Swimming the butterfly across an African creek wouldn’t feature highly on many ‘to do’ lists.
But for Abdul Jamal, a chartered accountant from Leytonstone, East London, ‘flying’ across the Kilifi Creek in Kenya, was the perfect way to celebrate his 70th Birthday, in April this year.
“Swimming has been really good for me,” he explains. “My health and wellbeing – both physical and mental – have greatly improved since taking it up eight years ago. And a lot of that is to do with the butterfly stroke. Its grace and beauty make it my favourite.”
“It’s a most enigmatic stroke and I just love it. It’s that constant undulation of the spine underwater as it continuously performs an S shape – and the opening of the arms like wings as they skim the surface. I feel like swimming it every single day; often it’s the only stroke I swim.
“With other strokes, your mind can wander. But with butterfly, you get that ‘mindfulness’ – thinking about what you are doing from moment to moment.”
The 500-metre swim was even more of a feat when you learn that Abdul only learned the stroke two years ago.
“I was born in Kenya and brought up in Tanzania. I never had proper swimming lessons – I learned from my friends,” explains Abdul, who came to the UK as a 19-year-old student.
“Over time, I developed osteoarthritis in my knees and, in 2010, a specialist suggested taking up swimming to strengthen the muscles.”
Abdul has been a devotee of the Alexander Technique – which teaches improved posture and movement – for 30 years. So when he heard about the Shaw Method of swimming, which follows the same principles, he immediately enrolled in lessons.
“I picked up front crawl, then backstroke and breaststroke which greatly reduced the pain in my knees. But I was quite intimidated by the butterfly,” he admits.
Abdul’s first teacher encouraged him to give it a go and, from the first lesson, he was hooked.
A year ago, Abdul started training with Steven Shaw himself. And, as his milestone birthday approached, the idea of an iconic swim began to form.
“I’d improved a lot and, as I split my time between the UK and Kenya it seemed the perfect way to celebrate,” he said.
“I never swim in open water alone; a local water activities school arranged for someone to accompany me in a boat just in case of difficulties. Thankfully, there are no sharks in the creek!” he adds.
“Unfortunately, the water conditions weren’t suitable on my actual Birthday, April 14, so I had to delay my swim until the following day.
“It took me 27 minutes to ‘fly’ across. Three times I stopped to float, for up to 45 seconds each time, just to get my breath back and my mind settled.”
Abdul returned across the creek using a combination of the four strokes he has mastered through the Shaw Method.
“My reaction, afterwards, was: ‘Oh good, I did it – I did what I set out to do’. However, I’d still love to swim across non-stop. Perhaps I’ll do that for my 71st ”
For his 75th Birthday, Abdul plans to ‘fly’ the 800-metre distance between two Kenyan islands – Lamu and Manda.
And his advice to others who have never attempted this artistic stroke – often seen as the most difficult? “Don’t be stopped by yourself and your preconceptions. Give it a try. I was in my late 60s when I started to fly. If I can do it, I feel most people can.
“Most people think you have to be very strong to swim butterfly, especially over a long distance, but I vehemently disagree. To me, it is mainly the technique and attention to detail that matters. That’s where the Shaw Method invention really triumphs.”