On Friday, Neil Agius swam from Sicily to Malta in a record-breaking 28 hours, seven minutes and 28 seconds. The feat wasn’t just a standard-setting personal best, as the former Olympian wants to inspire others to be the change that they want to see for the planet, he tells Jessica Arena.
Sitting in a Naxxar cafe, Neil Agius is cool, calm and collected, finding shelter in a crack of shade from the searing summer sun. Just over 24 hours prior, Agius was greeted with thunderous applause and cheer, as an emotional crowd watched him step up the ladder from the water at St Julian’s pitch after his epic journey.
The 34-year-old former Olympian and swim coach has now completed the sixth longest swim in the unassisted category and the longest-ever distance for a male swimmer in the same category.
And while the entire country followed his journey enthusiastically, periodically checking their phones for a tiny gps dot in a sprawling sea of blue as he made his way across the channel, Agius is not in it for the glory.
“When you’re swimming with your face in the water, the things you see at the bottom are surprising,” Neil told Times of Malta.
“Fridges, gates, deckchair, ropes, an abundance of plastic cups and takeaway boxes.”
“I always wanted to swim around Malta, but I always made excuses and put it off. One day my girlfriend told me ‘If you’re not going to do it, then you should stop talking about it’. So I decided no more excuses, it's time to do it.”
And with that first round-Malta swim in 2018 came Wave of Change, an online campaign dedicated to raising awareness about ocean litter and educating the public on how to reduce it.
“I wanted people to be inspired to be part of the solutions and to want to have a better environment and cleaner seas,” Neil says.
He stresses that without cooperation very little can be achieved, much like how one cannot just get on a boat to Sicily and decide to swim back by themselves.
“I had a team of 20 people with me who were awake for the entire time as well,” Neil says.
“People navigating making sure we were going the right way, the doctors, the people who fed me, the people who swam with me and kept me company and kept my spirits up.”
“Wave of change isn’t just Neil, it’s every person who helped him along the way to get there.”
But in the water for 28 hours, the former Olympian says you’re always alone in your head.
I thought to myself if I come face to face with a shark I would just dodge it like a matador
“I don’t think people can understand, or even I fully understand, the physical toll of doing something like this, a repetitive action for so long.
“But past a certain point it’s no longer physical, but mental endurance. You have to remain calm and remove all thoughts from your head. You just think of the next stroke, hearing your hand go in and out of the water, it’s almost like a meditative state.”
“This is what gets you through the tough parts of the swim. You have to visualise yourself and the state of mind you want to be in and before you know it, you’ll have arrived.
Despite his positive attitude, the journey has clearly left its physical scars on Neil. The burn of the sun on his skin, the stings of unwitting jellyfish who got in the way, the long exposure to the saline water, which, at 3am got so cold, Neil couldn’t help but cry. Was there a point that he considered reasonable to give up?
“Stopping was never on the agenda, I didn’t even consider it,” Neils says confidently.
“I understand there’s a fine line between overconfidence and knowing what you have to achieve and how to achieve it. But if you say well, if it gets too cold then I can just stop, then you’re giving yourself an excuse to stop.”
“When I’m out there, I think of myself as completely alone. I can’t touch the boat, I can’t take a break if i’m tired. I only visualise making it to the end.”
Considering all the obstacles, Neil says he even had a contingency plan should he encounter any sharks.
“I felt very comfortable in the water most of the way. There was a good energy. Sharks aren’t always the dramatic feeding frenzies we see on TV,” he says.
“I thought to myself if I come face to face with a shark and it’s agitated to the point of attacking me, I would just dodge it like a matador.”
“But at night, when it was dark, and I was cold and tired, then it got real.”
“It's very intense, you go through a lot of emotions that you have to process in a healthy way. I cried in my goggles so the team wouldn’t worry that I had gotten to this stage.”
“Every person who feels inspired to change even one behaviour by what I did is a win for me. I want people to know that you can make a difference, even if you’re not doing a swim. Small and simple actions, like picking up three pieces of litter and asking your friends to do the same is already a world of difference.”