Tom Gregory’s channel swim memoir A Boy in the Water couldn’t be more timely, published as it is the day after Lewis Pugh successfully completed The Long Swim by swimming the length of the English Channel from Cornwall to Dover.
Eltham, South London. 1984: the hot fug of the swimming pool and the slow splashing of a boy learning to swim but not yet wanting to take his foot off the bottom.
Fast-forward four years. Photographers and family wait on the shingle beach as a boy in a bright orange hat and grease-smeared goggles swims the last few metres from France to England.
He has been in the water for twelve agonizing hours, encouraged at each stroke by his coach, John Bullet, who has become a second father.
It’s impressive enough to discover that Tom Gregory goes from being unable to swim a width of the pool without stopping for a rest to swimming the English Channel within four years. What makes his story all the more incredible is that he was only eleven years old when he did so.
It couldn’t happen today, not least because on 26th November 2000 the Channel Swimming Association ruled that no one under the age of 16 could attempt a solo Channel swim. But there are a host of other reasons and regulations why Tom Gregory’s transformation from reluctant Wednesday evening swim club participant to member of an elite group of swimmers would be less likely these days.
Here, kids pile into a rusty minibus to go away on swimming weekends in Dover and weeks up in the Lake District with their unorthodox swimming coach, sleep in communal tents I remember from school camps and eat stodge as we did, all while going through punishing cold water training. It is the story of another time.
That’s not to say that there are no rules, no safety checks, no concerned parents, or a coach who doesn’t know what he’s doing. There are all those things, just not as tightly controlled by regulations as they are today. What sets Tom Gregory’s story apart is the abiding trust and belief in the people behind the training and channel crossing attempt, and one man in particular, Tom Gregory’s maverick coach John Bullet.
Tom Gregory tells his story through diary-like entries of his own channel swim interspersed with flashbacks to how he came to start swimming at the pool in Eltham only four years earlier. It’s an inspiring read right from when we see his reluctance turn into inclination upon discovering that he’s good at swimming. We follow his progress as he faces each challenge of his swimming ability and endurance, detailing his fear and trepidation along the way to and through that record-breaking swim and its aftermath.
A Boy in the Water is an uplifting and truly remarkable story of innocence, dedication, and commitment: it’s the story of one dedicated and determined boy and his enterprising coach, and their four-year odyssey towards achieving the ultimate feat in long-distance swimming and breaking a record.
A Boy in the Water by Tom Gregory is published by Particular Books, a Penguin Press imprint. It is available as an audiobook and an ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive and support your local independent bookshop instead.
My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.