From zero to Channel hero for health

After more than 20 years without having swum a single stroke, Gold Coast ocean swimmer, Phil Edwards, 58, signed up to swim the English Channel.

What started out as a spontaneous joking conversation with friends, turned into a commitment to training for the English Channel over the next four years. Mr Edwards will attempt to conquer the English Channel on the 6th of October 2022, at the age of 59. 

In this feature, Suzie Ryan talks to Mr Edwards about that spontaneous conversation that sparked it all, how his preparation is going and how it all links back to a childhood dream inspired by Des Renford.

A joke that turned into a Channel goal 

It was a routine mid-life health check that kicked off the journey towards the channel, but there were a number of personal challenges closer to home that needed to be faced first.

“When I turned 45 I wasn’t as healthy as I should have been and the doctor said your blood pressure is creeping up, you’re overweight and so on,” said Mr Edwards. 

“He suggested that I join a gym, group fitness class or get a PT because if I fork out money I would go and commit to my health because I wouldn’t want to waste my money.

“So I went along and signed myself up to Goodlife Gym at Robina and I got two free personal training sessions and I was paired up with Brett Carrington and he has been helping me with my fitness journey over the past seven or eight years.” 

Not long after, in 2016, Mr Edwards had an even bigger health scare that prompted him to get even more serious about his health.

“I had an operation to remove a section of my bowel because I had cancer and when I got back in the gym around 2018, Brett said to me ‘what do you want to do? You lose weight, you put it back on, you need a lengthy goal’,” said Mr Edwards. 

“We started talking about a goal I could set that I could keep working towards over 18-months/2-years time.

“Jokingly, Brett said why don’t you run a marathon? and I wittingly replied I can’t run a marathon to save my life, I would rather swim the English Channel.

“Brett, pretty much looked at me and said why don’t you? and I honestly just laughed and said ‘whatever’ how do you even swim the English Channel and he replied quickly ‘have you never heard of google?” 

From this off-the-cuff and joking conversation, a seed was planted in Mr Edwards’s brain that swimming the English Channel may in fact become a reality and be the health saviour he needed. 

“After that personal training session, I pretty much just went home and started researching the English Channel, how you could swim it and what sort of training I would need to do it,” said Mr Edwards. 

“After all that research I was committed to the idea of doing the English Channel and by the end of that week I signed myself up to swim it.

“At this point, I hadn’t swam in about 20-odd years, so I knew it was going to be quite the challenge but I was excited to take it on.” 

Getting the team together

Once the goal was set, Mr Edwards started forming his support network of successful marathon swimmers who could help guide him to his goal of crossing the English Channel. 

“After I had committed I started Googling even more for support that I could get and I came across Trent Grimsby who is the world record holder for the fastest English Channel crossing, so I got chatting with him,” said Mr Edwards.  

“He invited me down to Suttons Beach at Redcliffe, where they do open water sessions every second weekend and that basically got me swimming.

“Trent also helped with sending me all the forms that I needed to fill out and how to organise everything that I needed to for the channel.”

Next on the list for Mr Edwards was getting together his UK-based team.

“Trent invited me to an information night that he was having to learn more about the English Channel and this is where I met the guys from Red Top Swim in the UK,” said Mr Edwards. 

“Tim and Matt were lovely and they immediately helped me learn the process of booking the boat and getting a coach for on the boat.

“At this point, I had been doing a little bit of swimming, so I knew I wasn’t going in cold but I hadn’t been doing anywhere near what I needed to be doing and they reassured me that swimming three kilometres in an hour is fast enough to make the crossing.

“Tim basically told me that all I needed to do was get fit and get to the stage where I could swim 10-kilometre and 20-kilometre swims and I would be set.

“So from here, I decided to start upping my training and exploring other swimming options.” 

Upping the ante in training 

By 2019, Mr Edwards had completed his first 10-kilometre swim but his open water swimming had been predominantly confined to the sheltered bay, prompting a rethink of his training.

“I had just been swimming every two weeks with the guys at Sutton Beach and then doing a couple of pool sessions by myself when Trent invited me to do a 10 kilometre swim that he was hosting as a qualifier for the Rottnest Channel Swim,” said Mr Edwards.

“I did it because it was a good opportunity to see where I was at and it was a terrible day and the conditions were horrible but I did it in 3 hours 10 minutes which I was happy with.

“After the swim, I had a chat with Trent and he said ‘you are well on track to do the channel if you keep your training up and continue to improve, it doesn’t matter the conditions on the day, you will make it’ and that was the encouragement that I needed at that point.”

After Mr Edwards’s 10-kilometre swim Mr Grimsby suggested he join Steve Cornelius at the Gold Coast Open Water Swimming Club

“I went down to Kurrawa on a Saturday morning a bit apprehensive to swim in the really big ocean and went for a swim,” said Mr Edwards. 

“Steve was lovely and I had a good chat with him and explained that I had signed up to the English Channel and he said we’ll help you get there.

“The rest is pretty much history, I’ve been swimming with them ever since.” 

After swimming with the GCOWSC for a while Mr Edwards decided to change it up a bit and get back in the pool with a coach more regularly.

“Steve introduced me to Todd Robinson, a swim coach up at Southport,” said Mr Edwards.

“I teamed up with him and since then my swimming has just gone from strength to strength.

“I still swim a couple of times a week with the club but it’s good being able to mix it up in the pool too.” 

Mr Edwards aims to continue mixing open water and pool sessions until he swims the English Channel on the 6th of October this year.

“I am really trying to do Tuesday and Thursday mornings with Todd in the pool and then sneak in a Monday or Wednesday afternoon with him as well, so that will give me four pool sessions,” said Mr Edwards. 

“I also do my Saturday morning swim with the club at the beach and then either a Tuesday or Thursday morning with them after my pool session.

“My aim is to keep those swim sessions and my two gym sessions with Brett up until I leave for the English Channel in late September.

“I think those sessions, as well as doing the Swim the Gold Coast in May and Swim around Keppel in July, will really prepare me for October.” 

The realisation of a childhood dream 

While Mr Edwards’ goal to swim to the English Channel came from a joking conversation later in life, it was actually something he aspired to do as a young child. 

“When I really think about it, swimming the English Channel was something that I really wanted to do as a little boy,” said Mr Edwards. 

“Growing up in the UK, the great Australian Des Renford was on the television almost every second week swimming the English Channel.

“I just remember seeing a huge, big man covered in grease, looking all white from the amount of grease he had on his body and I remember thinking, well if he can do that maybe I could aspire to achieve it.

“I had two dreams growing up, one was to be a football player and the other was to swim the English Channel. I couldn’t play football but it is funny that I have kind of come full circle to now swim the Channel later in life.” 

Timeline to swim the English Channel 

2018: 

  • Signed up to swim the English Channel 
  • Swimming by himself in the 25m pool at Mudgeeraba
  • Swimming with Trent Grimsby every second Sunday morning at Redcliffe
  • 2 gym sessions per week

2019:

  • Slowly started increasing weekly distance but still swimming by himself
  • Still swimming with Trent Grimsby every second Sunday morning at Redcliffe
  • Completed first 10km swim
  • 2 gym sessions per week

2020:

  • Joined the Gold Coast Open Water Swimming Club in March and started swimming 2-3 times per week with them
  • Started swimming with Todd Robinson at Southport Pool and increased mileage
  • 2 gym sessions per week. 

2021:

  • Increased to 4 pool sessions and 2 ocean swims per week
  • 2 gym sessions per week
  • Stated participating in ocean swim races including: 
    • Bondi to Bronte (virtual swim) – 4.5km
    • Noosa Ocean Swim – 5km 
    • Cooly Classic – 5km 
    • Mudjimba Island Swim – 3km 
    • Burleigh to Surfers time trial – 10km 
    • Coolangatta to Tallebudgera time trial – 11km 
    • Swim the Gold Coast (virtual swim at Miami Pool) – 20km 
    • Surfers to Coolangatta Swim – 22km 

2022: 

  • Continues to do 4 pool sessions and 2 ocean swims per week unless an event is coming up then it is 2 pool sessions and 2 ocean swims
  • 2 gym sessions per week
  • Started one cold water therapy session per week in 12-degree water. Started at 40 minutes and working up to 60 minutes
  • Plans to do the Swim the Gold Coast event and Swim Around Keppel before conquering the English Channel in October

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