“I swam into a plastic bag, and it engulfed my head”

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    Neil Agius swimming in the ocean
    Von Melita Cameron-Wood

    At the age of two, Maltese ultra-distance swimmer and former Olympian Neil Agius almost to drownertrinkendrowned. “I fell into my grandparents’ swimming pool. When they pulled me out, I was unconsciousbewusstlosunconscious and blue in the face.” Ten minutes later, he was ready to jump back into the pool.

    Surprisingly, this early traumatic experience did not to triggerauslösentrigger a phobia of water. Quite the opposite – Agius fell in love with swimming. “I had a lot of energy as a child. My parents sent me to the pool to stop me from driving my mum crazy.” Swimming lessons may have simply seemed the most logical way to prevent such an incident from happening again, but it soon became clear that swimming was more than just a pastimeZeitvertreibpastime for Agius.

    A young Olympian 

    At the age of 17, Agius represented Malta at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. “I was a 17-year-old boy turning up at the Olympics. I am not sure that I took everything from it that I needed to take, but it was a beautiful experience.” Agius went on to represent Malta in various world championships, in Melbourne, Dubai and Montreal.

    Although Malta is surrounded by water, the swimming scene there remains small, and it was even smaller in the early noughtiesdie Nullerjahrenoughties. For this reason, Agius went to live in Wales for two years so that he could train with David Davies, an Olympic bronze (Athens, 2004) and silver medallist (Beijing, 2008). “It was an experience that gave me the foundations of what I do today: the work ethic, the number of kilometres we’d do every week...”

    In 2007, Agius co-founded Swimming Workshop with another swimmer, Mark Buttigieg. The two men work with a wide range of age groups, from toddlerKleinkindtoddlers to 70-year-olds. “For me, it’s about passing on all the knowledge I have gained over the years. Swimming is a very calming, soothingberuhigendsoothing, relaxing workout. It’s not a HIT (High Intensity Training)Hochintensitäts-Training (Kraftsport)HIT class in the gymFitness-Studiogym, where you are to pump weightsGewichte hebenpumping weights. It’s very at to be at one with sth.eins mit etw. seinone with nature.”

    From the pool to the ocean

    Agius was a pool swimmer until the age of 25, but he wanted to push himself even further. “I had always wanted to swim around Malta. I kept on telling my girlfriend that I was going to do it, and then at some point she told me, ‘Listen, you need to stop talking about it or actually do it.’” Until then, the longest open-water swim that Agius had completed was just 11 kilometres. This was a big jump.

    He originally just planned on doing this 70-kilometre circumnavigationUmrundungcircumnavigation challenge, but the experience to sparkerweckensparked his interest in doing even more demanding high-enduranceAusdauerendurance swims. “There was no plan for the next swim or anything else, but when I was in the water, I was very intriguedfasziniertintrigued by how much you can push your mind and body. By the time I had finished that swim, I knew I wanted to swim from Sicily to Malta.”

    Agius wanted to use his open-water challenges to raise awareness about the need for the conservation of the ocean, based on the sheerrein, bloßsheer volume of waste he had come across while training. “On one of the first night swims that I ever completed, I swam into a plastic bag, and it to engulf sth.etw. umhüllenengulfed my head. It had been so peaceful up until then – so quiet, no one around. Today, I feel that the plastic bag was put there for me to swim into it … to get me to be the voice of the ocean.”

     

    INFO TO GO

    According to the UN Environment Programme, about 730 tonnes of plastic waste enter and pollute the Mediterranean Sea every day. In 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated the yearly influxEinbringen, Einleiteninflux of plastic waste into the Mediterranean Sea to be 229,000 tonnes.

     

    This was how the #waveofchange campaign to come aboutzustande kommencame about. It began as a challenge initiated by Agius and his friends, whereby participantTeilnehmer(in)participants had to pick up three pieces of rubbish every time they went to the beach. With the help of social media, the campaign grew and now, after three years of challenges, Wave of Change has become an official NGO (non-governmental organization)nichtstaatliche OrganisationNGO, to be dedicated to doing sth.sich etw. zum Ziel gesetzt habendedicated to protecting the sea and rethinking our habits. This year, followers are encouraged to #doublethewave and pick up six pieces of plastic waste instead of three whenever they go to the beach.

    Ultra-distance swimming

    In 2020, after his swimming school had to shut its doors because of lockdown, Agius found himself with more to have time on one’s handsZeit zur Verfügung habentime on his hands. He used it to prepare for his ultra-distance swim from Sicily to Malta. Not all the reactions to his plan were positive. While he was applying for permits for the swim, many people didn’t understand his motives. “They told me: ‘What are you talking about? We are going through a pandemic. People are dying, and you are talking about swimming from one country to another.’” Agius to persistnicht locker lassenpersisted nevertheless, convinced that his swim would really to lift sb.’s spiritsjmds. Stimmung hebenlift people’s spirits after months of lockdown. What remained uncertain, however, until two weeks before the event, was whether the authorities would permit the swim. “I still went down every day to train. Even though we weren’t sure if it would actually happen, I believed that it would.”

    In June 2020, he completed the swim and became the first person to swim from Sicily to mainland Malta – his only predecessorVorgänger(in)predecessor being the swimmer Nicky Farrugia, who had completed a similar route from Sicily to the Maltese island of Gozo in 1985. Agius swam the 100 kilometres in 28 hours, seven minutes and 27 seconds.

    At the age of 35, Agius’s fascination with ultra-distance swimming continues to grow, which is why he decided to swim from the Italian island of Linosa to Gozo – a distance of 125.6 kilometres. After five months of gruellingäußerst strapaziösgruelling training, he completed the non-stop swim in just over 52 hours at the end of June.

    credited_Neil Agius.jpg

    A joint effort

    Before taking on a new challenge, Agius always discusses it with his partner of ten years, Lara Vella. “During those five months, it is a full-time commitmentEinsatzcommitment. There are sessions where I’ll be swimming from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m., and then the next day all over again. I am not social or active or present in that time.” Vella has played a big part in Agius’s success, and she is also one of the motivators on the boat during his ultra-distance swims, pulling him through the worst.

    A team of 24 people accompanies Agius on his ultra-distance challenges. The team members to take shiftsabwechselnd Dienst tuntake shifts to make sure they are fresh and alertwachsam, auf dem Postenalert. “We have four sailing boats in a diamondhier: rautenförmigdiamond formation around me. Then there is a RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat)Schlauchboot mit festem RumpfRIB next to me. I follow the RIB, and it follows the bigger boat in front.” Agius is also accompanied by a team of three doctors, who are ready to perform a small operation if a medical emergency arises.

    Another group is responsible for navigation. They check the weather conditions, currentStrömungcurrents and the route map. Only the people closest to Neil are allowed on the RIB: a driver, a feeder and a motivator. Agius is very meticuloussorgfältig, übergenaumeticulous with his strokeSchwimmstoßstroke rate and to endeavour to do sth.sich bemühen etw. zu tunendeavours to maintain the same speed thoughout his swims.

    Routine and rhythm

    “When I am swimming, I take a one-minute break every 29 minutes. I am not allowed to touch the boat, so I tread water, I drink a bit, and I eat a little bit. During that one minute, they’ll play music that I use while I meditate to get me out of that dark place and put me back into the light.” The motivator is the only person who can speak to Agius during that one minute. That person needs to make sure that Agius is still alert and not hallucinating.

    This routine also makes it easier to to pace sth.etw. einteilen, begrenzenpace his food intake to avoid to bloataufschwellen; hier: Blähungen verursachenbloating, which could to hinderbehindern, erschwerenhinder his performance. “Once you eat, your metabolismStoffwechselmetabolism starts working and it gets your whole body working, so it keeps you warm.”

    Ultra-distance swimming in the ocean comes with its challenges: artificialkünstlichartificial fishing reefRiffreefs, possible encounterBegegnungencounters with jellyfishQuallejellyfish and sharkHaisharks, and also the risk of getting to get entangledsich verfangenentangled in a fishing trawler netSchleppnetztrawler net. The ocean is dangerous, but Agius has developed a special relationship with this great body of water. Now, he is calling for a more mindfulachtsammindful interaction with the sea, in order to increase public awareness of the pollution that the ocean has been to subject sth. to sth.etw. einer Sache aussetzensubjected to by humankind. “I want to inspire people to believe that it is possible to do the impossible. The rubbish has been there since we were young. We are accustomed to it being there, so we ignore it, but when people complete the #waveofchange challenge, they start to realize how bad the situation is.”

    Through the publicity he has gained with his ultra-distance swims, Agius hopes to reach more people with the message that small, everyday decisions – such as using reusablewiederverwendbarreusable bottles, buying unpackaged goods, and picking up litterAbfalllitter at the beach – all help to make the ocean a cleaner place. “While training at night, I could feel the ocean protecting me,” Agius says. “Now it is our turn to protect the ocean.”

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