There aren’t a lot of “firsts” left in the world, but French swimmer Philippe Croizon is, one by one, checking a few "firsts" off the list. Just to clarify, “French swimmer” doesn’t really do Croizon justice, because he’s actually a lot more than that. And if he finishes a swim across the Bering Strait from Alaska’s Little Diomede Island, across the international date line to the Russian island of Big Diomede next week, he’ll become the first person without limbs to do it.
Back up for a second. Read that last sentence again. Make sure you read it closely.
That’s right: Philippe Croizon doesn’t have arms or legs. He hasn’t since 1994, when an accident forced amputation of all four of his limbs. And he’s about to swim the Bering Strait between the two islands, a more than two-mile stretch of water with an average summer temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
This is no passing fancy. Croizon is aware of the dangers, particularly hypothermia, his biggest concern on the swim. A custom wetsuit he had made for the swim that's designed to withstand colder temperatures doesn’t fit quite right. So he'll wear another, less insulated suit, adding another element of danger to the swim.
Croizon is already an accomplished swimmer, despite his handicap. In 2010, he crossed that first “first” off his list, when he became the first quadruple amputee to swim the English Channel, a distance of 21 miles, in a time of more than 14 hours.
After that, he wanted to keep going. He determined he would swim four channels separating five continents. The Bering Strait is his final crossing. He’s proven himself in the 12-15 miles between Papua New Guinea (part of the Australian continent) and Indonesia (in Asia). He’s completed a 12-mile journey across the Red Sea between Egypt, in Africa, and Jordan, in Asia. That trip took about five hours. Last month, he swam the Strait of Gibraltar, a narrow strait connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea that separates Morrocco (Africa) and Spain (Europe). Swimming the strait was a little quicker than the Red Sea but also took about five hours.
And that leaves just the Bering Strait crossing on his list, and the shortest of the four. But getting there hasn’t been easy. Neither is the Bering Strait comparable to the waters of those other, warmer climates. Cold waters of the Arctic mix with the Pacific Ocean and pose serious risk, despite the supervision Croizon will have during the swim. Also swimming with him is able-bodied Arnaud Chassery, an outdoorsman who has accompanied Croizon on the other crossings.
But only Croizon will be crossing that “first” off the list; Chassery will join others who have come before and successfully traversed the Bering Strait.
The first crossing
Crossing of the Bering Strait is a relatively recent accomplishment. Is it because we humans have lately driven ourselves to the absolute limits of our endurance? Or have we just exchanged hunting and gathering for other high-risk, gratifying endeavors? By 1927, a half-century after the first crossing of the English Channel, fewer than a dozen people had managed to successfully repeat the swim. Fast-forward 85 years to 2012 and more than 1,000 swimmers have crossed the channel.
The Bering Strait's forbidding, remote climate wasn't the only barrier for would-be crossers, though. Politics also got in the way following World War II. The Cold War between communism and democracy led to fierce competition that pushed old boundaries of human accomplishment -- the desire to perform the unperformed, complete the incomplete, surmount the insurmountable. But swimming between the Soviet Union and the United States? Out of the question; the border between the two superpowers was impermeable for 48 years.
And then came Lynne Cox, a 30-year-old endurance swimmer who had repeatedly broken records for swimming the English Channel and who became the first person to swim around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope. She’d also gotten it in her head to swim between the islands of Unalaska and Unalga in Alaska’s Aleutian Chain. In 1987, she wanted to swim the Bering Strait, and somehow made it happen.
Cox said she spent 11 years planning, training, and reaching out for help on the expedition. Cox, now 55, reflected on her journey, 25 years down the road. She said part of what drove her -- and part of what drives everyone trying to accomplish these unprecedented feats -- was the idea of doing something that had never been done before. But it was also more than that.
“It was the height of the Cold War, and we were not friends with the Soviets,” Cox told Alaska Dispatch on Thursday. “I felt deep inside of myself that we needed to do something to bridge that gap with the Soviets, and swimming the Bering Strait was a way of doing that.”
Cox repeatedly refers to geopolitical swims -- crossings like the Bering Strait and another she completed in the Beagle Channel between Chile and Argentina -- as a way to “build bridges” between countries.
According to a 1987 Anchorage Daily News article, years of requesting authorization from the Soviet government culminated that August with permission for Cox to cross the international dateline and complete the Bering Strait crossing.
Thus, Cox -- who had nearly 40 percent body fat on her 5-foot-6-inch, 180-pound frame at the time, according to the ADN -- became the first person to ever swim the Bering Strait on Aug. 7, 1987. Some suggested she might be the last, because of her unique combination of physical skill and build, ideally suited for cold-water swimming.
That didn’t turn out to be the case, but Cox said that the Bering Strait swim still holds a special significance for her, despite a long career of other challenging swims.
“It has a huge significance in my heart,” she said. “It was something that I worked on for 11 years. In addition to that, it had been 11 years of reaching out to people to get the support for it, and finally getting the support was incredible.”
That support culminated in a huge outpouring of goodwill from both the Russians and the Americans for the successful swim. When Cox visited the U.S.S.R. to plan another swim in 1988, she was met with excitement and treated like a celebrity.
Cox continued her coldwater swimming habit, and said the Bering Strait helped prepare her for other difficult swims, like one off of Greenland when water temperatures were below freezing. She’s swum in Antarctica and parts of the Northwest Passage, from eastern Canada to the Chukchi Sea, retracing the steps of famous explorer Roald Amundsen, about whom Cox has also written a book.
When Croizon dips into the Bering Strait to attempt the crossing, it will be almost exactly 25 years after Cox made that first historic crossing. And Croizon will be attempting yet another “first,” for himself and for the world.
Big dreams and half-baked plans
Cox said that she suspected she wasn’t going to be the only person to swim the Bering Strait.
“Once something is done, there’s always a possibility that somebody will follow,” Cox said. “It’s equally exciting though, because it will be their first time too, and there will be so many variables.” That’s especially true in the Bering Strait, where weather conditions can change quickly.
Dan Richards, a postmaster who has lived in Wales, Alaska for 35 years, has seen plenty of other Bering Strait adventurers come and go in that time. Wales, the westernmost community on the Alaska mainland, is a common jumping off point to Little Diomede, since air service to the community has been unreliable in recent years.
Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to cross the Strait, and many have their own methods. In short, the Bering Strait has seen a lot of “firsts.”
“We normally get two expeditions or so every year,” Richards said. “There’s all different types: people with kites, who get on a board and let a kite pull them; jetskiers, canoers, swimmers.”
He said that there have also been plenty of “fruitcakes” over the years. He highlighted the 1970s, when one man showed up and declared he was going to row across in a bathtub, and another from Tijuana, Mexico, who showed up declaring his intention to cross to travel to Russia.
There have been other unique crossings. Richards remembers the kiteboarders as one, and another was when a group of British citizens drove from England, through Russia and attached pontoons and a propeller to a Land Rover to perform the crossing. Crozier is also making his mark as one of the more unique adventurers to attempt the crossing.
Occasionally, travelers show up without warning. Especially since crossings in winter can also be performed by traversing the sea ice that clogs the Bering Strait in the coldest months of the year.
“We’ve had a couple of different ones do that,” Richards said. “One was a group from the Ukraine, they were walking, but they didn’t have the right paperwork, so they spent a while in jail.”
Richards’s sons will be taking Croizon and company from Wales to Diomede in a boat to perform the swim, and tag along nearby for safety purposes and to allow a camera crew to document the event.
'I decided to swim beyond borders'
The distance between the Diomede Islands is only a little more than 2-1/2 miles, but currents can make the swim much longer. Cox, who swims a pace of about 2-1/2 mph, took two hours to finish her crossing. Croizon said he anticipates his crossing will cover about four miles in total, accounting for currents.
So what drives Croizon? Speaking through Marc Gaviard, a member of his team, who served as translator in Nome on Wednesday, Croizon said that his goal is to eliminate the illusion of differences between handicapped and able-bodied individuals.
“He really believes that if you have a dream, you should pursue it,” Gaviard said. “With a dream and determination, everyone has the ability to succeed.”
Croizon lost his limbs in the wake of a severe electric shock from a power line in 1994, while attempting to work on a television antenna on his roof. Doctors were forced to amputate his arms and legs.
After the accident, Croizon faced years of rehab and treatment. One day, while in the hospital, he saw a woman crossing the English Channel on TV.
“I decided to put aside my condition and say, ‘why not me one day?’” Croizon said. “14 years later, I started training, despite never practicing any sport before in my life.”
He crossed the English Channel in September of 2010, completing the goal that he had worked so hard for. To accommodate his disability, he has custom-designed flippers that attach to what remain of his legs. He wears an unusual snorkel that crosses in the middle of his face, since he isn’t always able to keep his head from going underwater.
“After crossing the English Channel, I was very happy, but also very down from completing my goal,” Croizon said. So he began looking at other crossings. “I decided to swim beyond borders.”
He performed his first three swims and began training for the Bering Strait. Logistically, the swim was a difficult one, just due to the remoteness of the location, especially in light of Philippe’s circumstances. He said that aid organization Handicap International, which he is swimming in honor of, has been very supportive, as has the French government, who has helped secure necessary permits for travel and the swim itself.
The logistics pale in comparison to the actual swim, though. Hypothermia is a genuine concern in waters as cold as the Bering Strait. To prepare, Croizon swam in a freshly thawed mountain lake in the French Pyrenees at an elevation of about 6,000 feet.
“Everytime he takes a bath, he’s been running cold tap water,” Gaviard translates as Croizon continues to speak. Gaviard pauses, chuckles and says “I didn’t know that.”
“He’s also been putting ice in the bath,” he says, “since all the hotels in America have ice for the rooms.”
He plans to begin the swim on Monday, Aug. 13. It remains to be seen if he’ll make it, but with his past experience and training thus far, he looks to have a fighting chance.
But he’s about to finish his goal again, so what will Croizon tackle next?
“The Sea of Tranquility on the moon,” he jokes. He says he has a project in mind, but all he’ll really want to do is sleep for a while. He’ll also serve as a commentator for the Paralympic Games in London starting Aug. 29.
Lynne Cox said that everyone has their own personal reasons for conquering the unconquered, in addition to the simple human desire to do something no one’s ever done before. And Croizon does have his own reasons for his swims.
“I really want people to understand that there is no difference between fully able people and physically challenged people,” Croizon said. “There is one humanity, one mankind, one world. I want people to stop thinking that there is us and them.”
And with Croizon’s swims, the world and its list of “firsts” are getting just a little bit smaller.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com