Swimming!! How did I start? I don't know, I have always loved the water and I suspect that as a youngster, playing with friends on one of Brighton's slippery groynes, I probably slipped off, only to discover that the water was deeper than I was tall. They say "Necessity is the mother of invention" and although I did not appreciate it at that moment, this was probably one of those defining moments in my life. I swam as well as my contemporaries and, unlike riding a bicycle, which I found extremely difficult, swimming came naturally.
School Days: At school, at first, polio prevented me from taking part in sports activities. Later at Grammar school I realised that I hated all physical activities and as an asthmatic I usually managed to get out of the majority of them. In the gym, I was useless, I could not climb the rope and certainly could not do a press up or a somersault. Rugby was too rough, there was too much running around in football or squash or tennis, cricket was too slow (my Grandfather, W. W. Read, the Read on the "ashes urn", would certainly not have been amused), but I did like table tennis, although I was too shy ever to get a game.
I was 15 years old when "it" happened. It was the day that changed my life, we were all in school assembly. Morning prayers and assembly were over, and the headmaster was making his daily announcements. He ruled the school with a rod of iron, everybody from the first form to the sixth form feared his footsteps as he walked up the centre aisle of the hall to the stage. It was never good news.
"You will all be delighted to hear that Tasker has been selected to swim for Great Britain", he announced!! Looking back, this was definitely the day I was struck by lightning - it changed my life. I remember asking the lad next to me which one is Tasker - and when he pointed him out, I thought to myself that if he could swim for Britain, I was quite certain I could as well.
Neil Tasker was a school prefect, four years my senior, but I wasted no time in telling him that I wanted to be able to swim like him and asking for his help and advice. His advice, "Join Brighton Swimming Club, get training and I will help you as much as I can"!! And so I did and whilst everybody else did legs only, or swam with one arm, or swam with a board between their legs, I struggled to keep up with anyone who would let me and Neil was there whenever I needed him.
Neil Tasker doing butterfly
The First Race: Brighton Swimming Club had a series of open handicap swims and I remember entering these in my first year as a member. My first race was the 220 yards handicap, I think it was 1955, but it may have been 1956, I was given a huge handicap and I took advantage of it, I won in a little over 4 minutes, that was the start. My progress from that moment on was so fast that I won all three handicap races that year and they were lovely trophies. I now look back 55 years and excluding 2011, I have never been without an annual trophy since. The asthma and sinus problems were present continuously and numerous visits to hospitals and the occasional operation were annoying set backs to training. Unable to come up with any cures, the doctors finally decided to blame the pool water and seawater and gave me an ultimatum, give up swimming or don't bother to come back and see us. I have never regretted taking the second option.
The Competitive Spirit: I enjoyed swimming but I did not like training, I always liked swimming with people and beating them, I would never give up, this was training for me. I found chain swimming, chasing people's feet, depressing, demoralising and de-motivating. Looking back, I find that I even employed this same killer instinct with my children. I remember trying to encourage them to play table tennis when they were about 8 years old. I still had the irresistible urge to impale them against the garage door whenever they gave me the opportunity.
A Winner is Formed: It was at this time that I began to show up in Sussex and Southern Championships and, in 1958, I was placed 5th in the National Half Mile and second in the English Schools 100 yards Butterfly. The next year I followed these achievements with a good season, winning four Sussex Championships and, in doing so, set up new records for the 110 yards Butterfly and the 880 yards Freestyle. I also won the English Schools 110 Yards Butterfly, was second in the Southern Counties 440 Yards Freestyle and the individual Medley. In the National Championships I was second in both 440 and 880 yards Freestyle, beaten by Ian Black (who later became the BBC Sports Personality of the Year) and Dick Campion and third in 220 yards Freestyle.
The Olympics: So I gradually climbed the ladder, club champion, county champion, English schools champion and British Universities champion but sadly never a National title. Followed by Junior county selection, then county, then in 1959 I was selected to swim for Great Britain against Holland and finally I made the 1960 Olympic Team, it is funny but the triumphs you take for granted, it is the disappointments you remember most and I never got an England cap, the year I would have been selected, the Bologna trophy competition against the home countries was cancelled. Again, just a few days before the Olympics I lacerated my kneecap and I had to settle for being the reserve member of the team, they were fantastic, gaining 4th place.
1961 Winning the Sussex County ASA 440 yards Championship for the third year.
The Olympians now have a scheme for mentoring young hopefuls. 1960 was certainly the year that I needed a mentor, it was Olympic year and being number one or two was vital for making a team place. In those days there were no elite training squads, no training camps, no physiotherapists, no nutritionists and I was at University studying with 39 one hour lectures a week. I was already number 2 at 440 yards, number 1 was Ian Black and he was untouchable, not only in the UK, but also in Europe - he was in a class of his own. The International trials were in April and the Olympic trials in July. I remember the Amateur Swimming Association secretary, Dickie Hodgson, slapping me on the back as I got on the block at the start of the 440 yards International trial, "Get out there and stay out there" he said. I kept with Ian for the first 220 yards, I was exhausted, I had completely blown it, and I finished last. I was in the depths of despair and depression, I came home shattered. Fortunately I still had Neil to talk to, someone who I knew would understand. He offered the calm and reassurance I so desperately needed.
"They were only International trials", he said, "What matters are the Olympic trials in July and, trust me, there will be swimmers who are happy today, who will be desperately unhappy in July. Treat this as a valuable lesson and focus on being at your best and swim your own race in July". Well, I was 3rd in the 220 yards and was selected for the Great Britain Olympic 4 x 220 yards relay team.
Training in Black Rock open air pool Brighton with Neil Tasker July 1960
A good year for trophies
The Lure of Distance: I came home from the Olympics still enthusiastic, but I had lost the determination and “killer instinct” to win, I found myself fighting for 95% of a race and easing up on the last few yards, the steel, the determination had gone, I was not enjoying it. So I decided to move up the distances. It was nice to be able to win again without killing myself. And that is how I got into long distance, I was already doing the Pier to Piers and one-mile championships. In 1959 I was even pictured coming out of the sea after the Brighton Swimming Club Christmas Day swim. Now I started doing the British Long Distance Swimming Association 3, 5 and 8-mile events. I won the Southsea pier-to-pier, three years in a row, and Exmouth fairway buoy and Morecambe cross bay and Sandown to Shanklin, but I had to be content with five second places in the Brighton pier to pier, another one that eluded me. I had a wonderful few years, regularly in the top three places in a wide range of events, until in the late 1960's I finally moved up another gear into the 10 and 20 mile events.
Brighton Swimming Club’s Christmas Day swim 1959.
The Marathon Camaraderie: In hindsight the next turning point in my life came in 1967, when I accepted a job as chief nutritionist in Scotland with a subsidiary of ICI. It seemed a long way from our respective hometowns of Southampton and Brighton but my wife and I moved to Edinburgh. This was the time when my long distance career really took off. I realise how little I did and how much my life was changed by the dedication of a fanatical group of organisers and helpers. It seems as if they set the agenda, they organised everything - the time, the date, the weather, the boats, the rowers, the support crews, the officials, the food, the accommodation. All I had to do was to turn up with trunks, goggles and towel and start following the boat - and at the end I would get all the credit! As I look back, I realise that much of what I achieved was in fact solely due to this indefatigable group to whom I owe so much, Geoff Oddie, Keith Seymour, George Owen, Jim Tyson, Aggie Paling, Joan Metcalfe, Hamish Winter and Family, Denis Sullivan, Ian McIntosh and Family and many others up North and Audrey and Ray Scott down South. Words cannot begin to express the debt of gratitude I owe this band and many others. In reality they were just the tip of the iceberg. They were such happy days; I even learnt to dance at the receptions after the swims - thank you Doreen. I qualified as a FINA judge, timekeeper, referee and starter and frequently officiated at the Commonwealth pool. I even found time to play water polo for the East of Scotland. The awards and successes clocked up, a civic reception in Edinburgh in 1970, honorary life membership of the Ancient Amphibious Bathing Club "Phibbies" for short and Leith 1930 SC. Jeanne and I even found time to have a couple of children.
King of the Channel®: Success came in Lake Windermere, Loch Lomond, Loch Ness, the Windermere International and for nine consecutive years I won the Windermere 2 way swim. There were also "firsts" in Loch Rannoch, Loch Tay, The Wash and 3-way and 4-way Windermere swims. 1969-1979 were glorious years, in 1978 I was inducted into the Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida. 1969 was the year of my first channel swim and 1979 was the year I finally overtook Des Renford to become "King of the Channel®" it had taken me 10 years. I had to make six successful crossings in 1979 to get the record and my final swim, still the latest ever recorded, was on the 28th October.
1969-1979 were glorious years, in 1978 I was inducted into the Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida.
The First Channel Crossing: I have John Slater to thank, that I ever got into channel swimming. It was 1968 and I had just had an excellent swim in Lake Windermere. John came up to me and said, "You ought to think about doing the channel". I dismissed it out of hand at first saying it would cost too much, but I could not get the comment out of my mind - it niggled and irritated. I began to look for sponsorship and when my company offered to pay for the boat and British Airways offered a flight to London on the first available flight, I had no excuses. I booked with Captain Hutchinson, one of the great pilots of the day. The first time I was called to Dover in 1969, I remember distinctly arriving about 20.00 hours and going to a restaurant, where I ordered the largest meal possible. I left about 22:30 and went to bed at 23:00, where I lay, without a wink of sleep until the pilot arrived at 03:00. Not a morsel of food had digested!! "Swim's off", said the voice, "Water's too rough". I quickly got up and we chatted until about 06:00, when he set off back to Gravesend and home. Needless to say, I had learnt a very important lesson and one I would never repeat again. I went back to Scotland to await the next call.
It came a fortnight later and things went according to plan. We set off from the old submarine pens at Dover Harbour where Hutch kept his boat. It was the 14th August, a misty, foggy day with light rain during the hours of darkness and intermittent sun during the day. My first Dover solo was underway, little did any of us realise what the future would have in store.
The Elusive Double: I felt reasonably good when I first swam the Channel in 1969, I had been smitten by "the bug", the challenge, the joy of success, the camaraderie, new friends, a new level of confidence and so decided to see if I could do the double. The restless pursuit of my ultimate ambition drove me to try the 2-way Channel swim in the early 1970's. As the years went by my 5 attempts on the 2-way Channel were thwarted, mostly by bad weather and some by bad luck - and by as little as a heartbreaking 1 mile on the last occasion - but my total number of successes (now 6) was building towards Australian Des Renford's 8 crossings. So I decided to move my ambition from being the third person to complete a 2-way and I decided to become King of the Channel®.
Are You Cold? I am often asked if I feel the cold. My great advantage was appearing never to feel the cold. If I felt the cold during a swim I would never admit it - any uncontrollable limb movements are simply a reflection of my old age and approaching senility. The slurred, incoherent speech is just normal behaviour and the ratings of a mature man. The fact that I drove back from Torbay to Heathrow a few years ago after a Torbay swim, with the heating on full blast and the windows closed for the entire journey of about 6 hours, was not due to the fact that I was cold, but merely that it was probably cold outside and I did not want to find out. Anyway I was on my way to Italy and I was just trying to get acclimatised to the new temperatures I was about to experience.
The Renford Race: Over the next 5 years Des Renford and I were to match our attempts, almost swim for swim, even to the extent of a previously unimagined 3 swims in a season. Whilst Des always went with one of the best and most experienced pilots, I was training up my own pilot!! The result was that I invariably found myself going a day after Des and usually missing the good weather. 1978 ended with Des leading by 13 swims to 11. In the knowledge that he had decided to retire, I determined that 1979 would be the year I would complete the 3 swims between me and world number 1. But then to my complete amazement he decided to give the channel one last season and he promptly completed 3 swims and went home.
This left me with 14 swims and Des with 16. It was the end of the first week in September, almost the end of the season when I had to set about the dual tasks of raising more sponsorship and completing 3 more swims before the equinoctial gales and impossible swimming conditions closed the season. On 28th October 1979, starting with frost on the beach, I finally overtook Des by 17 swims to 16. They had been three of my longest/slowest swims but I had achieved the seemingly impossible, 6 swims in one year, which had included 3 swims in 8 days as well as three unsuccessful attempts.
Michael Read with the Letona Trophy, King of the Channel®.
To Remain King: At last I had achieved the goal I had set, I was King of the Channel®. Little did I realise how short lived this would be. My success spurred Des out of retirement and the next year he came over again and before I had realised what was happening, he put two quick successful swims in and took the title back. Not willing to let him keep the title I swam 3 times and reclaimed it before the year was out. Becoming King was one thing, remaining "King" was another, and so I set out throughout the early 1980's to put myself out of reach of challengers.
With every year that passed it became more difficult to get sponsorship. Like so many of our Channel swimmers I did my share of fund raising and in 1975 I dedicated my swim to raising funds for the Lions International and in many areas of the country my swim was their major fund raising focus that year. It turned out to be the longest swim I ever did, 29 hours 5 minutes, but I was still unsuccessful in achieving a 2 way swim, let alone the 3 way I had set out to achieve. Alas, I spent 5 hours trying to do the last mile to the English shore but I was somehow caught in the tide and mentally I finally gave up.
Showing a CSA certificate to a group of young swimmers after having launched an Aspire 21 mile swimming challenge at Crown Pools in Ipswich.
By 1984 I had completed 31 Channel swims. At this point I decided (or was it my wife), that there was more to life than Channel swimming and so I started to accept invitations to warmer climes - I suppose I have become quite soft as I have got older. I received invitations to swims all over Europe, in Holland, France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Syria, Egypt and other places. I had a number of swims in the International Olympic Committee event from Evian to Lausanne and Lausanne to Evian. Whilst I was working with SmithKline Beecham I also had the opportunity to swim around Manhattan. For a number of years Lake Como was almost a second home and I was made an honorary citizen of Dervio. Now my second home seems to be Sithonia in Greece. Here I also received the honorary citizenship of Nikiti. I fell in love with each of the places and each of the swims.
For sheer enjoyment swimming does not get much better than this.
In recent years, since the mid 1990’s, I have done a lot more competitive Masters swimming and have managed to win about 15 ASA titles, a second and a couple of third places in Europe and a 7th and 9th in the World Championships. 2011 went down in my records as the only year in the last 55 years that I did not win a trophy of some sort.
Are You Nervous? For the record, I still have breathing problems, I still get nervous before a swim and I always find it impossible to sleep the night before a big swim. I even occasionally get the odd panic attack during the first few minutes of some swims and I have to force myself to slow down and take it easy. I tell myself it is supposed to be fun and I am here to enjoy it.
The Pay-Back: I have to confess that balancing swimming and work has not been easy, I have been incredibly lucky and I am mindful of putting things back into the sport that has given me so much. I became part of the administration team of Brighton Swimming Club as far back as 1958, when I became a committee member. I qualified as a FINA official just before and during the period of the Commonwealth Games in 1970 and, around this time, I also served as a member of the BLDSA committee. In the early 1970's I joined the Channel Swimming Association and became a committee member, I served 16 years as Vice Chairman from 1977-93 and was elected Chairman in 1993. In 1999 I was elected Chairman of the newly created Channel Swimming Association Ltd and on Sunny Lowry’s retirement in 2007 was elected President. In 2006 I was presented with the Audrey Scott Award for the greatest contribution to the CSA. In February 2009 I was given the 2008 Davids/Wheeler award by the International Swimming Hall of Fame in recognition of my contribution to the administration of open water swimming world wide.
The Davids/Wheeler award 2008
In May 2011 I was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as the Honor Open Water swimmer, also honoured was Ian Thorpe, although he was unable to attend.
In 2012 I was appointed an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours for services to swimming.
Has It All Been Worth It? The stress, the strain, almost 50 years of endless training, the travel, the cost, the huge disruption to family life, juggling job, parenthood and career, never taking a holiday, the disappointments, even heart breaks, the occasional failures and everything else.
Sadly, I find it is the regrets, especially the unsuccessful swims and so many things left undone, that rush to mind and if there is one thing I have learned from all this, it is "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today". You don't always get a second chance. Well, I guess my family would probably say "No, it hasn't been worth it" but, bless them all, they have always been very supportive! And that is something which is absolutely essential for all sportsmen and women. But it is my biography and I have to say "Yes, Yes, the travel, the friends, the wonderful experiences, the personal satisfaction, the awards and sense of achievement. . . Yes, I am sorry, I would do it all again - but this time BETTER and perhaps I would have done a few more Channel swims"!!!!
Updated: 19th January 2013