Utter the words "Bering Strait" to most Americans, and you'll get responses that range from Deadliest Catch to "Russia." On Aug. 13, the day after the London Olympics end, they'll learn a new response: Philippe Croizon.
Wrapped tight in a specially made wetsuit, tested to endure the 30 F waters of the Bering Strait, Philippe will attempt the final leg of an international tour that most Olympic Swimmers wouldn't dare: crossing the four major straits of water connecting the world's continents. When the conditions are hospitable, he'll swim between Russia's Big Diomede island to the U.S. outpost island of Little Diomede.
Philippe is not your usual swimmer. A terrible electrical accident in 1994 resulted in the amputation of his arms and legs. He went through years of physiotherapy. He experienced low points. But, to take his words, emblazoned on the cover of his book (not yet in English) I Decided to Live. Part of his motivation? A chance documentary that aired while he was first recovering. It was about swimming, and he thought, "Why not me?"
The swim also gives him a chance to show the world the many abilities that people with disabilities have. They, too, can be risk takers. Philippe is certainly changing perceptions as he goes. To swim, he relies on special prosthetic flippers, and breathes using a snorkel.
So far, Philippe has crossed from a tiny fishing village in Papua New Guinea to Indonesia. He completed a dangerous section of the Red Sea that links Africa and Asia, coming ashore in the Jordanian port of Aqaba. On July 12, he made the Gibraltar-to-Moroccocrossing in just five hours and 20 minutes. And his first claim to fame, not tied to this challenge, was a 13-hour crossing of the English Channel in 2011.
Philippe is not a Handicap International beneficiary. Living in France, he benefits from a more inclusive society, and he has access to a universal health care system than most of our beneficiaries can hardly imagine. Living in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster, our beneficiaries are not often dreaming up oceanic swims, but rather where their next meals will come from, if they'll ever get the chance to go to school, or how they will be able to support their family.
With Philippe as a Handicap International champion, we hope their dreams might begin to change. Since the accident, Philippe has always advocated for people with disabilities. Now, because of his fame, he has become an undisputed ambassador for this cause. We need more advocates to help us foster respect and integration of people with disabilities. We need more attention to their needs, and to ensure that their vulnerabilities are not exploited.
Sports are a great way to convey a message of peace and tolerance. The Olympics and Paralympics embody this ethos. Philippe won't get a medal for his accomplishments. But as the Paralympics begin on August 29, and Philippe is resting back in France, we hope the world will tip its hat to him for taking the spirit of sport, ability and inclusion to the shorelines of eight lucky nations.
And I cannot help but to hope that someone living with a disability will chance upon news of his swim and think, 'why not me?'
Follow Elizabeth MacNairn on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BethMacNairn_HI