Anyone who swims the English Channel is a hero – only 20 per cent of those who attempt it even make the distance.
In July this year, Broken Hill farmer Brendan Cullen joined their ranks, an amazing feat – not least because he lives 60kms from his nearest swimming pool and 600 kms from his nearest beach.
It took Brendan a gruelling 17.5 hours to complete the distance. After starting at 10am, he did much of the swim in the dark.
Conditions were unexpectedly rough the whole way and just as the sun went down and he spied the lights of France in the distance the notorious 4.5 knot tides of the ‘English Channel Graveyard’ swept him off course so that instead of 33 kilometres he ended up swimming 40kms.
“That was the toughest bit,” he admits. What was going through his mind?
“Mentally you think you’re prepared, and I was, but so much stuff goes through your mind. I sang, counted, got support from the crew, remembered advice from other swimmers, thought about my family and just concentrated on putting one arm in front of the other.”
Coach Mike Gregory (aka the Tractor “because he can plough through anything”) jumped into the water to swim the final two kms with his protege.
When Brendan finally hit the sands of France, hands swollen and fighting pain in his shoulder and groin, the pair just hugged and cried for two minutes.
As the horn sounded to signal the swim was complete, Brendan’s next priority was scrabbling about to find pebbles to take back for his three children.
“But I must’ve hit the sandiest beach in France. There wasn’t a pebble in sight,” he laughs. “I can’t even remember the trip back to Dover. I just passed out on the beanbags. I was proper sore. As sore as I’ve ever been.”
Back at the harbour, wife Jacinta and daughter Emma were waiting and the pair stood on the jetty, crying and hugging for ages. “I’ve been through a fair few boxes of tissues,” he admits.
Brendan’s extraordinary journey began three years ago. He took up swimming as part of his battle against depression and became so addicted when he saw posters offering English Channel try-outs during a visit to Melbourne, he put his hand up. It was there he met Mike who has swum the Channel four times.
“Mike’s really encouraging but he must’ve been thinking: ‘Who’s this guy from the bush who thinks he’s going to swim the English Channel?’” remembers Jacinta.
Not living near the beach meant Brendan’s training was often unorthodox.
He had to empty the dingo baits out of his big freezer, fill it with water, cooled to a chilly four degrees then sit in it for up to ten minutes at a time to prepare himself for the cold.
With 4,500 sheep to manage, some days Brendan, 49, was so short of time he had to tie an elastic band around his waist, attach the other end to the pool fence in the backyard and basically swim on the spot for an hour.
His ideal swim was up to 15 kms around Menindee Lake, often rising at 3.45am to prepare himself for swimming in the dark but even that was fraught.
“He had to pull up on one session after a fish swam in his mouth, probably a baby carp,” says Jacinta.
Training, however, wasn’t Brendan’s only headache. With no wetsuits allowed he had to get up to 100 kilos to build up a layer of insulation against the cold so was consuming lots of pasta, potatoes, ice cream and beer.
Jacinta and eldest daughter, Emma both work for Broken Hill Lifeline and Brendan is a dedicated volunteer so he used his swim to raise funds for them.
At the start of the swim, around $9,000 had been pledged but as supporters watched his effort, donations tripled with Broken Hill cheering him on, making Brendan Cullen Swimming The Channel cupcakes and even turning out in force to welcome him home at the airport.
So how does Brendan feel now?
“It’s mind-blowing I’m now a Channel swimmer. I can’t believe it,” he says.
Brendan raised more than $20,000 along the way for Lifeline Australia.
Read more of Brendan Cullen’s story here.