moment, treading water and looking at the boat, and I decided to just swim a few strokes more- I had to if I wanted to reach the boat, anyway. I decided that I'd swim the few strokes, and then I'd think again about giving up. After those few strokes, I decided to swim a few more strokes. And then a few more. And a few more. Over the next eight hours, I kept myself going by just swimming a few more strokes at a time.

This leads me to observe another great force: the human spirit. Once mother nature had stripped me bare of pride and pretension, all I had left was my determination and will to carry on and prevail. I realised I could not defeat the terrible force of nature, only hold on and keep slowly moving forward until such a time as the fickle and capricious weather left me alone. Eventually the water improved and I was able to slowly and exhaustedly carry on. Thus is the second lesson of my crossing: that the human spirit in its purest and humblest form is equal to anything in this world. Having met so many other Channel swimmers, seen what I've seen and experienced what I've experienced, I cannot help but believe that anything can be achieved if we strip away all our vanity and apply ourselves with great humility to our goals.

From about the time the waves hit I also started shivering. I was expecting this: the cold would slowly start to eat away at me. As long as it didn't penetrate deeply, however, I knew I would be okay. I also knew the shivering of my core muscles would gradually cause them to cramp up, and indeed they did. Over the last 3 hours or so the slightest attempt to use my legs caused me intense pain, so I gave up on my legs and let them drag behind me.

In addition, the seawater I swallowed made me nauseous and sick, and I threw up several times. My injured hand also ached and I found myself unconsciously curling up the last three fingers of my right hand. I forced them to straighten again and ignored the pain. I had trained myself to expect all of this: the shivering, the cramps, the nausea, the pain, the exhaustion- and I battled on through it and kept going. After the rough waves I had come to expect the worse, so even when Mairin accidentally hit me in the face with my water bottle when she threw it to me it didn't even faze me. I just made sure my goggles were intact and kept going.

To be honest, I didn't think I'd make it. I was fairly certain I'd just reach a point where everything would just collapse and they'd have to fish me out of the water. I didn't think of success. I just kept going for a few more strokes, clinging to my hope that perhaps the next few strokes would be the strokes which got me to France. I did everything I could to motive myself. I thought about my family, my friends, about Singapore. I sang the national anthem to myself, I sang my school song to myself, I sang every single inspirational theme I could think of. I thought of my late father and how much he sacrificed for me to get to this point. I thought of all the people who believed in me, and all the people who supported me. I thought of all the children who would benefit from my swim, all the patients who would get the help they need. I kept going, for just a few more strokes.

As I approached France, I could see the cliffs on the beach. Unfortunately, due to my time lost I was now swimming against the tide- it was coming out as I was trying to go in. Many swims are abandoned at this point, just 100-200 yards from the shore, as the swimmer is unable to overcome the tides. Fortunately, I was strong enough to keep inching gradually forward. The cliffs, however, never seemed to get closer, and at one point I shouted in frustration at the boat, "Why don't they look any closer??!" Mairin almost shouted back, "Because they're NOT!" but decided it was better not to. It was fortunate she didn't: I would have given up if she had! As it was, I convinced myself it was a trick of the light and kept swimming.

Eventually, as the sun was setting, I noticed that they had gotten the dinghy out. It could only mean that we were approaching shallower water where the boat couldn't go. This revelation gave me a boost and I threw in everything I had into a last burst of speed. The two members of the media got into the dinghy and sped off to the shore. I waited and waited for the shore to arrive. Yet the shore still would not come.

I was beginning to despair at all the false alarms and hoping when I noticed, through the now-substantial darkness, lights were flashing on the boat, and I heard vague shouts. I lifted my head and I realised they were camera flashes. "Swim for the shore! Go!!" my crew were shouting, pointing forward. I put my head down, with no strength left to go faster, just stroking, until my hand suddenly hit a rock, cutting my finger open. Even this was a false alarm: due to the low tide, rocks on the seabed were close to the surface, but I had to swim over them to get to the shore.

Finally I dimly discerned sand through the water and my fingers hit the soft beach. I climbed to my feet and tried to jog as fast as I could, knowing that the timer wouldn't stop till I clearer the water entirely. That was the first time that I realised I was actually going to succeed. I stumbled my way up the beach and finally the water stopped lapping around my feet.

The media were waiting for me. I tried to think of something to say, but all I could think of was to repeat what I had said to myself, over and over throughout my swim: "This is for Singapore." Then, out of sheer weariness, I sank to my knees. All the tension and frustration broke and I punched my arms in the air, screaming a wordless cry of triumph. I had made it.


Just over a year ago, I set out in pursuit of my foolish yet modest dream: to swim across the English Channel. It was foolish because it seemed so impossible to achieve, and yet modest because it was a simple, straightforward, uncomplicated goal with clear requirements and a straight path to the finish. It was foolish because it was utterly unnecessary, in a way: its only virtue was its challenge, and yet it was modest because it paled in comparison with the challenges people face every day in life.

After all, people embark every day on challenges greater than my own: working to feed their families, getting married, having children, saving lives. What I did is far smaller in consequence than any of those things. We all do great things on a daily basis, and it is these things we do that define who we are and how great we are. In short, greatness is within us all. I hope my Channel swim will serve to inspire people to greatness, but I also hope they do not merely define greatness as limited to a grand gesture like swimming the Channel. Greatness is what you want it to be. Dream your own dreams and follow them.

I swam the Channel to pursue my own dream, and I hope all of you will be inspired to pursue your dreams too. Through the past seven months, I've tried to chronicle what it was like to pursue this dream, but my blog only offers the merest hint of what it was actually like: the sacrifice, the pain, the suffering, the loneliness, and most of all the sweet, sweet triumph and relief of victory. I hope that all of you who followed me on this journey will seek to experience this for yourselves. Whatever your dream, no matter how foolish, no matter how modest, I hope you will pursue it to the very end, and I know you too will find it as gratifying as I did.

On this journey I had a lot of help. I want to thank my family and my friends for their unwavering support; my sponsors, the Methodist Schools' Foundation, for being so committed to helping me achieve this dream; Action for Aids Singapore; my coaches, John Dempsey in Singapore and Freda Streeter in Dover, plus the affable Barrie Wakeham; my pilot, Dave Whyte, his wife Joan, and his crew, Colin and Will; my crew, Mairin Hennebry and Nick Thomas, for being there on the boat when I needed them the most; my observer, Dave Benny, and Mike Oram & the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation; the media for covering this event so closely, especially Catherine Drew (Channel News Asia) and Randy Quan (The Straits Times) who braved the boat (if they knew what they were in for they would never have gotten on board!); all the other Channel Swimmers whom I met along the way, especially Ali, Cliff, Kevin, Stu (and his mother), Matt & Xanic, Peter, Julian, and everyone else whose names I can't recall at this moment but whose impact on my life is immeasurable; The Sandhams, Martin, Sonia, Jade and Kelsey; all my supporters in Singapore and around the world; and everyone who believed in me. Lastly, I must thank God for that little push He gave me right at the end.

At 2119 hrs on the 6th of August 2005, my foolish yet modest dream became mon un rÍve modeste et fou as I staggered up onto the shore of France and my dream became reality.

Thank you all for sharing it with me.

Posted by pj at August 9, 2005 05:15 PM

U've definitely inspired me.

Posted by: Sherrie at August 10, 2005 01:05 PM

You've set a great example, thank you.

Posted by: Ivy at August 10, 2005 01:20 PM

Outstanding achievement! I've been tracking your blog for a while and commend you on sharing your insights and tribulations on your quest. Enjoy the accolades

David Lim
Leader, 1st Singapore Everest Expedition, 1998

Posted by: David Lim at August 10, 2005 01:46 PM

Congratulations, PJ! I am delighted at your sucess. I must say that I particularly enjoyed this last reflection; you've embedded great truths, learned at a high price. Your ability to focus in on the details and hold on to the bigger world is a little astounding. Your perserverence is greatly astonishing. I can dish out many more well-deserved accolades. Point blank: You'll have to send me a signed autograph image of your swim eventually.

:D Kalia

Posted by: kalia at August 10, 2005 10:16 PM

Brilliant! You have proven that as long as we dare to dream and believe, The Best is Yet to Be!

Posted by: Shortphat K at August 11, 2005 01:19 AM

Well done. I am proud of you.

Posted by: Kalia's Sister, Der at August 11, 2005 01:57 AM

Well done PJ. Now have a well earned rest!

Posted by: Adam at August 11, 2005 08:02 AM

Hi PJ, I don't know if you still remember me from our time at NPD, but I thought I'd leave a comment to congratulate you. Your never-ending list of achievements never fail to astound me. You should be so proud. Take care!

Posted by: Justin at August 11, 2005 03:51 PM

Your writing is almost as amazing as your swim! I'm proud to call you a friend and prouder to let you know how much you inspire me! Thanks, Peej. Peace - Sean

Posted by: Sean Hennessey at August 13, 2005 06:45 AM

Congratulations on such an accomplishment!

Posted by: Andrew R. at August 14, 2005 06:34 PM

WELL DONE!!! Singapore is proud of you!

Posted by: Wang Zhen at August 16, 2005 07:45 PM

Btw, you've been officially entered into a project tracking all the historic things that Singaporean bloggers and blogs get up to.

Posted by: Wang Zhen at August 17, 2005 12:47 PM

PJ, here is a comment from Lynne Cox - if you need her contact let me know. Congratulations on your swim
-----Original Message-----
From: lynnecox@XXXX.XXX [mailto:lynnecox@XXXXX.XXX]
Sent: Tuesday, August 23, 2005 9:14 AM
To: Nagaraja, Madhu
Subject: Re: Thoughts of an English Channel swimmer

Wow what a beautiful letter Madhu.
Thank you for sending it and please pass along my congratulations to
P.J. Thum

Posted by: Madhu Nagaraja at August 23, 2005 10:19 PM

Well done PJ terrific effort, you're our man. I'll buy you a drink in Oxford. See you in a bit.

Posted by: Matt Fox at August 25, 2005 11:08 PM

Hey PJ, i was swimming for the ComCurrent Swim back here in Singapore. Your swim was absolutely terrific. It brought us to realise the power of the mind and its miracles. An inspiration to us all here in ACJC swim team. To God be the glory, the Best is yet to be.

Posted by: Sandhya at August 28, 2005 08:17 PM

i haven't been inspire in a long long time. reading what you have been through inspired me.

Posted by: booger at December 29, 2005 11:00 PM

Happen to know your website from AFA site.
Congratulation to you! I hope you have recovered all because been reading that you suffered so much!!
I love the statement written by you very much:

The human spirit in its purest and humblest form is equal to anything in this world!

May God bless you!

Posted by: gwtw at January 27, 2006 02:23 PM
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