• Anette Frisch

Talk to Otto Thaning, oldest channel swimmer

Aktualisiert: Apr 5

Otto Thaning crossed the English Channel in 2015 at the age of 73 as the oldest swimmer. It was his second crossing. He did his first swim when he was 53 years young. I met the heart surgeon a few months later in Cape Town, in his office at the Christiaan Barnard Hospital. Read how Otto started open water swimming and why he crossed the English Channel for the second time...

Heart Surgeon Otto Thaning in his office at Christiaan Barnard Hospital. © Anette Frisch 

A friend from the cold

In my 20 I was a competitive swimmer. I could have competed on Olympic level, but my interest was not so high. My studies were more important to me. When I came to Cape Town to join the team of Professor Christiaan Barnard at Groote Schuur HospitalI was 35. Still, I enjoyed swimming. But I could not swim in the sea. And it worried me because other people could do.

“Can you teach me?”, I kindly asked my friend Kevin, who was a cold water swimmer. “Ok”, he said, “but with one condition: You do exactly what I say! You do not argue because I cannot argue against your medical knowledge and you cannot argue against my swimming knowledge.” I answered: “Fine. I will be observant and subservient and do exactly what you are saying.”

From then on we would meet every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Clifton Beach 4. I only wore speedos and goggles, a wetsuit was not allowed.

Week 1: I got into the water up to my knees for 10 min.

Week 2: …up to my costume, 10 min.

Week 3: …up to the chest, 15 min.

Week 4: …up to the neck, 15 min.

Week 5: My first time! For 15 min. in circles

Week 6: 20 min. swimming in circles

Week 7: 30 min. swimming in circles

After 1,5 months we had increased the time in the open water to 40 minutes. And after about two months Kevin took me on a boat to Robben Island. When I asked, where we were up to Kevin answered: “We are going to swim back to the beach”.

I got panicky. That was the first time I argued.

First attempt to cross the English Channel

But we swam. I was never so excited as at this swim. I thought I have won a gold medal. I was like a child.

Like everything, when you can do the first step you can do the next step. That was when I was looking for other swimmers.

I met Lewis Pugh*. He was in his twenties, ambitious and capable. We started to train a lot together and were the first people that swam Lake Malawi in 1992. The same year we planned to swim the English Channel.** At that time I was the older and the stronger swimmer. So we agreed, that Lewis would swim first. If I had swum first and failed, he would have been insecure.

Lewis managed to cross the English Channel in nearly 15 hours. When he came out of the water I had to warm him up until my swim started at 6 a.m. It began good, but then the weather turned up to be really nasty and they took me out.


*Lewis Pugh became a famous endurance swimmer and UN Patron of the Oceans.

**The English Channel is 34km straight across but currents mean it is rare for a swimmer to cover it in less than 40km.

Next attempt(s)

The English Channel by taken across is organized by two associations:

Channel Swimming Association and Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation. You have to book a tide for three days at the association in advance. And if you cannot swim because of bad weather conditions, there is another group waiting for their swim and you are out. There are strict rules for the swimmers: you have to be healthy and a qualified swimmer who can swim continuously.

Otto crawling through blue, © southafrican.com

You are obliged to wear only a simple costume, standard goggles and a cap, but no neoprene.

A small crew accompanies the swimmer on a boat. The crew would feed him,

watch his health conditions, weather changes and navigate him to the French coast. Nobody is allowed to touch him. There is only water and the swimmer. It’s the purest sport of sports.

I came back a year later, 1993, and waited for better conditions, which did not come up.

The following year everything went right. I had a good swim and made it in 10 hours and 29 minutes. I was only 53 but in this year. And already the oldest Channel swimmer.

As years go by

My life philosophy: I do not believe in the retiring age. I believe you can actively age. I think, people should have the right to retire if it suits them and not because they must. The issue is, who decide if the person is competent to remain working?

I am not interested in being the oldest man swimming the English Channel; but I am willing to do something which is neglected in the medicine: that actively aging is possible. I kept swimming and got interested into the preventive aspect of it. I maintained the idea of active aging over the years and turned 69. I came to the age to say: Maybe I should do it again.

When you look after yourself you can do most things, provided you do it properly. So I decided on three years of preparation and considered to do my second Channel Crossing.

In 2013 I went over to Great Britain and the same thing happened, when I was there in 1993: the weather conditions were bad and I could not start. I was fine with the fact that I would have another year of training.

Seapoint Pool, Capetown, ©Anette Frisch  

If you want to swim the English Channel, the best way to train for that is cold adaptation. And the way you do that is by swimming in colder water for progressively longer periods. That Seapoint pool is the perfect pool to do it. In summer it will be up to 25 degrees; in winter it goes down rapidly to 11 degrees. Over 90 percent of the people who have swum the English Channel have swum in that pool. It’s why it’s so popular. Unfortunately the pool in Seapoint was closed due to reparation. So I had to swim half indoors, half outdoors.

2014/September/6, my next attempt: The conditions were good. I got into the water and started to swim. What is it like?

That's what it's like

Mindset: You want to do it and you want to complete it! That’s mind discipline. My principle: Everything what is negative I lay down on the beach when I start swimming.

Swimming: 35.000 times strokes lie ahead. You have to find a stroke that is comfortable. You stick to freestyle and you do not stop, because than you are cold. The challenge is to maintain your inner temperature and that you swim technically correct. It takes many years to get that.

Cold: You have to learn to swim in cold water for that cold time. There is a concept of cold adaption, which is difficult do explain. It’s a trainable asset, physiologically.

Nutrition: This is a very long story. The most sporting events take 5 hours like a marathon. The first 5 to 7 hours you consume carbohydrates, stored in the liver and muscles, then fat. Because the average swim is 14 to 16 hours you need a budget for 14 hours. For that you have to train your body to use fat early. It’s a program of science.

Motivation: Every single stroke I am asking myself if it is technically correct and if the breathing is right. The main thing I am concentrating on is: I am going there! And: I am not getting cold! The crew will feed me as I said them.

I arrived at the French coast in 12 hours and 50 minutes. I was 73 years and 177 days and the oldest man swimming the English Channel.

I prefer to swim with somebody who is better than me; it works like a team. I aim to train 5 times a week, 15 – 25 km a week, but it depends on my job as a heart surgeon. I start with 1,5 to 5 km to get ready; another 1,5 km on time. Saturday and Sunday I do long swims. Last week we were swimming in the ocean.

There were dolphins. They swam with us.