At five years old, Ben Hooper almost drowned in a swimming pool.
“It was play time at the end of a lesson, and I got out of my depth,” he recalls. “It was surreal, really. I found myself on the bottom of the pool, listening to what was happening above. The last thing I saw was a splash on the opposite side, which I assume was the lifeguard coming for me. I woke up on the poolside…”
This wasn’t young Hooper’s first close call. After being born six weeks premature, he clinically died three times during his first few days due to collapsed lungs, only to be resuscitated each time.
But Hooper is living proof that odds can be beaten, and that a near-drowning doesn’t have to put you off water for life.
In fact, in Hooper’s case, it triggered a lifelong determination to conquer the water and an “affinity with the ocean”, and he grew up dreaming of one day attempting to swim across one – which is finally about to become a reality.
On November 1, the British father-of-one, now 38, will embark on a 2,000 mile swim across the Atlantic Ocean – from Dakar in Senegal, West Africa, to Brazil’s Natal – hopefully setting a world record in the process.
People have previously swum oceans, but the full 1,883 miles – the longest stretch across the Atlantic between continents – hasn’t officially been completed before.
French-born Benoit Lecomte was credited as the first to swim across the Atlantic without a kickboard in 1998, but the attempt was not verified by Guinness World Records.
Hooper’s taking no chances with his challenge, Swim The Big Blue. Along with his Big Blue support boat and crew – including a medic, body therapist and official observer who’ll be reporting back to Guinness – he’ll actually be following an even longer route, to ensure he properly swims every mile required for the record, allowing for deductions to be made for things like currents.
The former policeman, who was born in London but now lives in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, and previously served in the British Army, will swim for up to 12 hours a day for four whole months, facing the likes of storms and 20ft waves, plus jellyfish and sharks.
So, what possessed him?
Hooper acknowledges there’s a vast gulf between a childhood dream and actually committing to tackling something on this scale. He’s been long-distance swimming for years and taken part in amateur triathlons, but has never attempted anything of this magnitude.
For him, one of the final triggers was a severe bout of depression, which ultimately inspired him to change his life.
“I thought, ‘Do you know what, I’ve got to do something here, I’ve got to turn this around, or I’m not sure what’s going to happen’,” he recalls. “I’d always wanted to swim an ocean, and I just thought, ‘Right, maybe this is the moment’.”
In the grip of depression, he felt it was a case of “sink or swim” – a metaphor that’s become increasingly apt for Hooper.
He committed to a punishing training regime, clocking up countless hours in the pool and the sea (he’s racked up more than 12 million metres in the water over the past few years), taking on extra calories and bulking up (he’ll consume around 10,000-12,000 calories a day during the challenge, mainly via military-style ration packs plus supplements), and battling through injuries, flu and sinusitis along the way.
A waterproof MP3 player helps with the solitude and monotony of long stints in the water – he’s also been working with Hartpury College on a pioneering study into the effects of different types of music on athletes’ perceived fatigue and performance (Hooper favours the likes of The Script, Swedish House Mafia and Faithless).
But the physical and mental demands are just one aspect – one of the most difficult elements of such a challenge, as Hooper’s discovered, is all the organising and planning, and rallying enough support and sponsorship to make it happen.
Hooper says he’s been “moved and humbled” by the support and generosity he and his team have received, but admits it’s been difficult too, and there were moments when extra funds were desperately needed and he’d “no idea where it was coming from”.
But there was never a doubt in his mind that anything was going to stop him.
“There are so many people in the world who are ready to say, ‘No, you can’t do that’. I want to show people, do you know what? You can,” he says.
After three-and-a-half years of graft and prep, “phenomenal” highs and lows, now that departure day’s finally almost here, Hooper says it “doesn’t quite feel real”. And as for those sharks…
“I’m not too worried about sharks – unless they get me!” he says, laughing. “The weather could be a big fret. It’s going to be very warm in some parts, which can pose a physical challenge, and of course with the physical comes the mental.
“Failing and letting everyone down. That’s my biggest concern,” Hooper adds.
By ‘everyone’ he means the charities he’s fundraising for – Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres, UK drug and alcohol organisation Addaction, SOS Children’s Villages, Help 4 Henry and County Community Projects (CCP) – as well as all the “amazing” people who’ve played a part in bringing everything together, the local schoolchildren who’ve backed him, his team and Big Blue crew, and last but not least, his number one fan; his eight-year-old daughter, Georgia.
“She’s my greatest inspiration. Every day, she inspires me to want to be the best daddy I can be and do everything I can to show her that no matter how hard life is, you can turn it around and turn your hand to anything,” he says.
There will be communication links to back home from the boat, but Hooper thinks it’ll be easier all round if they don’t speak too often, though is “definitely planning to pick up the phone on Christmas Day”.
“The past three-and-a-half years have been a phenomenal experience,” says Hooper. “I want to get going now! Getting to Brazil, drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘We’ve done it!’ That’s the bit I’m looking forward to, and seeing my daughter’s face when I get home. I want her to have the Guinness World Record certificate for her bedroom wall, so she’s got something to chase when she’s grown up.”
To find out more about Swim The Big Blue, visit www.swimthebigblue.com.
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