Adam Walker: Extreme swimmerIn the past, Adam Walker spent his days selling toasters – but then he started to swim the world’s most treacherous open-water straits: Part 2
Last year, the English Channel ingested hundreds of Adam Walker wannabes and then spat them out in varying states of disarray. This year will be no different. “I’m already taking bookings for 2019,” says our small boat’s skipper, who’s called Eddie – we’re accompanying Walker on a training swim and Eddie’s is a necessary expert eye today.
The swimmer’s safety is paramount. The water is particularly cold, even by England’s standards, with a wind blowing that makes everything feel more bitter still. Sun and clear skies belie the fact that present conditions are inappropriate even for a dip in the ocean.
“My girlfriend wanted to come,” Walker says, smiling. “She was like, ‘Do any of them know you could die out there today?’” If he has considered that potential outcome himself he doesn’t show it, as we board the boat and unload our kit. “Would you believe I get seasick?” he says.
“How weird is that? An open-water swimmer, an extreme athlete, who suffers from seasickness on boats and in the water.” He laughs loudly over the engine’s thrum as we set out from the marina.
The prospect of swimming in seas like this for extended periods, taking on unforeseen problems, is enough to keep most of us on dry land without the added complication of seasickness.
But to Walker, that’s a little detail, another psychological brake that needs to be removed as soon as he gets into the water. Watching him at work, it’s clear that’s Walker all over: a man armed with an arsenal of internal monologues to overcome physical hurdles – chants, mantras, a bit of self-delusion, even. “I train myself not to be negative,” he says, by way of explanation.
Indeed, in his line of work, negativity can be fatal. “The biggest thing when you start out, other than just getting started, is acclimatising to the cold,” he says. It’s an uncomfortable truth that the sea is unforgiving in terms of temperature.
But, Walker believes, it’s your brain that allows you to overcome such hardships, during swimming or elsewhere. “You need to want it, want the achievement enough to suffer the pain,” he explains. “
Plus you need to rewire your brain: when I was starting out, I didn’t say the word ‘cold’ for seven years.” He’s not joking.
“Take your bath as a relative scale,” he continues, pulling on his swimming cap now, adjusting his goggles, cool as you like. “Imagine filling it up to the top with cold water and how unpleasant it would be to get into.
That’s around 17-19°C.” He releases the rubber cap with an audible thwack. “This water is around 7°C,” he says, gesturing towards the sea around us. “Going into hypothermia is a real risk. Plus it chills your guts, so you’re likely to spend much of your swim vomiting.”
That fitness alone cannot prepare you for physical tests is a notion Walker returns to frequently. More important, he says, is pushing through the pain barrier. He posits this as a metaphor for all of life’s challenges.
“It’s not even about the swimming,” says Walker. “In fact, it’s not about the swimming at all. What matters is that you believe you can take on a challenge like this, any challenge, and then do something about it.”
It would be easy to write off such platitudinous advice were Walker’s beginnings not so humble and his achievements not so great. He’s a reminder that wanting something can be the precursor to achieving it, if you’re willing to suffer a little hardship along the way.
Hardships such as an unrelenting headwind that bites despite multiple layers of clothing. Everyone on the boat’s deck is shivering as Walker steps over to the ladder wearing swimming shorts, a swimming cap, goggles… and nothing else.
“It’s getting hot in here!” he half-shouts, half-sings, the final brain trick deployed. His whooping and chants get quieter as his feet work through the ladder rungs and he descends. A few sharp breaths and with an almost inaudible splash, Walker disappears into the foam in the boat’s wake. Everyone’s nerves go to shreds.
It’s painful to watch, but Walker has been through worse. “I vomited more than 20 times in the English Channel,” he says. But of course he completed the swim.
That all sounds positively tepid compared to the Hawaii stretch of the Oceans Seven, during which Walker was stung by a Portuguese Man o’ War, also known as the floating terror, a jellyfish-like creature that carries venom nearly as powerful as that of a cobra.
“It was the worst pain of my life,” he says. With both neck and spine numb, Walker’s belief that strength of mind can overcome anything got its biggest test – and he completed the swim only a few hours later than planned.
He’s been stalked by sharks and succumbed to hypothermia… “You’d have to be mad to do this job, right?” he yells from the water as he carves a line next to the boat, showcasing the famous front crawl-style stroke unique to him. Mad indeed. But Walker did it anyway. He had to. Especially considering the injury that could have ended his career.
When Walker ruptured his bicep tendon during the English Channel swim, his surgeon advised him to give up swimming completely.
Unfazed, Walker instead pushed on, inventing a stroke that allowed him to work around a shoulder injury so damaging it could have ended the career of any Olympian.
Unlike a traditional stroke, the Ocean Walker, as he calls it, shifts the focal point of entry into the water. With each stroke, he focuses on the elbow as the lead to the rest of the upper body. By contrast, traditional teaching would have you lead with the hand.
By shifting this focus to the elbow, Walker is able to minimise stress on the shoulder as the arm rotates with each stroke, completing its rotation at the hips. And it’s those hips, by the way, which are doing most of the work.
“In all sports, from running to shot-put, and even when walking, the body prefers to use the hips and core,” he says. “They’re powerful endurance muscles. So why not in swimming?” He has a point.
And many have agreed with him. Walker now travels the globe teaching his technique. Not only has he inspired other swimmers, but stars in other sports.
In 2015, he was approached by tennis number one Novak Djokovic, who after training with Walker, is using the Ocean Walker stroke to strengthen the joints that are the most important, rather than risking injury to them.
If nothing else, that’s testament to a mindset that’s been a real game changer. A can-do attitude in the truest sense, which has proven to be a powerful real-life tool.
As Walker climbs out of the water, the unspoken concern among the crew is deafening. He breaks the silence: “I’m… shaking like a sh…sh-tting dog,” he splutters. Everyone laughs.
It’s neither grit nor self-delusion alone, but a hard alloy of both that allows a man as normal as Adam Walker the strength to rub shoulders with, and then brush past, the greatest athletes on the planet.
“The first step is to go over that line, to take that risk,” he says, cupping his hands round a mug of tea to warm them up. “If you can make that happen, then you can then take on anything – injury, adversity, whatever.
Everybody is capable of doing something like an Oceans Seven. The only question is, do you want it enough? Nothing great is easy. But my mantra is, if it’s simple in your mind, it’s simple in reality.”