Sink or Swim - behind the scenes
Everyone who was involved in this event will have a different view on it, I’m sure. This is my perspective of a truly unique project.
How did this all start?
Back in April I received a phone call, out of the blue, from production company TwoFour. They had, apparently, been speaking to a number of people about a potential project and all sources led to me as a good person to speak to.
Their idea was to take a group of celebrities who could not swim and who represented demographics who tend not to swim for various reasons and train them to the point where they were able to take on an English Channel Relay this year. They wanted to know if I thought it was possible. I did actually think it was possible, and I held that belief for several reasons including:
It’s easier to create new muscle memory than to try and change existing bad habits
There would be focused training effort with great coaching support
I gave the production team some other tips and pointers and also connected them with some experts to assist. These experts included SwimQuest for training support and Neil Streeter as a potential channel pilot (there had conveniently been a cancellation at just the right time!).
And so it all began. I got a series of calls for more information including conversations right up the chain with Channel 4 so that they could assure themselves that this was a good and viable project before scheduling air time for the project. This was agreed and four episodes were to air on consecutive Tuesday evenings. The slot agreed was in September.
Thing is, time was still marching on, I was still receiving frequents emails and requests for questions to be answered by the production team that the project was handed over to. I had thought it was a viable yet still challenging project in April. Come June and warming water temperatures and I was starting to feel a lot less comfortable about the whole thing, especially as there were no signs of celebrities!
Eventually, the celebrities were selected and training started. I was asked if I would like to be one of the coaches working three days a week on the project. Whilst that would have been amazing, I have a corporate role as well that I could not work around with such short notice. However, there were still plenty of opportunities to be involved and the list below shows where and how I was involved:
Beach lifeguard for their first venture out onto the water in Lymington - this aired in episode one
1:1 coaching session with Linford Christie in a pool
Group session as a coach in Burgh Island - their first sea swim - this aired in episode two
1:1 coaching session with Lindford Christie in Shepperton Lake
Group session as coach & beach lifeguard for a night swim in Shepperton Lake - this aired in episode three
Wished them well as they left Dover on the big day - this aired in episode four
Watch party for the final episode
Read on to find out how each of these sessions were for me…..
Beach Lifeguard - Lymington - 19th July
This was my first experience with the celebrities and working with a TV programme. I had to arrive on location very early, I have no idea why, it was hours before anything happened! I was going to be on the rescue boat as beach lifeguard along with a paramedic.
The day chilly and was also sooooo wet. It absolutely poured down with rain, it was also pretty breezy too, so not a warm, flat & sunny day as a first experience in open water, quite the opposite. The original plan had been to do this outside of Dover, but the weather forecast meant that the plan had to be altered. I have never seen such detailed risk assessments and it was reassuring that they took this aspect incredibly seriously.
The plan was for the celebrities to get some experience of getting out on a boat and then to get into the water with wetsuits and buoyancy aids (they are not yet swimmers). The celebrities apparently didn’t realise that they were going to be asked to get in the water.
Our rib also seemed to be a bit of a taxi service. Not all the celebrities were on board when we got out to the chosen location on the water. Greg arrived late and we were initially asked to go back and get him. That was a very interesting journey, visibility was sooo poor it was actually very difficult to find the entrance to the marina. Just as we did find it that mission was called off and we were asked to return to set. Another boat had been released to pick Greg up, we were asked to transfer him from that boat to the celebrity rib though. We also needed to transfer Linford the other way as he had to leave early to receive an honorary degree. We exchanged the briefest of words and both celebrities seemed lovely. Linford appeared to be a bit of a comedian.
The celebrities were all on two large ribs with Keri-Anne Payne and Ross Edgeley (celebrity trainers, though in all honesty the real coaching was done by a team of other coaches). There were also a few other boats with camera, sound and production crew. It was fascinating watching the set being changed over and over again….. Close ups with the celebrities with camera crew on board the ribs, then panning out with all signs of camera crew removed. It took a very long time to film what was just a matter of seconds on the programme. The attention to detail really was quite incredible. There was an underwater cameraman with the longest fins I’ve ever seen! There was also a drone camera.
I haven’t got quite so wet for a very long time. Despite wearing a waterproof jacket I was wet to the skin! The boat kept filling up with water from the waves. My torpedo buoy floated freely around on the bottom. At one point I put my hand into the water from the boat and it felt so warm and I mean really warm. I guess that showed just how chilly the air was.
Our boat wasn’t close enough to the celebrities to see or hear their reactions when they were told they were getting in. But their reactions to it were as individual as they are. Some jumped right in and had fun bobbing around chatting to each other. Some made good attempts at swimming forwards (difficult in a buoyancy aid), some were reluctant to get in and clung on tight to the boat. All those still present at that time did get into the water.
They were left to enjoy the water for several minutes before getting back onto the ribs and into their gorgeous dryrobes (I love the logo design). It’s pretty tricky getting back onto a rib, particularly with a ladder that is flexible rather than rigid. All except Arg managed it though. Arg was asked to get back onboard our rib which was lower to the water, so easier to negotiate. The paramedic & I helped pull him onboard before taxiing him back to his rib.
The paramedic & I were then also transferred to the big rib with some of the celebrities. I thought that we’d be heading back to shore, but oh no! Now was for some super fast motoring around - big circles and bouncing through big wakes and waves. It was fun, though I did spend a lot of the time trying to stay off camera.
Some of the celebrities visibly loved the thrill of being very fast on the water. I sat with Georgia for a while who was not so happy. One of her fears was falling off a boat and this really didn’t help. I did what I could to reassure her.
The session did eventually come to an end and we got back to base and were able to change into dry clothes. Lunch had been booked at a local pub and I started to regret my choice of chicken salad, something warm and lovely like fish and chips would have been nicer perhaps. But actually it was lovely.
Overall, a long morning of mostly waiting and getting very wet. But it was fun.
One to one coaching with Linford Christie in a pool - 23rd July
Each of the celebrities had regularly assigned coaches to support them, but occasionally an alternative arrangement was required. I was called for sessions with Linford & Greg. I was also asked about a group session. Ultimately the only sessions that actually went ahead were with Linford.
The briefing that I’d been given was that it could be the inside or outside pool. When I arrived at the centre it was the first day of school holidays. With a long queue for the outdoor pool it was clear that I’d be coaching indoors today. I’d also been briefed that his stroke was now good and he needed to work on endurance.
I started the session by suggesting a 200m warm-up. Linford’s reply was that he hadn’t done more than 125m joined up before! Right, let’s tear up the lesson plan and work on something more appropriate! This was also a few days after the big swim in Windermere, so he was also still recovering from that.
It is a fantastic privilege to work with someone who has been at the very top of their sport and throughout the session we had the opportunity to have brief conversations. A few things struck me about Linford on that day:
He’s clearly used to being coached and is receptive to what is said
He has a fantastic sense of humour!
He’s spent his career doing an activity in less than 10 seconds with tonnes of rest. Anything over 11 seconds and he’s in trouble!
It did take a lot of persuasion to get him to do continuous lengths without breaks. I put the focus on breathing, mostly ensuring he was breathing out under water leaving the strokes when he breathed to only breathing in.
I saw something in Linford that I’ve never seen in anyone else before and that was that the more tired he got, the faster he went. That must be a lot of years of training that have caused him to do the exact opposite of what you would naturally do. This was potentially going to be his biggest challenge, how to build a continuous ‘all day’ stroke which is sustainable over long distance, not just from one end to the other.
What struck me most though were a couple of things that Linford said. Firstly, he spoke about how he didn’t think that he was the fastest runner in his era. He believes that the race was won or lost in the call room. I always talk about how channel swimming is 80% mental and 20% everything else. This is an example that it’s not just channel swimming where this is true. He would go into the call room at major championships (but not the Olympics) and talk about how under-trained he was and that he really wasn’t ready or in a good place, and then proceed to beat the field. He’d then go to the Olympics and in the call room would be totally in the zone and visibly ready - ‘bring it on, I’m ready’. You can imagine how his competitors took that - he beat me when I wasn’t ready and now he is……. There you go, the race was run before they were even on the track. How else could we use this in life?\
The other thing which I found much more sad was his reason for doing this programme was not about the challenge, the cause or the charity - all of which were great. He said it was great how totally up for it some of the other celebrities were. For Linford he was trying to find his reason why. When he was running he had a ‘why’. Now he doesn’t. I asked if he did any running any more and he doesn’t, because he no longer has the why. What a beautifully honest answer. I’d imagine that most people in the same position would merely go through the motions with the challenge, but to me at least, the same characteristics that won him gold at the Olympics also drove him to train seriously, whether he had his ‘why’ or not.
I do hope that he found what he was looking for along the journey.
Burgh Island 2nd-4th August
This session had a number of swims:
small group swim, off camera, with the least confident swimmers
short swim in the mermaid sea pool
coached session and accompanied one to one swims
Most of the swim coaches arrived at Burgh Island hotel (what an amazing place!) at lunchtime on the Friday. As our group of swim coaches were gathered at in the dining room, a few of the celebrities came up and sat with us to start chatting. From memory it was Diane, Sair and Rachel. It was a lovely and relaxed environment. During the weekend I recall several of the celebrities commenting on how much they liked the SwimQuest coaches - they are so supportive and encouraging.
In particular I remember chatting with Diane. She was talking about how the celebrities have a WhatsApp group where they share the swimming that they’d been doing and how she felt so far behind some of the others. I simply pointed out that she was on a journey. Like any journey it has a beginning, a middle and an end. She was not yet at the end of the journey, and she was also not at the beginning. Trust the process as we all progress at different speeds. That seemed to give some comfort.
Later that afternoon Guy, Harry, John, Jo & I took to the water with Diane, Tessa & Rachel. These were the three that needed a confidence boost before the main, filmed, swim sessions took place over the weekend. All had real fear of the water, for a variety of reasons. All were weak swimmers. Between us we got used to the movement of open water, to swimming in the shallows up and down parallel to the shore, to gradually going into deeper water. We each had one swimmer assigned with two extra coaches as support. I had the pleasure of swimming with Diane. The swimmers did find it tiring, and our torpedo buoys were used to provide the opportunity for rest. By the end of the session their confidence had significantly improved. The duration of swimming without rest increased too.
On the Saturday morning we had an early start. Our hotels were about an hour’s drive from Burgh Island. We needed to be back on the Island early, no idea why, more hurry up and wait! The task for the morning was for the celebrities to swim in what’s known as the mermaid pool - a sea water natural pool that offered good protection. When we first got there it was beautifully calm and clean, however, due to the high winds, a big wave brought in a lot of foam and debris, it no longer looked lovely! The celebrities started by doing very short swims, with guides, to and from the platform in the middle. Except for Linford who didn’t like how the water looked and spent ages walking in the water and not putting the upper half of his body in, let alone his head! My assigned role was beach lifeguard on one of the inlets. As the celebrities confidence grew they started doing full circuits of the pool and I was able to offer words of encouragement. They were now all getting on with the task in hand. Linford shouted up at me on one circuit that he was going to impress me by how much he had improved from when I first saw him - he was right - the transformation was incredible! Arg, Wes and Greg were swimming in skins, the rest chose wetsuits. It was clear at this point that the big swim would not be under traditional channel swimming rules.
Open water swim
On the Saturday afternoon we ventured out in the open water. The celebrities were split into two groups and each group worked with a coach doing short swims out from shore and back again. Then Jo and I took two celebrities each on a straight swim - out for five minutes and back again. They all coped well with this. There were a variety of standards, with Wes at the fastest end of the scale (and now in a wetsuit) and others who needed to stop frequently to rest. All were now able to roll on to their back to rest safely and no longer needed a flotation device for security.
Point to point swim
Sunday was the day of the big swim which was to be a point to point swim. The challenge was that it was very windy and it was very difficult to find water calm enough to achieve what we needed for the swimmers and for the film crew. The water was under 16C. Some of the swimmers were already capable of swimming for two hours and I had been hopeful that we would be able to give them the opportunity to get the qualifying swim done ahead of schedule, unfortunately with all the hurry up and wait (oh they have this down to a fine art!) it wasn’t possible to fit it in.
The group was split into two. The stronger group went first. As with all events on this programme, the safety cover was amazing. There were a number of coaches on kayaks plus safety boats also with coaches and beach lifeguards. I was on one of the safety boats. Of course there were other boats with camera crews as well. The swimmers did extremely well. The underwater cameraman struggled to keep up with this group, despite his humungous fins, as the camera causes a huge amount of resistance. Greg was now wearing a wetsuit and I liked his rationale - as a team player he recognised that he was one of the stronger swimmers and believed that he would be faster with a wetsuit, and that was a good thing for the whole team. It was now only Arg swimming in skins.
Then the second group went. Unfortunately the conditions had deteriorated by this point. This time instead of coaches in kayaks they were in the water. I remained on the safety boat. The faster swimmers in the group did well. It was more of a struggle for the ones nearer the back. Not only was this their first weekend of sea swimming, but by now the conditions were rough. They did incredibly well though, rolling onto their back for a rest, still swimming independently. Unbeknown to us, Tessa had been sick all night long with what she thought was food poisoning. She got into the water feeling pretty rough. As a result she spent quite a bit of time on her back rather than making forward progress. That can’t have been comfortable in the rough water. It was clear to me, though, how she was so successful for so many consecutive Olympics - her grit and determination was impressive. All swimmers who started this swim also completed it. Very impressive.
One to one coaching with Linford Christie at Shepperton Lake - 16th August
This was the day before the night swim and Linford didn’t know what was planned for that swim, just that it was probably going to be significant. As a result he didn’t want to over do it today. I suggested we start with the small loop and I was absolutely stunned by the progress that Linford had made since the last time I saw him less than 2 weeks ago. Linford didn’t stop at all on that lap. The first time I met him he had to stop every 25m. This was incredible.
We stopped after the small lap for a brief chat and I have him something to think about before telling him that he can’t bring me to his lake without taking me on a tour of the outside of it, so we then swam the big loop. Again it was really good continuous swimming. Linford had become a swimmer.
After that lap we paused again. I asked Linford if he’d consider doing a triathlon, after all his swimming was now good enough. I wasn't overly surprised by the quick ‘no’ response. I was surprised by the whole response. No he wouldn’t consider a triathlon because he couldn’t do the run! My initial reaction was surprise and laughter, but if you think about it, whilst he is a phenomenal runner, he is a sprinter, he’s not someone who would enjoy training for 5km or more.
It was clear just how seriously he is taking this.
One more small lap and that was the session. I found the comment from Linford at the end that I always make him work harder than he thinks he will pretty funny.
Night swim - Shepperton Lake - 17th August
This was a real challenge for me. My day started with the normal 5am alarm clock followed by the journey to Dover to run training. I left a little early and we arrived in Shepperton late afternoon. The production team were doing some additional daylight filming to make up for some aspects that they still needed. Once given the green light Paul put out our lit up Dover buoys ready for when it got dark.
Whilst we waited a time lapse film of the lake getting dark was being filmed.
Once dark (and it really was very dark) the celebrities took to the water in two groups. Each swimmer had a coach in a kayak. There were also other safety and camera boats.
The first swims were an hour each. I was beach lifeguard, for the first group I was stationed by the side of the lake, for the second group I was by the entrance to the lake.
During the second swim one of our buoys became very lopsided and therefore hard to sight off of. Paul went out onto the lake in one of the ribs to sort it. During this time Tessa decided to exit her swim due to an injury, so Paul had the delight of sharing the rib with her for a while.
The celebrities second swims were to be 45 minutes in duration. This time I took to the kayak. For the first swim I accompanied Linford.
It’s probably useful to describe what they were using for lightsticks. The production company didn’t get approval to use the normal green guardian lights (apparently would look like a horror movie on TV!), so they had some sort of big white light on their backs and chemical glow sticks stuck under their goggle straps either side. Why am I mentioning it? Well Linford is a black man, wearing a black wetsuit, so when he knocked the nightstick off that was on the side closest to me, it did make it pretty tricky to see him!
Whilst Linford’s stroke still looked relaxed and good, what surprised me was how many times he stopped to catch his breath given how much continuous swimming he did the day before. I can only assume that was the impact of the dark. For the second group I accompanied Sair. She swam well and also stopped a lot. With Sair I soon realised that it was helpful to give her a target number of strokes to do.
Apart from Tessa’s injury, all the celebrities who participated in this swim did well. No one seemed to be fazed by swimming in the dark.
Once finished we drove back to Dover ready for training the next day - don’t try this at home!
The Big Day - 8th September
Whilst I wasn’t able to be with them on the day of the big swim as boat capacity was extremely limited. However, as they started on a Saturday afternoon, I was able to go to the marina to see them off. An overnight swim is tough for any team, especially one as inexperienced. However, that’s where the weather window was and they all looked excited to be there.
I love the fact that one of the photos that I took of them on the boat has been used on social media by many of the celebrities. It was also lovely that they were swimming with the boat that I use for my solos.
Even getting to the point where they could start was simply incredible and proved what is possible with good quality coaching & support. Unfortunately they didn’t reach French soil, but they didn’t quit. The pilot made the call because the weather deteriorated. That was an extremely difficult call to make. He commented that they would definitely have made it had the weather held. I was gutted for them. It did, however, demonstrate just how tough this sport is.
Watch party for the final episode - 17th September
What a whirlwind time it was. I wasn’t as involved as some of the other coaches, but I was involved in the original decision and I did firmly believe that it was possible.
So when the invite came to watch the final episode with some of the production crew, the SwimQuest team and some of the celebrities, it was a no-brainer, I wanted to be there.
It was lovely to see some of the celebrities again and yet more opportunities to hear about the journey from their perspective. Alex admitted that he didn’t think he’d actually make it to the big swim and assumed he’d be eliminated from the team before then.
What I thought was also insightful was a conversation that I had with Sair. I asked her if she enjoyed ‘I’m a celebrity’ and she did but not as much as she had hoped. She had hoped that it would be an opportunity to make a new friend for life, but that didn't happen. This, however, was what she had been looking for and now had those new friends for life. Lovely.
It was always a bit of a risk, would the programme be edited to show the sport in a good light or not? I think they did a really good job. There were only a few times when I cringed at what was said. The turnaround was incredibly tight to get the final episode to the screen. It was brilliant being in the room with so many people who cared so passionately about the project. The episode depicted the frustration of waiting, the moment of truth when they found out that they were going, the tough swim and determination to complete and then ultimately the utter devastation when the opportunity was taken from them.
They should be very proud of what was achieved. I love the fact that many (if not all) are still swimming. Linford has been seen passing on what he’s learned to others. Others have taken their children swimming for the first time. What they have done has inspired others. I had the first person approach me already saying that the programme has inspired them to want to do a channel relay - brilliant. We will never know just how far the positive ripples of this will extend. This will impact multiple generations.
Will they be back to finish what they started? I sincerely hope so.
I hope you enjoyed my insights.
Has this inspired you? Would you like to discuss how to plan something and train for it? Please get in touch now.