Otto Thaning, a 73-year-old heart surgeon from Cape Town, fought through cramps to become the oldest person to swim the 21-mile English Channel. His crossing on Saturday comes less than a month after 70-year-old Australian Cyril Baldock broke the previous record, which had stood for 27 years.
Thaning told the BBC his motivation for setting the record was to prove that older people can accomplish such athletic feats if they’re conscious about taking good care of their bodies. “My wish was basically to promote the idea that people over the age of 70 can do things like this if they look after themselves and work hard,” he said.
“The swim itself was tough, but the preparation took years,” he told the Independent Online. “I came over last year with a hope to swim, but the weather was not suitable. You ideally want a neap tide, when it’s at its lowest, so [you] don’t have this tremendous tidal swing.”
Despite cramping in his feet early in the attempt, Thaning powered through the 64-degree water. That’s warm for the channel this time of year, Thaning told the BBC, but it was still cold enough that maintaining his core body temperature while wearing only a swimsuit, cap, and goggles was a challenge throughout the nearly 13-hour swim.
This is not Thaning's first dip in the channel. He first swam it 20 years ago and has clocked other impressive swims over his career. He set a world-record swim of Lake Malawi in Mozambique in 1992 and swam the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain to Morocco in 2004. Thaning has completed the Robben Island to Blouberg swim (a roughly four-mile span) multiple times, most recently in 2007, and holds the record for oldest swimmer on that crossing as well.