It’s early on a Friday morning in January and Adam Walker is driving from the Midlands to Dover Marina in south-east England. The 200-mile route is a familiar one to him; he couldn’t count the hours he’s spent travelling it. Walker, 37, owes a lot to these waters.
They rescued him from his mundane job and plunged him in at the deepest end of endurance sport. By the age of 18, Walker had been dabbling in the water as unremarkably as he had all the other sports that tend to play a part in the upbringing of British boys.
But in the last eight years he has broken records as well as expectations, becoming the first Brit to swim seven of the world’s most treacherous open-water straits known collectively as the Oceans Seven.
And all this while enduring a crucible of near breakdowns, injuries, marine-life attacks and hypothermia, largely underpinned by facing up to every great sportsman’s worst enemy: himself.
Before his achievements, before the training, before Dover, Walker was going through the motions in an unspectacular job living an unspectacular life. The fact is, though his achievements are being written into the annals of extreme sport’s history, Walker’s story didn’t start with any semblance of convention.
There was no PE teacher who spotted a potential Olympian and nudged him toward regionals and glory. No pushy parent urging him to nurture a sporting career.
No, Walker was normal to an almost comical degree: a kettle and toaster salesman from Nottingham whose chances of being a world-class athlete had dwindled with his youth.
But then, in 2006, when he was 28 and far removed from top-level sport, he watched an in-flight movie about a man who swims the English Channel and decided to turn his life around. “I wanted to do something memorable,” he says. “You don’t want to die not having achieved something special. This was the biggest physical and mental challenge out there.
Even more so for me because I wasn’t ever good at endurance. It was a case of, ‘do something you’re not good at’.”
His implausible decision had epic consequences. “I started practising techniques in the pool, but I needed to test myself against cold water, I needed to acclimatise,” explains Walker. “So I started swimming in lakes.”
But it was a stunted start. “During my first open-water swim I got hypothermia,” he says. “I was later told by paramedics that I was only a few minutes away from death.” While still holding down a full-time job, swimming became his focus. “I would go and swim before and after work,” he says, “like Olympians do.”
As his training went deeper, so did the costs. Walker’s then-relationship folded under the strain. But, almost unbelievably, he persevered and found his way to Dover. By 2008, he’d taken on the English Channel.
In the seven years that followed, he swam all seven straits, making the home appliance salesman one of only six people in the world to conquer what is arguably the toughest endurance challenge on the planet. It’s real life that smacks of Hollywood cliché.
As irresistible as you’d imagine Walker’s humble start and subsequent odyssey to be to scriptwriters, there’s no film about him yet. Open-water swimming is still an almost unknown sport for most.
Like its traditional pool-based counterpart, it relies upon sound technique; without that, you’re going nowhere. Unlike the pool, however, the ocean is chaos, an inherently unpredictable venue in which preparing for everything is about as achievable as trying to predict the roll of the dice.
Sometimes, you roll double six: the current is on your side, the temperature is bearable – in terms relative to the sport, at least – and you are able to swim without much incident, perhaps just suffering the odd bout of uncontrollable vomiting or limb-numbing coldness.
Mostly, though, you roll snake eyes: for every mile you swim, the current is prone to drag you back two; perils abound; you’re stung to hell and back by a horror-show of a marine life; and cold is a word you have to shut out entirely, because to let it in could spell disaster.