In his Gene pool
At the ripe old age of 69, Sunshine Coast local Chris Shapland has just achieved a feat most people half his age would probably baulk at. Recently completing a gruelling 44km swim across the English Channel, Chris shares his incredible story of mental and physical endurance with Profile.
At a time in life when most people are thinking of slowing down, Chris Shapland is pushing the boundaries more than ever. A former champion swimmer, surf lifesaver and professional swim coach, he has been in the pool most of his life and has just become the second oldest person in Australia to swim the English Channel.
Hailing from a long line of pedigree swimmers, Chris has worked alongside his parents teaching others to swim since he was just nine years old.
“My grandfather was teaching swimming in Toowoomba back in the late 1930s and then my parents secured the lease on an old fill and drain pool (The Toowoomba Municipal Baths) there in 1947,” says Chris.
Passionate about continuing his family’s tradition of teaching children the right swimming techniques from an early age, Chris took control of the family business in 1980, which has since grown to 14 swim schools throughout south-east Queensland, one of which is owned and operated by his son.
A high achiever in the pool throughout his life, representing Queensland at a state and national level, Chris’s latest achievement was less about breaking records and more of a personal challenge.
“It’s something I have wanted to do since I was a little boy. I grew up in an era when swimming the English Channel was the ultimate challenge for any open water swimmer,” says Chris. “It’s more of a mental than physical battle – it’s not such a physical feat if you know how to swim properly.”
For two years, Chris undertook a gruelling training regime, swimming five days per week up to six hours at a time.
“Once I got serious about preparing for it, I started swimming between 10 and 50 kilometres. It’s a different kind of fitness. When I do a long endurance swim I don’t use my legs, whereas when I race I have six-beat kick. It’s not really about achieving a high level of fitness aerobically but as far as ligaments and tendons were concerned, I was well conditioned to swim the long distance,” he says.
Aware of the weather conditions and currents he could encounter, including high winds and six-foot waves, Chris trained in his backyard pool with a device that pumps out a strong current to allow him to swim in one spot and simulate the currents he would likely encounter.
It’s something I have wanted to do since I was a little boy.”
Chris completed the crossing on 19 September after swimming for 16 hours and 28 minutes. Adhering to strict regulations and swimming in only a swimsuit and goggles, with no wetsuit, no flippers and no breaks and fuelled only by an endurance drink every 30 minutes, Chris’s lifetime of swimming experience took him in good stead to tackle the perilous feat.
Swimming from Dover to the beaches of France, a distance of almost 34 kilometres (as the crow flies), Chris swam much further due to strong tides.
“The water was 18.5 degrees, not as cold as I thought, which was one of the advantages of doing it in September. The disadvantages were the tides, which were up to 7.5 metres and had a massive influence on the distance and time.”
But despite being in peak condition and maintaining his stroke rate for the first half of the swim, at around the nine hour mark, nausea set in and for the first time, Chris faced the possibility of not finishing the race.
“I never get sick when I swim long distance, I have swam from Cottesloe to Rottnest Island which is 20 kilometres and I never felt ill but I started to get really nauseous and I was not in good shape at all, I just stopped swimming dead in the water and lay there face down. I was trying to come to grips with the fact I wasn’t going to make it,” he says.
However, thanks to the unwavering support of his crew and his quick-thinking decision to reduce the amount of carbohydrates in his half-hourly liquid feeds, he continued the race in much better shape.
Swimming through the night through shipping lanes, Chris says there were times when he would lose track of time – the lights of France teasing him as they appeared and disappeared with the changing of the tides.
“When the skipper finally told me I was only about 400 metres off the beach, I couldn’t believe it. It was a surreal feeling.
“When I got near the edge I stumbled and ended up on my hands and knees, crawled up onto the beach, which is really just pebbles, and put my hands up in the air. Then I just lay on my back and thought I really made it!”
Euphoric, and unaware of his swollen tongue and throat from the salt water, Chris said it wasn’t until he was back on board the boat that he realised he could hardly swallow and felt the pain in his shoulders.
“I think I did 70,000 revolutions of my shoulders throughout the swim, I could feel them get sore but you just break through the pain barrier, you go to another level.”
Back on the Sunshine Coast, Chris says the whole experience still feels a bit surreal.
“It’s given me the greatest feeling of accomplishment because it was so tough mentally. I didn’t give in, I stuck with it. It’s given me even more confidence.”
Surely now Chris has completed this lifelong dream he’s ready to hang up his goggles and swim cap?
Not a chance.
“I might tackle the Strait of Gibraltar next. It’s not as long but it has even more current than the English Channel.”
Watch this space.