It’s early on a Friday morning in January, and Adam Walker is driving from the Midlands to Dover Marina in southeast England. The 200-mile route is a familiar one to him; he couldn’t count the hours he’s spent traveling it. But Walker, 37, owes a lot to the destination at the end of his journey.
The marina rescued him from his mundane job and plunged him in at the deepest end of endurance sports. 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 in his country to swim seven of the world’s most treacherous open-water straits, known collectively as the Oceans Seven.
He’s endured a crucible of near breakdowns, injuries, marine-life attacks and hypothermia. And then of course there’s every sportsman’s worst enemy: himself.
Before his achievements, before the training, before Dover, Walker’s story began like anyone elses’s.
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.
Walker was normal to an almost comical degree: a tea 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 sports, 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 practicing techniques in the pool, but I needed to test myself against cold water; I needed to acclimatize,” explains Walker. “So I started swimming in lakes.”
But it was a rough 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.” Undeterred by the setback—and the need to keep his full-time job—he made swimming 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 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.
Like its traditional pool-based counterpart, it relies on 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 a 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 marine life; and “cold” is a word you have to shut out entirely, because to let it in could spell disaster.