One-armed, one-legged man to swim the Channel

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The Independent Online

A Croatian photojournalist seriously injured in an explosion during the Balkans conflict will this week attempt to become the first one-armed, one-legged amputee to swim the English Channel.

Mario Filipi, 53, from Zagreb, hopes to begin his epic swim from Dover's Shakespeare Beach in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Depending on the tide and wind conditions, the 18-mile crossing to Gris Nez near Calais should take him between 16 and 20 hours.

Mr Filipi's right leg and much of his left arm were blown off by a tank shell while he was reporting on the war in 1991. The father of two, a former international rower, later took up marathon swimming in an attempt to maintain his physical fitness.

"Crossing the Channel is a great challenge for any swimmer," says Mr Filipi, relaxing outside his hotel before another training session in Dover Bay on Friday. "Nobody with such an amputation has ever done this, and it is going to be very difficult." Although as a disabled swimmer he is entitled to extra support, he is forgoing additional help.

To sustain himself during his marathon swim, Mr Filipi, a Frank Sinatra fan and devout Christian, says he will be singing to himself. "I sing in Croatian, English and French. Often it's Frank Sinatra songs, but my favourite is 'Amazing Grace'.

"The image of the Channel is glorious. It's like Sinatra says in 'New York, New York': if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere."

Mr Filipi, who hopes to set off at around 3am on Tuesday, will face the notoriously cold waters of the Channel in only a pair of swimming trunks, goggles and a waterproof cap. He will remove his prosthetic limbs on the beach beforehand, as he finds it "far more comfortable" to swim without them.

"The water is very, very cold, but being a Channel swimmer is like being a mediaeval knight," he says. "It's a question of honour - Matthew Webb and the earliest people to swim the Channel did it without protection, so it would be unfair for people to wear wetsuits now."

He will also be setting off in complete darkness, swimming head first into relentless sets of large waves, avoiding supertankers in the shipping lanes, jellyfish and giant clumps of seaweed.

Although the most direct route to northern France is 18 miles, the unpredictable tides and currents mean he could be swimming anything up to 25 miles before he reaches land. "The only good thing is that there are no sharks," he jokes.

If he is successful, Mr Filipi will also become the first Croatian ever to swim the Channel. His first attempt last August failed, after severe stomach pains and repeated nausea forced him to give up at almost exactly the halfway point. This time, however, Mr Filipi says he is better prepared and far more confident.

Around 650 swimmers have successfully crossed the Channel. Duncan Taylor, the secretary of the Channel Swimmers' Association, said that 50 per cent of all attempts - able-bodied or not - on the Channel were unsuccessful. "There are so many variables,'' said Mr Taylor. "It's a very courageous thing to attempt."

Colin Chaytors, chief executive of the English Federation of Disability Sport, said: "Something like this is about mental strength - whether you've got the determination to push that extra bit harder. It's got nothing to do with whether you're disabled or not."

Back on Dover beach, a small crowd has gathered to watch one of Mr Filipi's final training sessions.

"We're used to seeing Channel swimmers down here but this guy is amazing," says local resident Steve Jones, 50. "We've watched him for the last couple of weeks and I reckon he must get changed in a phone box, or something. He just knocks us out."

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