The 21-mile (32 km) cross-Channel swim between Dover and Calais is notoriously one of the most taxing challenges a long-distance swimmer can tackle.
Although marathon swimmers attempt longer distances in competitions around the world, the low temperature of the water in the English Channel, coupled with uncertain weather conditions, strong currents and shifting tides, are known to test a challengers resistance to the limits. The race is so tough that every year more than half the competitors do not manage to complete the course.
This summer, 30-year-old Simone Menoni from La Spezia in Liguria, a long-distance swimmer with the Italian national team, will be taking up the gauntlet. The race has never attracted many Italian competitors, although Enrico Tiraboschi, an Italian living in Argentina, was the first to make the crossing in reverse, from the French side to England in 1923. The great Italian marathon swimmer, Paolo Pinto, competed in 1979 and again in 1982. Leo Callone set the Italian record of 13 hours seven minutes in 1981. Nonetheless, this is a long way behind the present record, established in 1994 by American Chad Hundeby, who completed the crossing in seven hours and 17 minutes.
Over the past ten years, 245 athletes have tried unsuccessfully to beat Hundebys phenomenal time over the treacherous stretch between Shakespeares Cliff (the authorised starting point) and Cap Gris Nez on the French coast.
However, Menoni, a muscular lad with an iron determination concealed beneath a quiet and unassuming manner, is convinced that he has the necessary physical and mental qualities to bring the laurels to Italy.
Throughout this spring and early summer, he is engaged in a series of international contests that, he says, will all help him prepare for the Channel swim. Events include marathon swimming world cup heats in Argentina, Egypt, the Arab Emirates, Canada and the United States, as well as world championships in Canada in July.
In Canada Ill be swimming in Lake San Jean and Lake Magog, in the Montreal area, where water temperatures are colder and the distances are longer, he explained.
Menoni believes that one of his most important advantages is his natural resistance to cold temperatures. According to regulations, Channel-crossing swimmers wear normal swimsuits. Arms and legs must be uncovered and bathing caps cannot be insulated in any way. The only protection against the cold they are allowed is barrier creams and ointments. Most increase their store of body fat to give them some insulation.
I know swimmers who have had to put on as much as 10 kilos. You can imagine what a difference all that weight makes to your performance, Menoni said, with a grin.
Another factor in his favour is that, by preference, hes a lone swimmer: When you swim in a group, the others set the rhythm. But I prefer to set my own rhythm for the entire course. Its a matter of concentration. You cant allow your mind to wander. Half the fascination of a long-distance race is the mental effort as well as the physical effort.
Menonis courage and determination were tested at a young age. In 1992 he had a bad car accident. Firemen came and pulled me out of the wreckage, he recalls. I was immobilised for two months with a damaged spine. When he recovered, he found that his backbone was no longer as flexible as before. Until then, his speciality had been the butterfly stroke, but this proved too much of a strain for his back and he switched to freestyle.
That was when I realised that when I was swimming long distances, I could go further than the other people swimming with me. When I turned professional I decided to concentrate on long distance.
Since 1927, the crossing has been regulated by the Channel Swimming Association (CSA). Rules include the hiring of a CSA official boat and skipper, plus the presence of a CSA official on board. Menoni will also be accompanied by his trainer, former professional swimmer Fabio Fusi, who is considered to be Italys main expert in the field of long-distance swimming. Fusi will monitor Menonis progress throughout the race and is responsible for passing him the nourishment, exclusively in liquid form.
You have two seconds to grab the cup when he hands it out of the boat! Menoni chuckles.
Apart from the physical strain of the actual crossing, he mentions many minor inconveniences, such as the salty seawater that soon begins to burn a swimmers mouth and makes swallowing painful.
The weather can be the real enemy. No swimmer knows if he will actually be able to make the attempt if weather conditions are adverse. Simone has booked two separate weeks for his undertaking, the first starting on 21 August and the second on 10 September.
In order to promote the initiative, a trial fun swim will be held in the waters of La Spezia in July. Everyone is invited to take part and swim alongside the champion to see how long he or she can keep up. For those at home, television coverage of his attempt is planned, so that viewers can follow his progress stroke by stroke.
Anyone who is interested in sponsoring Menonis attempt, or would like to take part in his fun swim at La Spezia, contact: BigPot SRL,
Via Groenlandia, 31, 00144 Rome. Tel. 0687420759, firstname.lastname@example.org.