How English Channel relay swim gave Sheffield man confidence boost amidst excruciating pain condition

No amount of training, Tom Peters reflects, could have prepared him for jumping from a boat into the English Channel at 3am on an autumn morning.

Doing so marked the start of his part in a relay challenge across the water, that saw five people break through personal barriers, with the support of Paralympic swimming champion Alice Tai.

Tom, 28, signed up to the ‘Channel More’ project two years after finding a passion for swimming. Back in 2018, he was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, a condition characterised by persistent, severe and debilitating pain. He describes the pain among the nerves in his foot as “excruciating” and finds it difficult to stand or walk, relying on crutches or wheelchair.

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"Everything I had done before, I couldn’t do anymore and it was a real learning curve learning to navigate the world with this new condition,” he reflects. Tom, from Sheffield, tried several activities and found being in the water allowed him to exercise without causing him too much pain. After watching YouTube videos, he taught himself a swimming technique focused on using the arms, with minimal kicking – and it’s this he used when tackling two legs of the Channel relay.

Tom Peters (back, right) took part in an English Channel relay swim.Tom Peters (back, right) took part in an English Channel relay swim.
Tom Peters (back, right) took part in an English Channel relay swim.

He saw a social media post about the challenge earlier this year and decided to apply. “So many things had been taken away from me and I really wanted to grasp the things I could do and make the most out of it,” he says. “I wanted to push myself. I think for so long I considered everything to be done, I thought this is it. My self confidence had dropped massively. I wanted to have something I could look back on, a time when I went above and beyond expectations, to reflect on when days get particularly hard. A reminder of look how stoic you were and how deep you dug.”

Tom took part in the 21-mile challenge with four others after a five-month training and nutrition programme, supported by Alice, former Olympian Professor Greg Whyte, and the brand Optimum Nutrition. Still, “leading up, there was lots of nerves,” he says. “And when we got on the boat, it was far choppier than what I thought. No amount of pool swimming or training will prepare you for jumping in the Channel.”

Afterwards, he was emotional. “It has felt like such a journey. I’ve had quite a bad run for the past six years where there’s been lots of’s all been quite miserable. To go against the grain and have an achievement under my belt was a massive win, not just physically but emotionally, to remind myself that I can do stuff, even with this problem, which is mentally challenging to have and survive through everyday.”

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He’s already been back in the pool and is continuing with his swimming. “For me, swimming is the difference between can and can’t. Life outside of the pool is very hard, it’s painful and it damages my confidence. I use the pool as a place of processing this whole thing. At 23-years-old I became permanently disabled and that’s been really hard to wrap my head around...The pool is my place of relaxation. Everything goes quiet including my mind.”