The ex-Scotland centre who wants to swap running down English channels for swimming one
Be it on a rutted rugby paddock, the lush lawn of the tennis court or immersed in the pool’s cloying chemical aroma, Ron Wylie always told his grandson that “if you’re good enough, you’ll surface”, if you show the guile and the talent and sheer, stubborn hunger to succeed, your time will come.
Weeks after grandfather Wylie’s passing, these are perfectly poignant words that Alex Grove harnesses now as he prepares to tackle the English Channel in a pair of Speedos, goggles and a silicon hat.
As sharp and driven as they come, Wylie was the patriarch of their little family. A giant of Midlands football, he amassed over 550 appearances in goal for Aston Villa, Birmingham City and Notts County, and later managed West Bromwich Albion in a coaching voyage that took him as far afield as Hong Kong and Cyprus.
He was also a fiercely passionate Scot, and it was through him that ex-Worcester Warriors centre Grove qualified to wear the thistle. Wylie had been ailing and living in a Birmingham care home for some time before his death at the age of 86. Although he hadn’t been diagnosed, Grove says the symptoms of dementia were painfully obvious.
“My brother and I went to see him before Christmas, basically to say goodbye, which is sad, but you often don’t get that privilege,” he told RugbyPass. “He didn’t know who was saying goodbye. Every time I left, I said, ‘I’ve just got to move the car – bloody parking attendants!’ or, ‘I’m just off to the toilet’, and you’d sort of slip off. So there’s a good chance the last thing I ever said to him was that I was just popping to the loo!
“The nice thing is that they don’t realise they are suffering. He actually said years ago when he must have seen some old person struggling, and he’s the stern Scotsman, proud man, ‘Ach, Christ, if I get to that age, just put a gun to me and get rid of me’. But it’s sad for my gran. She’d been with him for 60 years every day and wasn’t allowed to see him for the last four or five weeks. That is the only thing she is really struggling with.”
Due to social distancing restrictions imposed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, only six people may attend Wylie’s funeral this week. The family is mercifully small enough that everyone can go, but given the old man’s standing in the football community, a grander celebration of his life will be held when it is safe to do so.
Grove has wonderful childhood memories of watching Villa with his brother and grandfather in the directors’ box, then ditching the posh seats to mix it in the wild and raucous Holte End, scoffing chip butties at half-time and revelling in the chaos.
Wylie was still healthy and cogent enough to travel north to all three of his boy’s Scotland Tests in the autumn of 2009, including a truly frenetic scalping of Australia. “To have him there when I got capped was really special. He never understood rugby at all, but he understood the occasion and the significance of it,” said Grove.
“I certainly get my competitive streak and discipline around training from him without a doubt and recognise a lot of qualities, be they good or bad, that have come from him. That’s why it is sad despite how ill he was in the last few months, just because I felt like I connected with him. I was quite similar to him.
“He had time for a lot of the people that easily get forgotten about. For example, one of the cleaners at the football club, someone that often wouldn’t get the respect they deserve. Some young lad he saw at an away game, he’d give free tickets to.
“A lot of the comments on Twitter (when his death was announced) were, oh he did this, he gave me that. He had a lot of time for people, which is actually really warming to hear. I’m probably not that nice, so I haven’t taken after him in that respect!”
These are traits Grove will have to muster in the salty abyss when his shoulders burn, his legs seize and every fibre of his being is screaming at him to stop. The swim was conceived in 2018 in what was either a flash of immense courage or colossal stupidity.
Our grandfather passed away peacefully today, at the age of 86.
A huge influence on me, he leaves us with some wonderful memories.
A lovely man.
RIP Ron ? pic.twitter.com/ZGjhEYkZfI
— Alex Grove (@AlexGrove) April 14, 2020
Grove returned home from an evening pool session, turned to his wife Tash and bluntly announced, “I’m going to swim the Channel”. From that point, there was no going back. For the thick end of two years, he has been planning, grafting and studying, flogging himself physically and absorbing knowledge from mentors who have made the monumental 21-mile odyssey before him.
He is swimming in part to give his training a purpose, to fill the competitive void left by rugby, but also to raise funds for Acorns, a local children’s hospice that had a profound impact on him during his visits there as a Worcester Warrior, with his tally currently just shy of a brilliant £16,000.
According to his trainers, Grove was faring rather well – in fact, he was faring significantly better than most. What he didn’t bargain for was a global pandemic dynamiting his progress. The date of the Channel crossing is looming now, less than three months away on August 1. How do you train for such a gargantuan swim when nationwide lockdown prevents you from getting in the water?
“There are more important things in the world than a bloody swim, but it’s still painful that it was going ahead of track and now I’ve got no idea where I am,” he reasoned. “You can do all the running, all the biking, all the weights, which I’m doing, but I need to be doing five, six-hour swims in cold water now regularly. So there’s a spanner in the works.
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? Update ?: As it currently stands, we are ON. 3 months today I’ll attempt to swim the 21 miles across The English Channel from England to France. Preparation for the swim had been going well up until the point a bloke ate some bat soup in a Chinese market. ??? Due to all the restrictions, we are nearly 2 months on from when I last swam and it turns out that preparing for a 21 mile sea swim without swimming is tricky. Lockdown however has provided an opportunity to vary the training, adding plenty of @wattbike and run sessions to maintain fitness levels, but I’m desperate to return to the water as soon as possible. Whilst far from ideal, I’ve been advised that 7 weeks of intense (swim) training leading up to 1st August should suffice. I’ve been raising money for Acorns Children’s Hospice (link in bio) and I’m incredibly grateful to all those who have donated some pennies to the cause, so the swim will definitely happen. A special mention too to @zebraarchitects and @hhsolicitors for their support in my training. If we end up having to push the swim back so be it, but for now I’m focussed on getting ready for 1st August. ?? ?? ????
“The coaches said that seven weeks was the bare minimum crash course I needed, so that doesn’t really give us a lot of time – that’s, what, four or five weeks from now? I’m reluctant to postpone it ’til the last minute because despite not having swum in the last eight weeks, my mentors have said, ‘Listen, just keep the date as it is. We could have great weather, great water, the tides could suit us’.”
The hope is that the country emerges from the crisis in time for Grove’s swim to go ahead as planned. If it doesn’t, he is confident he will still get a crack at it before 2020 is out, but that depends on the schedule of his Channel ‘pilot’ who oversees the challenge. Ultimately, there are no guarantees, particularly amid the surprisingly officious world of Channel swimming.
“You can’t accept a drink off anyone on the boat – they have to throw it to you on a piece of rope,” Grove explained. “You are allowed someone swimming with you every other hour after the first three hours, but they can’t swim in front of you and be a pace-setter.
“If you walk out on the beach, you get lots of French dog-walkers who are used to it, but if one of them was to run over to you and hug you and say well done… disqualified. You can’t be touched by anyone until you’re on dry sand. It’s a bit like golf, really, it’s super-strict. There is no ambiguity.”
The big day was chosen in September 2018 when the training began in earnest. Gradually, he built up the distances in the pool and on open water, logging the hours and racking up the miles. He competed in several triathlons, giving his giant old mate and Scotland colleague Jim Hamilton an almighty beasting around one particular course.
“Jim plays the fool, but he’s actually in good shape,” Grove said. “He was giving me quite a bit of stick before this triathlon and I thought, ‘F***, if he actually beats me, I’m never going to live this down’. As it happened, he was absolutely dying. He started a few groups behind me, I was watching on the run and I felt sorry for him – that’s a big rig to be trucking around.”
There was a time when Grove would have been every bit as wrecked as the 6ft 8in lock lumbering and wheezing his way to the tape. He has put on 4kgs of beef, adding layers of fat for insulation and buoyancy. He needs to gobble up double the volume of daily calories – roughly 5,000 on a training day now – he consumed as an international athlete to fuel his body for the horrors it must endure.
He can cope with all of that, though. There are manuals to follow for the training, but no playbook to keep the mind from addling under the toxic strain, to stop it yielding to the overwhelming urge to give in.
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Swam the English Channel distance (*actually 33,350m) in the pool today, which was tough. Feel and look like I’ve been stung by a bee multiple times on the face. ? Whilst it was good to tick off the distance from a training point of view (I stopped at regular intervals for food and ? breaks), it was great to raise some awareness and a few pounds for @acornshospice. A massive thank you to all those that supported the swim today, be it through donations to @acornshospice and/or joining me in the pool – it certainly made the challenge a lot more bearable. To make a donation to Acorns a children’s Hospice, please see link in the picture. ? ?? ????
The Channel is not merely a monstrous test of stamina that could easily last 14 hours, it also pushes the swimmer deep into a pit of mental torture. One guy Grove spoke to disappeared in a roaring swell and was almost rendered human spaghetti by his support boat running over him. Another got stuck toiling into a fearsome tide and effectively swam on the spot for six hours within tantalising sight of the French shore.
“When I started this, I’d get in the water and do ten lengths and be absolutely knackered. A couple of months ago, I did the Channel distance in the pool which was 1,400 lengths – it was tough, but it was more boring than it was hard.
“The boredom is a massive thing, a huge, huge thing. This is way more psychological than it is physical, which is kind of saying something when it’s 21 miles – and that’s if you go straight, it works out at about 27 miles because you swim in an s-shape.
“You could be swimming in pitch darkness for eight hours. I’ve not swum in the night before, but I imagine that under fatigue, say four hours into a swim when your mind is playing all sorts of tricks on you, you see a shadow swim underneath you, there’s a lot of things going through your head – keeping your cool is quite important. I’m very much crossing that bridge when I come to it.”
If you believe in that sort of thing, the spirit of Wylie will be with him that day, whenever it comes, those rugged qualities and that almost hilariously appropriate adage inherited from his grandfather propelling him from England to France. “If you’re good enough, you’ll surface.”
– Visit Alex Grove’s JustGiving page: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alex-channel-swim
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