Adam Walker was a salesman of household products and a good one. But it wasn’t enough. “I thought I was capable of much more,” he remembers. “I didn’t want written on my gravestone: ‘There goes a man who was good at selling toasters and kettles’.”
There’s no chance of that happening now. Eight years on, 37-year-old Walker is one of the world’s top open water swimmers, the only Englishman of the six people to complete the Oceans 7 challenge of swimming seven of the most dangerous sea channels, facing sharks, whales, deadly jellyfish, sickness and injury in one of the most gruelling ordeals in sport.
He was only the second person in history to complete all seven swims – across the English Channel, Strait of Gibraltar, Molokai Channel, Catalina Channel, Tsugaru Strait, Cook Strait and the Irish Channel – at the first attempt.
Playing down his achievements
But he’s at pains to play down his achievements. “I’m not an Olympic swimmer, I’m a normal bloke who took on a challenge to achieve my dreams,” Walker says, who for seven years worked alone without a trainer and even devised his own swimming strokes after an arm injury that was so serious doctors advised him to give up the sport.
Today, still active in swimming and in demand as a coach and motivational speaker, Walker heads a campaign to promote the Ocean Walker stroke he invented after two shoulder operations, which he claims helps people, particularly children, to swim more naturally by using the correct muscles, particularly in the hips.
“My ambition is to try to reinvent swimming by working with the water rather than against it and using a rolling diving action, rather like a dolphin, to make swimming easier,” Walker explains. “Swimming is a life skill and there should be much more of it in schools.”
Walker is Zoggs’ open water/triathlon swimming ambassador and wore the brand’s Predator Flex goggles during his seven epic swims and also during his most recent success – swimming the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia.
He says: “Fundamentally, the most important part of a swim is getting the kit right and particularly the goggles. I have 100 per cent confidence in them – they are so comfortable and the vision is great. They are so versatile for both training and for the actual swims – the perfect goggles for me.”
The story of Walker’s rise from salesman to swimming legend has all the ingredients of a boy’s book drama – a young married man, settled in his own home and with a steady job, realised there was something missing from his life and found it on a holiday-bound plane.
Growing up in Nottingham, Walker played rugby and cricket, until knee and back injuries forced him to retire. He took up swimming and reached county backstroke level before taking a university sports science degree and beginning a successful career in sales. He hadn’t swum seriously for 10 years. Then he boarded a plane for Australia and settled down to watch an in-flight movie.
Walker says: “It was called On A Clear Day and is about a man who loses his job and takes up swimming to give him a purpose. He swims the English Channel and I wondered if I could do that. It sounded like a good challenge, so I decided to train and see if I was capable of doing it.”
From that moment Walker’s life would never be the same again. Back from holiday, he embarked on a training programme involving up to five hours swimming a day.
“I didn’t have a trainer and at first it was a real struggle, but I kept on doing it,” Walker says. “I needed to get used to the cold water in the channel, so I asked the local sports centre if I could swim in their lake.
“During my first swim there I started to hyperventilate and lost all feeling in my feet and legs. I was bundled into the safety boat and it was a real lesson. I’ve been very careful since then.”
After a year, Walker took on the English Channel in 2008 and successfully crossed in 11 hours 35 minutes. “My plan was to finish open water swimming after the channel, but then I thought I would do one more and Gibralter to Morocco both ways seemed an interesting swim,” he says.
Hooked on the sport
Walker admits he was now hooked on open water swimming: “You can do it in lakes, rivers and the sea. It is much more challenging than swimming in pools, as you’re against the elements such as wind and temperature.”
He tackled the Strait of Gibraltar a year later, completing it in nine hours 35 minutes. “It was my favourite,” Walker says. “We saw pilot whales and dolphins and I was the first British swimmer to complete the swim both ways.”
If that was the best experience, the worst moment of the challenge came during the next swim across Hawaii’s Molokai Channel, when he was stung by a deadly Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish – they pack the poison of a cobra snake – 13 hours into the attempt.
“I had a five-inch tentacle stuck to my stomach,” Walker says. “It was the most pain I have ever felt in my life. It was like a third degree burn. I lost the feeling in my spine and legs. It was terrifying. I pulled the tentacle off and swam with my legs dragging behind me.
“The sting can cause your major organs to shut down and I remember thinking: ‘If I’m going to be paralysed, at least let me finish this swim’.”
But there was another ordeal to come when a large tiger shark loomed in front of him. “I was wearing a monitor, which is supposed to repel sharks, but I was still terrified,” Walker says. “When I saw it beneath me, I just tried to stay calm.”
Almost unconscious with pain, incredibly he managed to swim for another three and a half hours and made it to shore.
“I just stood there in disbelief,” Walker says. “I can’t describe how much pain I was in. The swelling took 18 months to go down. But in a positive way, I thought: ‘If I can come through all this, what else can get me now?’.”
Despite the terrifying ordeal, Walker refused to give up his seven-swim challenge and successfully completed a crossing of the Catalina Channel in southern California, the Tsugaru Strait in Japan and the Cook Strait in New Zealand.
After spotting a two-metre shark in New Zealand waters, he feared something similar to the Hawaii incident and was astonished when a pod of dolphins came to his rescue, keeping away the sharks by swimming alongside him for an hour.
“It was amazing and something I will never forget,” Walker says. “Just having them for company was a massive help. I felt protected and it made me quite emotional.”
Tremendous role model
“We have known Adam since the beginning of his swims,” David Annand, Zoggs UK marketing and PR manager, says. “When selecting an ambassador for open water and triathlon swimming, he was an obvious candidate. He has an inspiring story to tell and is a tremendous role model to all those taking part in open water swimming.”
Sports don’t come much more hazardous than sea swimming and Walker has always been prepared to give it a go – even when the odds include 12ft waves, near-freezing water and hostile marine life.
“Some people feel they don’t want to fail,” he says. “But I’ve realised it’s okay to take risks because you just might achieve your goal. For me, the dream was swimming, but for other people it could be anything.
“If you’re passionate about something and want it enough, as long as you work hard for it, you can do anything.”
Giving something back
Supported by his family and girlfriend, singer Gemma Clarke, Adam Walker has raised over £10,000 for charity through his swimming challenges.
Now he plans to set up open water swimming clubs around the country, help educate children on water safety and motivate youngsters to achieve their dreams. His swimming techniques and philosophies are explained in detail in a new autobiography due out in January next year.
“Now, whatever swims I do will have a purpose – supporting charities and campaigns like ocean conservation,” Walker says. “It’s all part of giving something back for the wonderful opportunities I’ve had.”