Nigel Downing

A Heartwarming Tale

In 2011, turning 60 years old, I had a go at the Padstow to Rock open water swim. Billed as a one-mile crossing of the Camel Estuary in North Cornwall, but nearer to 0.75 miles, I came out of the water a respectable sixth. Greeting me was a young boy of ten, Henry Bell. I knew him because his mother leads the junior choir at All Saints’ church, and he is a family friend. Henry is very special, in part because he suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. He struggles at school. But he was captivated by the swim. In no time he announced that he wanted to do it, why couldn’t he do it? when was he going to do it?… and so it went on, a relentless barrage of questions as I pulled off my wetsuit, sought my commemorative T-shirt and devoured a finisher’s Cornish Pasty.

Partly to keep him quiet I said to his mother that, once home, I would look at his swimming. It turned out to be a sort of wind-milling motion that thrashed the water without the expected progress. In this fashion he could do a length or two of the small pool he had at home. Certainly, he was confident in the water, and that was the beginning.

The story is long: I will make it short. I took him under my wing, out of his home pool and into a 25m pool. Bit by bit his stroke formed. The goal was to get him to swim up to 60 lengths, 1,500m in total. The biggest challenge was to keep him going. Distractions included endless conversations on how deep the deep-end was, why he could or couldn’t do it all underwater, when we were going to stop, and so on. Eventually, I realised the best motivation was to chase him up and down the pool; he just hated having his feet tapped.

As spring approached, so did the need to get him out of the pool and into open water. I had no idea how he would react. He had surfed in Cornwall, so getting him in to a swimmer’s wet suit was no problem. Thank goodness for that, because simply getting a swimmer’s cap on was a mission. He hated the way it pulled his hair. I had to know how he would adapt to swimming in murk and dealing with the temperature. At last the day came, horribly cold, when we stood at the edge of Little Marlow Lake. He jumped in. There was an instant as he surfaced where the look of shock on his face told me we had lost it. The instant vanished, replaced by an extraordinary determination that he was going to beat the cold, the uncertainty and the fear.

If I struggled with constant interruption in the pool, the lake was exasperating. Every few strokes he stopped to have a chat. How deep was the lake? He could see a white body at the bottom. What were the weeds? How deep was the lake? How far till we stopped? Could we go across the middle? How deep was the lake? And so on.

Persistence pays, and that was one thing Henry did not lack in our big challenge.

So, almost a year to the day when I ran out of the water at Rock, little Henry and I stood in the Camel Estuary at Padstow, ready for the Padstow to Rock swim. I prayed he would not stop to have a chat about bodies, weeds and water depth. The starter’s horn blew, and we swam, me to the left, Henry to the right. Time and again I had told him to simply stay by my side and swim. Swim he did. As we approached the Rock slipway exit some 20 minutes later, I yelled at him between breaths to go for it. Henry somehow manages to grin as he swims. His face nearly split with the joy of it all as he smiled his way out of the water to a thunderous applause.

‘That your son?’ a well-wisher yelled. ‘No, just a friend’, I replied. I was bursting with pride.

Just three years later Henry and I were back in the water ready to take on the Padstow to Rock once more, he 15 years old, and leaving me in his wake as a swimmer. But he was hesitant to go on his own. I kept urging him to have a crack at it without me at his side, and it was only when the horn blew that he struck out solo. He came out of the water in 4th position. The following year I could barely make it across, suffering with a shoulder injury. Henry, now 18, stormed it and won outright!’

 Nigel Downing