The first Malaysian to swim the English Channel

Meeting Malik

I first met Abdul Malik Mydin (Malik) in person in June 2002. His girlfriend and manager, Ayu, had already sent me several emails, asking if I would be prepared to coach him. I told her that I would only do it if he came over to Australia to train, emphasising that the Channel has only a 7% success rate and people have died trying to cross. In fact, I nearly died during my 1993 attempt, when their worst summer in decades meant I was facing three metre waves and 12 degree water. I stopped breathing and was sinking under the boat, just 4 km from France, and had to be resuscitated by my coaches, Dawn Fraser and Dick Champion. So, knowing from personal experience how bad it can get, I wouldn't feel confident coaching someone over the internet.

Malik's background was elite cycling, and he had even represented Malaysia at the Commonwealth Games. The first time I saw him swim in the pool, I noticed that his "cyclist's legs" were almost dragging on the bottom, and couldn't help wondering if he was going to be worth the effort. However, to my surprise, he improved out of sight with a bit of work on his technique & kicking.

Under my instruction, he put on 7kg during the few months he was here. This was necessary, as body fat provides effective insulation against the cold. I also had him swim in Port Phillip Bay without a wetsuit on for up to an hour, five times a week. The water got as low as 7 degree celsius, and, coming from tropical Malaysia, he hated it. Malik hadn't booked to cross the Channel until July 2003, so I recommended that he travel around Europe in the interim and do some marathon races for experience. He did this, keeping in regular contact with me, and returned to Australia in December to start preparation for his Channel attempt seven months later.

Malik was very shy in the beginning, but we became really good friends, and he then explained that his initial awkwardness was because he thought all Westerners considered Muslims to be terrorists. I thoroughly enjoyed coaching him and it was a great summer.

Malik was fully sponsored by the Malaysian government. In fact, the then Prime Minister, Dr Mahatir, had taken Malik under his wing and would call frequently to see if he needed anything. Dr Mahatir wanted to prove to Malaysians that they could achieve anything they wished, if they put their minds to it. He had already sponsored a Malaysian to climb Mt. Everest and a Malaysian to sail solo around the world. Malik was to be his final project, as he was preparing to retire within 12 months. Malik told me a story that proved that Dr Mahatir lived by his own philosophy - years before, he had had major heart surgery, and, instead of having the surgery abroad with more experienced heart specialists, he chose to use Malaysian doctors, stating that they were better, because they have smaller hands.

Because of this, I wasn't sure if Dr Mahatir approved of me as Malik's coach. I'm not really sure why he chose me, and I never asked him. Apparently, my name was forwarded to him by Frieda Streeter, the mother of Allison Streeter, who has done the most English Channel crossings in history. My sister, Tammy, our coaches, Dawn Fraser & Dick Champion, and I became good friends with Frieda, who coaches Channel swimmers in Dover Harbour in summer time, and her daughter during 1993- 1994, when we were doing undertaking our Channel adventures.

Malik had planned to do a 40 km swim back home in Malaysia a few months before the Channel attempt to show his 'progress' to the Malaysian Government and the sponsors they'd organised for him. I wasn't keen on the idea as we were training for cold water & Malaysia is certainly not cold. He talked me into it and, as they were paying the bills, I could hardly refuse. It wasn't until this trip that I become aware of the enormous interest and respect that Malik had gained in Malaysia.

The Malaysian newspapers on board the Malaysian Airlines plane we flew on had a front page story on him coming home to do his training swim. When we landed, there were television cameras following us around to our baggage. The whole week leading up to the swim, he was the daily front page news of every Malaysian newspaper. We also appeared on live TV on their two breakfast shows for 15-20 minutes - it was amazing. For the swim itself, we had a police escort, as there was a crowd of fifty thousand people to see us off.

The swim was held at night when the tides were in our favour. However, before we started, they had a stage set up under a marquis. At the front of the stage were leather lounges, where Malik, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister sat. Behind these, were about 50 plastic folding chairs where I sat with other ministers. The speeches, all in Malaysian, lasted about an hour, and then a giant MCG type screen came on , showing Malik swimming to the Malaysian version of "'Rocky" music. It was insane.

Once the clip was over, we walked the 30 or so metres from the stage down to the awaiting boat to start the swim - at last. Fireworks blazed into the sky as the swim started, and I was more than a little nervous. Although this was just a training swim, I felt like I might well be facing the firing squad if he didn't finish. Luckily for me, he did, and in fine style. The media was out of control and I became an adopted son. The Prime Minister was hugging Malik and crying when he finished the swim.

I stayed another week to do media commitments with Malik, before heading home solo, having given him a few weeks off. I was treated like a rock star there and, I must admit, it was awesome. It was pretty sad to lose this short-lived fame once back to Melbourne, as, here, nobody knew me or what we were doing. Malik returned to Australia a few weeks later with a documentary crew in tow, and it was clear that things were now getting really serious. I became good friends with this camera crew, as I had to drive them and their gear around every day in my tiny 1970 Ford Escort.

Malik and I were both on a high once training in Australia recommenced, but it took a while for him to get used to the cold weather & freezing water again. We trained at the Brighton Baths in the chilly 7C water for up to two hours in our longest session. We'd then all head off to lunch, courtesy of the Malaysian government. At night, I'd pick them all up again and we'd head down to the King Club, where I coach swimming squads in a 25-metre indoor pool. This would be a stroke technique session for Malik, as, as you can imagine, he was pretty tired from swimming in the freezing bay without a wetsuit every morning. We would also spend 30 minutes a day stretching and do regular weigh-ins to make sure he maintained the 7kg he'd put on despite the heavy training workload. I figured that, once he started resting, he could even put on a bonus 3 - 4kg more.

The English Channel Trip

Before travelling to England, we spent a week in Malaysia attending to media commitments. The place was out of control and I was keen to continue our journey as soon as possible. When we finally arrived in England, we stayed in a huge, five-storey house in West London with two drivers and twelve media people (the house was worth around 3 million pounds. We were right next to Battersea Park, which became my morning and evening run haven. During the day, we would drive (or be driven) to Dover Harbour to train. It had been ten years since I'd been there and the memories came flooding back to me. Dover is where Channel swimmers from all over the world come to prepare and wait for their "window" to attempt the crossing.

There are only 3 months, starting in July, when it's possible to swim, and, due to the erratic weather, each swimmer is , in general, given a week's window in which to make his/her attempt. You have to hire a boat, skipper and an official observer via the English Channel Association. The skipper of the boat you've chosen (from a list of skippers drawn up by the Channel Association) gives you the run down of the tides & weather forecast for that week. It's then up to you, or your coach, to pick the day bearing in mind how fickle the English weather is. Malik, due to all the media exposure, was given a two week window. This was both heaven and hell, as sometimes it's best just to take the first half good day. If you get too fussy and hold out for a better day, the weather can turn completely and stay unswimable for days on end. It's a real game of poker.

The other problem is the tides. There are two, Spring and Neap. Neap is the safer of the two, as it's the weakest and allows you to swim the straighter of the lines across the water. Spring tides are when the moon & sun's gravitational forces cause waves of up to seven metres. Water can move at over 4km/hr against you there. In 1994, when I made the crossing, I was held up in the middle of the Channel by an oil tanker towing another oil tanker. I lost twelve minutes treading water on the spot, and the tide turned on me two kilometres from the finish. I was swimming into a 4km/hr tide, which basically meant I had to swim faster than 45 sec per 50m, just to make progress. It took me an hour and a half to finish what should have taken 25 minutes. I got the Australian record for the crossing, but would've smashed the world record, had I not been held up in the middle by the ships.

There's no way I would have risked taking Malik out on even the weakest of Spring tides, as he doesn't have the swimming speed to get himself out of trouble, should our calculations fail for some reason. There is also a risk during Spring tides that the wind picks up and hits the tide front on. Waves can get massive. The previous year, this had happened to a Swiss triathlete who was trying to cross. He drowned and they found his body washed up in Belgium eleven days later. If you get the weather and tides right, and the water's not too cold, it's not that hard a swim, but, if you get things wrong, or even semi-wrong, you'd better look out.

Malik and I were lucky as, even though we didn't know it at the time, this was to be England's hottest summer in one hundred years, and the water temperature has been great for the past ten years. I'm not sure if it's global warming, but I couldn't believe how warm Dover Harbour was compared to 1993, and even '94, which I thought was a bath compared to the previous year. I certainly wasn't complaining. The main problem we had was that the winds were very strong for the Neap tide while waiting for Malik's window, and I didn't want him to swim on a Spring tide. Try telling this to the Malaysian media on a budget. It really became heated at stages and Malik was getting frustrated at waiting. However, when I finally received a weather report with which I was happy, all was forgiven.

We left at 01:00am and swam into a 30+C day in 19-20C water. This was the first day of their heat wave, so, in hindsight, I would have waited another two or three days, but I wasn't complaining. Ten hours into the swim, we were all joking around as things were so unbelievably good. Malik had three media boats around him, packed to the rafters, doing live reports back to Malaysia. 12 hours into the swim, we were only a mile and a quarter away from the closest point of France, but, unfortunately, we missed the tide and Malik had to swim the long way in, which added 5 1/2 hours on to the swim.

This was a tough time, as it chopped up to 1 metre waves, which was very annoying. Malik and the crew lost their sense of humour as, what had looked like a piece of cake, was becoming a real chore. He really started to hurt, but toughed it out. I was amazed at how much pressure this guy could endure. I would never have been able to handle the weight of a nation on my shoulders when I did my swim ten years previously. The last problem we had was the finish. The rules state that nobody can touch you until your body is 100 % out of the water but, because the beach on to which Malik was getting swept, was very shallow, there were hundreds of Malaysians in knee-deep water waiting Malik to finish.

A hug form one of them and his whole swim would not be sanctioned by the Channel Association. We could only get the boats in so far in the shallow water, and then it's up to the swimmer to find his/her way the last 200m or so. We couldn't contact any of the people on shore to tell them not to touch Malik. I ended up jumping in, fully clothed, with my mobile phone in my pocket, and sprinting in to catch him and tell everyone to keep back. They already knew, of course. Malik was a wreck as he had had to dig really deep at the end, and was talking to me in Malaysian. It was really tough at 12 hours in to see land so close, then have to turn towards another landline where you could barely make out houses. He was a real hero. I was so proud of him and very relieved.

The main boat had a blow-up row boat on it, which I used to row Malik back to it. He was cramping everywhere and looked like a very happy prune. The boat trip back takes about 3 hours. I slept most of the way back. Malik did media calls - he's a freak. The next night, the Malaysian Consulate put on a party. Malik was like a brother to me now and the media people forgave me too. Everyone was euphoric for the next few days.

We headed back to Malaysia, where the Prime Minister, along with a few thousand others, met us. I had been adopted by all, and it was amazing. I spent another week there doing media interviews and was totally exhausted by the end. Malik was given an apartment in his home town of Penang, as well as a Proton car, and then, to cap it all, he received a Datuk Tital, which is their version of being knighted. He's the youngest Datuk in Malaysian history. I missed all this as it happened in the weeks later, but, all in all, it was an incredible adventure for me. I didn't even have to show my passport when I left Malaysia (of course, it was a different story when I arrived back in Melbourne). It was all like a dream.

'Rousing welcome for English Channel conqueror'

August 9th 2003
Marathon swimmer Abdul Malik Mydin arrived home to a rousing welcome at the KL International Airport yesterday after his historic feat to become the first Malaysian to swim the English Channel. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi were among 1,000 well-wishers to welcome and congratulate Abdul Malik, who arrived on a Malaysian Airlines flight from London.

Others who turned up to greet him included Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein, his deputy Datuk Ong Tee Keat, and sailor Datuk Azhar Mansur, who accomplished a solo maritime circumnavigation of the world in 1999. Abdul Malik, 28, also became the first South-East Asian to cross the 32.8km-wide waterway that separates England and France, completing his swim in 17 hours and 42 minutes on Aug 4. The crowd burst out in cheers of 'Hidup Malik' and 'Malaysia Boleh' as he gave a speech to thank Malaysians for their prayers and support to help him achieve his dream. They also belted out the Jalur Gemilang song at the welcoming reception, which also included speeches from the leaders and an exchange of souvenirs.

The crowd also held banners, proclaiming Abdul Malik Wira Negara (Abdul Malik National Hero), Syabas Malik (Congratulations Malik) and Selat Inggeris Telah Ditakluk (English Channel Conquered). Earlier, the channel conqueror was greeted by his family at the airport’s VIP room. Dr Mahathir gave Abdul Malik a silver keris while the swimmer returned the gesture with a portrait of him posing with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister also extended his personal congratulations to Abdul Malik for bringing pride to the country.

Dr Mahathir, who had given his support for the record-breaking attempt over the past three years, said in his speech that Malaysians could stand tall because of Abdul Malik’s success. 'We can be proud of his achievement because of his ability and spirit. We can do anything. He will be an example for all of us.' 'The younger generation must instil discipline, perseverance and patience in trying to achieve whatever they aspire for,' he said. Dr Mahathir said Malaysians need to be bolder in facing new challenges, such as becoming the country’s first astronaut. Abdul Malik told the crowd: 'The last 5km took me five hours. I had no energy left but your prayers kept me going.' He said his endeavour taught him to be patient, adding that sincerity was the key to a person’s success.

'Malik completes historic Channel swim'

Monday, August 04 2003
He arrived at 8.42pm French time (7.42pm British time, 2.42am today Malaysian time), completing the feat in just under 18 hours. Malik could have made it hours earlier if not for the very windy weather during the last few kilometres of his swim. About 50 Malaysian well-wishers who were waiting at the finish line greeted him. Earlier, strong winds had slowed down Malik's progress along the home stretch, but journalists following him in two other boats reported that the swimmer was coping well.

Malik started his feat at Abbots Beach in Dover at 2.02am local time (9.02am Malaysian time), stopping for feeds at 20-minute intervals, with his strokes at a consistent pace. Malik had spent the day before the swim relaxing in preparation for the marathon swim which will take him 32.8km across from Dover to Cap Gris Nez.

He emerged with his coach and supporters half-an-hour past midnight to make the short walk from the hotel where he was staying to the marina, where he boarded a boat that took him to Abbots Beach. Malik was greeted by supporters who had started to arrive from London, and a procession of well-wishers and journalists soon formed behind him. The group of well-wishers, including staff of the Malaysian Students Department in London and their families and journalists nearly missed the important occasion when they were stopped from going down the cliff to the narrow stretch of pebbled beach where Malik was to take the plunge but were later allowed to proceed. Earlier, Malik was expected to be flagged off at Shakespeare Beach, but at the last minute, navigator Mike Oram felt it was better for him to leave from Abbots Beach.  A few metres from the beach, Malik jumped from his boat and swam ashore and waited for instructions from his coach, John van Wisse.

At 2.02am local time, Malik started his marathon swim accompanied by shouts of Malaysia Boleh and "Go, Malik, Go," breaking the eerie silence of the early morning hours. "It is really an honour for us to be here and to witness this historic moment. It shows that Malik Boleh and Malaysia Boleh," said Datuk Kamaruddin Mohd Nor, the Malaysian Students Department director who brought his family along. Datuk Ab Ghani Ariffin, district officer of Seberang Prai Utara, who was on a business trip, stayed behind to offer his support. Also present was Alison Streeter, known as Queen of the Channel for her 41 attempts across the Channel. Streeter, also Malik's coach and consultant, said once Malik was in the water, all fear and anxieties would disappear and the swimmer would be very focused on his target. In Putrajaya, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad last night expressed his pride over the abilities and determination of Malaysians as shown by Malik and shuttler Wong Choong Hann.

'Rough seas delay channel attempt'

Friday, July 25, 2003
Rough seas yesterday again delayed Abdul Malik Mydin’s attempt to swim across the English Channel and the forecast for today is also unsettled weather. Malik, who had planned to begin his swim yesterday morning, is now expected to take his biggest plunge to-date early tomorrow morning when weather conditions are forecast as more ideal. Datuk Talaat Mansur, deputy secretary-general of the Youth and Sports Ministry, said from Dover that Malik was continuing his training off Shakespeare Beach, the traditional spot for cross-channel attempts. 'We receive 12-hourly weather reports on the English Channel where conditions can change rapidly. So we have to make sure everything is right,' he said. When Malik begins his swim, some 50 Malaysians, including his group of 14 supporters from home, will be on hand to wish him well while another group based in France will be waiting in Calais to welcome him.

'Malik's Swim Wednesday Called Off'

DOVER (London), July 22 (Bernama) -- Abdul Malik Mydin's swim to cross the English Channel on Wednesday has been called off due to bad weather. The adverse weather is expected to continue in the next 24 hours, causing strong current and waves as high as two metres. "This is dangerous and the experts from the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CSPF) has advised us not to take the risk. "For the next 24 hours, the winds will be blowing at 20 nautical miles per hour which will cause big waves," said coach John Van Wisse here Tuesday.

He said that due to the weather condition, Wednesday's swim was definitely off, leaving the next possibility either on Thursday or Friday. Wisse said CSPF navigator and piloting expert Michael Oram kept him informed of the weather conditions from time to time because he wanted to make sure that it would be safe for the swim. If the adverse weather situation continued, he said the swim might be put on hold until July 30 or to wait for Aug 5 when the condition was expected to be favourable. "The strong current and big waves are bad and it is a big affect on swimmers," he said. He said they had to respect the advice of the SDPF, an expert on the sea conditions in the channel.

"Oram has all the information on the weather and he is the professional navigator and weather expert. What he wants to do is to ensure that the weather is suitable for Malik and he wants Malik to reach Calais without any problem and to ensure that he achieves the best time possible," he said. For the past two weeks, only six swimmers swam across the channel and due to the bad weather they made poor time, reaching Calais in 20 hours.  Meanwhile, Malik said that he hoped that the weather would be back to normal on Friday.
"Personally I'm a little bit sad about the postponement," he said.