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, 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 Australia) and Indonesia (in Asia). He’s completed a 12-mile journey across the Red Sea between Egypt, in Africa, and Turkey, 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.