The 11 Year Old Boy That Completed a Cross-Channel Swim

Youngest Channel SwimmerAt only 11 years old, in 1988, Tom Gregory became the youngest person to swim the English Channel and his record still stands today. The extraordinary story of the youngest channel swimmer starts with a swimming pool in south-east London and a truly amazing swim coach.

Tom Gregory moved to London around the age of 6 where he soon joined the local swimming club in Eltham. The club was run by coach John Bullet, a man that by all accounts was a dedicated and life-changing swim coach.

Tom describes his coach as "old school, like Brian Clough"

"He used to boast - and this was the 1980s, remember - that no-one who'd been through his club was unemployed," says Tom. "By any standard, he was a world-class coach, and he was operating out of a council pool in south-east London. He took kids from estates and helped them do amazing things."

The London suburb of Eltham is fairly close to Dover, within 70 miles, and this meant that the club evolved to specialise in channel swimming. Between 1972 and 1988 the club completed a total of 14 relays between England and France.

Coach John Bullet had already had success with a 12-year-old member of the club, Marcus Hooper, who in 1979 became the youngest person to ever swim the English channel. But this was not the end of the line for the swim coach, it was clear that he wanted more.

"In hindsight, I think John was looking for someone to break another world record," said Tom in a BBC interview. "He saw this chubby, gregarious, slightly cheeky seven-year-old boy and thought - he looks like the sort of kid."

Coach Bullet started training them early with a vision of what they might be able to achieve in years to come. At age eight, Tom was swimming in the wild open water at Lake Windermere where he swam the 1-mile width across the deep and choppy lake. The next year he was able to complete half a length of the lake, that's around 5.5miles. If you've ever tried swimming any type of distance in open-water then you'll know this is no easy feet for nine-year-old boy. In the summer of 1987, Tom managed the full length of Lake Windermere at 10 years of age.

By this time, says Tom, Eltham Training and Swimming Club was a "movement".

"It was more than a club - it was everyone's lives. People say 'you must have had pushy parents' - but nothing could be further from the truth. They are lovely people. They just watched from the side with a mixture of fear and amazement."

With Lake Windermere conquered, Tom turned his focus to the Channel. The swim would take months of preparation, both mentally and physically.

"People who die while swimming the Channel - and they do - tend to die of hypothermia. If you can handle the cold you're halfway there." - says Tom.

Channel Swim
In preparation for the swim, Tom did not touch any hot water for several months! With no hot baths or showers, and sleeping under one thin sheet with the window open to get used to the cold. When September 1988 rolled around it was time to tackle the big swim. Tom and John hopped the late night ferry to France, enjoyed a full fry-up on the way and reached the starting point in the early morning twilight.

The start point in France is Cap Gris Nez which is around 20 miles from Dover but Tom's swim would be around 32miles all-in-all because channel swimmers take an S-shaped course to work with the changing tides.

"To begin, it's an unnerving feeling," he says. "It's dark, there's a swell. You have this real sense of '32 miles to go'. There's a real fear of failure."

By the middle of the swim, Tom admits that he felt more comfortable and more “on it”.

"I knew I was swimming fast. We got well over halfway in under five hours, so we were on for a sub-10 hour swim. That year, I think that would have got me a Rolex for the fastest swim, never mind the youngest."

Tom could eventually start to see the white cliffs of Dover and knew that the end was within his reach.

"I remember the narrow band of white on the horizon," he says. "And every time I looked up, it didn't get any closer. It's mental torture. I kept my head down, kept the gaps as long as possible, but they never got nearer. And that's when the pain kicks in."

Tom hit the pain barrier, his shoulders ached, his leg muscles burned and his body began shutting down.

"You know that warm and cosy feeling before you fall asleep? It's like that. You start drifting off and then you're startled by something - a foghorn, or the thud of the engine, or the smell of diesel. At one point, I remember a hovercraft coming past, and it really made me jump. You lose all situational awareness."

For most of the trip, John only had contact with Tom to give him the odd digestive biscuit or warm tomato soup but during the final third, he made eye contact, showed his support and didn't give up on the young swimmer.

"He knew I was going through the pain barrier," says Tom. "He was encouraging me, but it was miserable. It feels like depression. At one point I was teary. But I was too scared to stop. Not scared of anybody - just scared of not completing it."

Eventually, the cliffs became closer and John jumped into a smaller boat to guide Tom into the beach, providing support for the last few hundred crucial meters.

"When I reached the shore, I was a few notches off compos mentis," he says. "I was dazed, confused. I'd been in cold water for 12 hours, with a high rate of exertion. I'd been told you had to take three unaided steps after reaching land, otherwise, you hadn't made it. But I couldn't stand up. I was on my knees.

"Those steps became massively important. It was a Neil Armstrong moment. Eventually, I did three steps, and I sat down. I remember being surrounded by people cuddling me."

Tom made it to the shingle beach at Shakespeare Cliff to the west of Dover in a time of 11 hours 54 minutes at an age of 11 years and 336 days old. No-one has ever managed to beat Tom's record and now they never will. In the year 2000, the Channel Swimming Association banned under 16's from attempting the Channel crossing altogether so Tom's record is safe forever.

Tom insists that the real credit has to go to the Coach that inspired him and pushed him to be able to do things he never thought possible. Tragically, John Bullet died just 5 months after the cross-channel swim.

"If John Bullet was alive today, he'd be getting Unsung Hero Award at the Sports Personality of the Year," said Tom in his BBC interview. "He did countless relays of the Channel and broke two world records, all with kids from a two-mile radius of Eltham Baths. It was incredible. But when John died, the club sort of died. It lived on thanks to some very selfless people, but my connection went.”

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