Roger Allsopp swims the Channel at 70

Roger Allsopp photographed in Guernsey by John de Garis

Roger Allsopp lives in Guernsey. He was a breast can­cer sur­geon until he retired in 2006, aged 65. That year he swam the English Channel for the first time. Five years later, aged 70, he swam it again, becom­ing the old­est per­son in the world to have done it. Here’s his story – and his thoughts on fit­ness in later life

Prefer to listen to the inter­view?

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (ver­sion 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest ver­sion here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Roger Allsopp holding his Guinness world record certificate, courtesy of Healthspan

I star­ted swim­ming when I was at school. It was about the only thing I was any good at, rel­at­ively speak­ing, so I ended up as cap­tain of the school swim­ming team. I did swim a couple of times for the uni­ver­sity at Newcastle.

After that I came to Guernsey. It wasn’t really until I was in my 40s that I heard about “Masters swim­ming”, and I got back in the pool and star­ted train­ing with the Masters swim­ming club, which was fant­astic… I star­ted in the bot­tom lane and worked my way up.

The aim of Masters is to keep people swim­ming, it’s swim­ming for older people. The Masters swim­ming move­ment has expan­ded hugely so there are local, national, European and world com­pet­i­tions.

After sev­eral years’ swim­ming, I heard about the British Championships in Bournemouth in the late 1980s. A few of us decided to go to Bournemouth and com­pete — and I wasn’t last, so I thought, this is all right…!

The com­pet­i­tion bug

I was going swim­ming a couple of times a week with a coach. I have learnt a lot from the coach and from read­ing books, because swim­ming tech­nique has changed dra­mat­ic­ally since I was taught. I have learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

There’s a lot to be said for hav­ing pro­fes­sional advice. One of the secrets about swim­ming as you get older is to make your­self as stream­lined as pos­sible and make the best use of the water, because water is fairly heavy stuff and you need to be sav­ing energy as well as exert­ing your­self.

I went to a few national events, then a few European events, and then a few world events. In the world events I grav­it­ated towards the 5km open water swims because I was bet­ter at those than the shorter dis­tances.

From pool to open water

Roger’s record

Date of swim:

30 August 2011

Time taken:

17hr, 51 min, 19 sec


21 naut­ical miles


70yr 4 mth

Previous record-​holder

George Brunstad

Date of swim:

29 August 2004

Time taken:

15hr, 59 min


21 naut­ical miles


70yr 4 days

My first open-​water swim was the World Championships, on the national row­ing course at Nottingham, an old gravel pit at Holme Pierrepont.

Open-​water swim­ming sort of gets hold of you as time goes on. They have a Christmas Day swim in Guernsey called the “Polar Bear swim”. I did that 20 years ago, man­aged about three strokes. I couldn’t believe how cold it was – I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t do any­thing. Three strokes and I got out.

It was just a crazy thing to do on Christmas Day. But I’ve been swim­ming in the sea, almost every day for the last 10 years in Guernsey, through the winter as well.

It goes down to about 7 degrees Celsius in the winter. I don’t use a wet-​suit. It’s a ques­tion of your body gradu­ally get­ting used to this sort of thing. I would never do it on my own. We go as a group. You feel good after­wards.

You do have to be care­ful because if there’s a strong north-​easterly wind and the water’s very cold you can get severely hypo­thermic, after you get out. We’ve had a few nar­row squeaks. With age you learn a cer­tain amount of wis­dom, but not very much!

Hatching the Channel plot

Roger Allsopp swimming in Guernsey by John de Garis, courtesy of HealthspanI retired in April 2006 and set the Channel swim as my first job that August. I’d pre­vi­ously swum to Herne – an island off Guernsey, and then to Sark, a couple of times. I’d tried to swim to Alderney, which is about 20 miles away. I didn’t get the tides right and ended up north of Alderney head­ing for America. But I was in the water for six hours, which is the qual­i­fy­ing time for the Channel, so I wondered whether I could do the Channel.

I went on a Swim-​trek hol­i­day in the Greek islands. The guide there had swum the chan­nel and I was swim­ming along­side him and I thought I can swim as fast as him, and he’s done it, so I could prob­ably do it. That gave me the idea to have a go.

Also it was an oppor­tun­ity to raise some money for a pilot study for a med­ical research pro­gramme in Guernsey. I had the desire to do the swim because it was there, and I had no idea I would be the old­est per­son or any­thing like that, I just did it. But the fun­drais­ing took a hold: people in Guernsey were just incred­ibly gen­er­ous and we got kicked off to this very excit­ing research pro­gramme which we’ve been sup­port­ing ever since and which led to the second swim and an alto­gether big­ger league of fund-​raising.

Because the pilot study was so suc­cess­ful, five years ago Wessex Cancer Trust donated a mass spec­tro­meter, which was about £130,000. It was a great thing for them to do and really set the pro­ject going. But that one is now obsol­ete – the new gen­er­a­tion are so much bet­ter, the sci­ent­ists can do two years’ work in two months. So the fun­drais­ing was for a new spec­tro­meter. It will be in Southampton University, not just for can­cer research but for the whole uni­ver­sity, it’s some­thing that will be used all day, every day.

The first Channel swim took 15 ½ hours. It was very rough, blow­ing Force 5. Four of us set out and two fin­ished. I was very happy to have done it. I didn’t think I would do it again until we went to a pub called the White Horse in Dover, which is a shrine to chan­nel swim­mers, who write their names on the wall. I wrote my little thing on the wall, and caught sight of this thing on the other wall which said “George Brunstad, Oldest Ever, aged 70 and 3 days”. That sowed a seed in my brain…

Having seen that, I thought, maybe one day that could be me.

The world-​record swim

Roger Allsopp sitting on rocks in Guernsey, by John de GarisI star­ted train­ing for this one 4 ½ years ago. After I’d seen that note, I thought I’m going to keep this up and swim through all the win­ters and see if I’m still alive and feel­ing well nearer the time. So about 2 years ago I booked my place. I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t have been for the world record.

There weren’t any highs. I’m not sure it was any harder than the first swim, because I was bet­ter trained, and I’d lost weight, so I was just over 12st, whereas before I‘d been three-​quarters of a stone heav­ier.

You have to train for get­ting stung by jelly­fish. You have to be ready for that.

My biggest worry this time was the cold, but I was OK. The sun never came out, but I didn’t actu­ally feel cold. We had 11 days to wait before we went, and that was the worst bit because this time we were rais­ing a lot of money and we had a national pro­file, we had Guinness world records com­ing down and a cam­era­man. The whole thing was on my shoulders. And the longer it went on, the big­ger the tides got.

I should have swum a week earlier. By the time I left, we were into spring tides, so I knew there wasn’t really very much mar­gin of error there. If you are a fast swim­mer and can do it in 12 hours it’s OK, but any­thing more than that can intro­duce error, so as you get near the coast of France it can get very dif­fi­cult. I knew much more about it this time, so I was very aware that people can get to within a few hun­dred yards of shore and still not make it.

The agony and the agony

I didn’t enjoy it. I’m not plan­ning to do it again. I don’t have another extreme chal­lenge. On this occa­sion I got as near to not doing it as you can get. I was on auto­matic pilot at the end.

I had an awful lot of help from the sup­port crew – a friend got in and swam beside me and yelled at me and used every piece of lan­guage under the sun to get me to con­cen­trate to fin­ish, and to dir­ect me.

Throughout a chan­nel swim you have to keep motiv­ated; they say about 80 per cent of it is in your mind. Towards the end it was get­ting dark and you are exhausted. You know where you are and you know what you’ve got to do, but that’s about it. In the dark it’s very dif­fi­cult to keep a straight line and go where you’ve got to go. I couldn’t see any­thing, and the light seemed to keep mov­ing.

Last time I got very sea-​sick but not this time, but I was very sick after I fin­ished. Last time I felt elated, this time I felt abso­lutely noth­ing. I just about knew where I was, but I felt no emo­tion, no ela­tion, noth­ing. I was just com­pletely and utterly exhausted. My dia­gnosis at that point? Insanity.

I think it was a bit too close a call for com­fort in some ways. I was truly exhausted; I was pre­sum­ably hypo­thermic. The crew bundled me into a baby­gro thing and got me tucked up. You’ve got to be out of your wet things very quickly and into some­thing warm, and you have to take your time to warm up. You can’t wear a wet-​suit, you get one cap, a pair of goggles and that’s your lot.

Just start­ing out

I think the mes­sage is that you have to start off fairly slowly. I took my father to the pub­lic pool one day, in his six­ties or sev­en­ties – he used to be quite a good swim­mer – and I thought I’d killed him. He tried to keep up, he thought he could swim like before. He was really awful when he got out.

It’s incred­ible what you can do as long as you take your time to build up gradu­ally. It’s fant­astic from the point of view of exer­cise and not injur­ing your­self because you are sup­por­ted in the water. The injur­ies with swim­ming are very few indeed.

The most import­ant thing for dis­tance is to breathe on both sides, and make your stroke really stream-​lined. It’s really import­ant if you are going to do long-​distance events.

This time I did a lot of exer­cise. Every morn­ing I’d get up early and do sit-​ups, stretches, press ups, that sort of stuff. As you get older, you have to put more effort into keep­ing fit, it made me feel a lot bet­ter if I did 25 minutes in the morn­ing, before any­body else was up. You don’t need weights or any­thing.

I also had a per­sonal trainer once a week which really helped. They make you do things you wouldn’t oth­er­wise do. And he handed back all the money I’d paid him back to the char­ity!

The main dif­fer­ence with all the train­ing was weight loss: I’m a stone and a half less than when I was work­ing. I’m about 6ft so 12st is about right really. Regular exer­cise is a really good way of keep­ing your weight down. I can eat abso­lutely everything. I am sur­roun­ded by people on diets and they’re gain­ing weight and I’m los­ing it!

A reg­u­lar swim 2–4 times a week is a real tonic for people as they get older. It keeps you flex­ible, keeps you going, keeps you awake. I swim in the sea in Guernsey, I do 2 one-​hour ses­sions a week with the coach, but I prefer the sea, the free­dom of it, it’s easier to float, it’s just bet­ter all round.

Fancy the open water?

If you are already a con­fid­ent pool swim­mer, why not branch out and try open-​water swim­ming? You don’t have to swim crawl, but you should be cov­er­ing a couple of kilo­metres as a start­ing point. Just one cau­tion: if you have a heart con­di­tion or ser­i­ous cir­cu­la­tion prob­lems, stick with the pool.The British Long-​Distance Swimmers Association will link you up with local group mem­bers
The Outdoor Swimming Society runs fit­ness swim ses­sions, has a dir­ect­ory of UK open-​water swims, and lots of advice on its web­site
The UK’s offi­cial Masters’ swim­ming pages have info about local clubs and com­pet­i­tions You can donate to Roger Allsopp’s fun­drais­ing efforts at www​.just​giv​ing​.com/​r​o​g​e​r​c​h​a​n​n​e​l​s​wim
And for the future…?

It’s three weeks since the swim and I’m pretty well back into it already. I’m not quite back up to speed yet, but I’d like to keep my present level of fit­ness without get­ting obses­sional about it, It seems a pity to get to this level and not keep it up.

I was always use­less at run­ning. I used to do the odd triath­lon, but I think as you get older run­ning becomes more dif­fi­cult. If I couldn’t swim, I’d join a cyc­ling club and get out on the bike. And walk the cliffs. I do think retire­ment is a great oppor­tun­ity to take exer­cise more ser­i­ously and make it a part of every­day life.

This edited inter­view with Roger Allsopp is from September 2011

Increase Text Size Increase Text Size

Add your thoughts