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Four amputations, 13 hours – one extraordinary swim

16 years after losing all his limbs, Philippe Croizon crosses Channel

Two years ago, Philippe Croizon could barely swim at all. Now the 42-year-old French quadruple amputee has become the first limbless person to swim the English Channel. "I did it. I'm so happy. I can't believe it. It's crazy," he said after swimming the 21 miles from Folkestone to the French coast.

Mr Croizon's legs and lower arms were amputated after he suffered a calamitous electric shock while removing a television aerial from a roof in 1994 when it hit a power line. As one of a series of challenges that he set himself to "prove that I am still alive", he learnt to swim using a snorkel and prosthetic legs with built-in flippers.

He had already made news in 2007 by parachuting from an aircraft. To complete his Channel swim, he overcame not just own his handicap and the treacherous Channel tides and currents but the last-minute withdrawal of his support boat. Another vessel finally agreed to accompany him on Saturday.

Mr Croizon had expected to spend up to 24 hours in the water. An "average" Channel swimmer takes around eight hours. After reaching a cruising speed of two miles an hour, and benefiting from favourable weather conditions, he completed the crossing in 13-and-a-half hours.

He was accompanied by three dolphins at one point. "We took that as a sign of good luck," said his father, Gérard Croizon, who was part of his support team.

The French Minister for the Family, Nadine Morano, paid tribute to Mr Croizon's "courage, tenacity and determination" yesterday. "By this act of heroism, Philippe Croizon has proved that nothing is impossible for mankind as long as we believe in ourselves."

He trained for his latest exploit by swimming 35 hours a week in a pool close to his home in Châtelleraut in central France. To test his endurance in sea water, he swam across the Loire estuary last month between the island of Noirmoutier and the small town of Pornic, near Saint Nazaire. He uses his prosthethic legs and flippers to propel himself and goes through the motions of the crawl with his remaining upper arms to balance himself.

"When I first met him in September 2008, he couldn't even do two lengths," said his coach, Valérie Carbonel. "He had no endurance; his prosthetics didn't propel him at all."

Mr Croizon modestly attributed his speedy Channel crossing to "a calm sea". "Every part of me is hurting but I never for a moment thought that I would not make it," he said.

Mr Croizon said earlier this month that he had been inspired to swim the Channel while in hospital after his accident. He saw a documentary on television about an Englishwoman who had swum the Channel earlier that year. "I watched that documentary and thought: 'Why not me?'

"Two solutions were offered to me [after the accident]: to die or decide to live," Mr Croizon said. "I chose to rebuild myself." This in turn gave him the title for the book he wrote about his life since the accident: J'ai décidé de vivre (I decide to live).

He said that he was once a "sofa sportsman" but had lost over one-and-a-half stone thanks to an intense fitness schedule of weight training, cardio exercise and swimming. "I am doing this above all for myself, but also to set an example. I want to show people who suffer that this is do-able, that you always have to fight."