Tom Devert: A New Breath 

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For me, swimming is resilience. On the one hand, sport nearly killed me but on the other it saved my life.”

At 18 years old, Tom Devert was diagnosed with a rare medical condition sometimes induced by physical activity and his life detoured into an existence of pain and paralysis. 

“I was diagnosed with compartment syndrome on all 4 of my limbs. This disease asphyxiates the muscles. Whether at rest or during exercise, I had partial paralysis. From 2018 to 2021, I underwent operations on all 4 limbs. During these 4 years, I had serious infections on my legs. I came within 48 hours of amputation.”

The Frenchman, now 24, narrowly avoided amputation but lost so many other things. An enthusiastic athlete, at the very least, Devert was no longer able to run; at the most, he lost his identity. In an act of immense resilience, Devert returned to sport and it was in the water that he found solace, challenge, freedom, and himself. 

New Challenge, New Life

Devert learned to swim as a child but it wasn’t until his diagnosis that he came to the water for sport. Even though his first few swims were difficult, the more he swam, the more he wanted to swim—literally. Leaning into the ever-evolving challenge, Devert ventured into the world of ultra swimming and found a new sense of being.  

“When I exceed 10 hours of swimming, I arrive in a world in which I feel good. I feel that nothing disturbs me any more, I forget the environment, my team, the wind, the cold... I often arrive in what's called a state of flow, the impression that you have total control over what you're doing, that time passes more quickly.”

“My favourite thing about long-distance swimming is in open water, the feeling of the wind and the cold on my skin, arms and face. It's as if nature embraces me. I'm one with it. On the other hand, I also like it when it becomes difficult to keep going, to find my limits, to feel all the sensations when it gets really hard.”

“Hard” is something every ultra swimmer becomes very familiar with. In 2023, Devert attempted to break the world record for the longest swim in a 25 m pool. He gathered a team and put the work in but after 700 km of preparation his lungs were damaged from chlorine and he was forced to abandon the project. 

Instead, Devert found a new goal: a 24 hour non-stop open water swim. 

The 24hr Solo 

“Once you've got a good technical grounding in swimming, you've got to swim, swim, swim—there’s no secret to it. Apart from the physical preparation, which is very important, for me the most important thing is the mental preparation. You have to prepare yourself mentally to do this kind of [24 hour] project.”

On the big day, Devert, his family, friends, and his team all ventured to a lake. In the water, Devert followed a support canoe, a specifically planned nutrition strategy, and added lights to his swimming costume when it got dark. He was able to constantly communicate with his team and enjoyed interacting with friends and supporters on a live social media broadcast that was tracking his progress. When things felt difficult, Devert would rely on mental imagery, something that he specifically trained; if things were going well, Devert would simply relish in the moment. 

“The best moments on these projects are not the arrivals, but the unique moments I've been able to witness. It's 1am. I'm swimming in the lake. I can feel the wind on my face, my arms, my back; the cold water is assaulting my hands. The night is pitch black. I have no bearings apart from the little green light behind the canoe in front of me that guides me. The moon shines on me. Swimming in a very dark, cold environment with no landmarks may seem difficult and scary, but it's a magical moment.”

With the water temperature sitting at a frigid 16C, after 17 hours and 17 minutes of swimming, Devert was in trouble. 

“I reached a point where I was having trouble controlling my thoughts. The cold was beginning to take its toll and I could feel the irregularity of my heartbeat. It was dark, 3.30am. I don't think I could have died, but if I'd gone on, much worse things could have happened. Thanks to my team, I'm here.”

Relying on his team, Devert could barely control his body movements and was vomiting. He was angry with the decision, he admits, but also relieved and proud— a strange mix of emotions that took him time to accept. 

“I only had just under 7 hours left to swim and I told myself that I could have finished. But subconsciously I knew that my body was saying no. If I'd gone on, there could have been an accident.”

“Just because you don’t finish a project doesn't necessarily mean you failed. I've learned to feel certain sensations and, above all, I've learned to listen to my body. That's the most important thing for me: learning to know yourself inside, learning to know your limits. Learning to accept certain decisions because my aim isn't to die or hurt my body in the long term. My aim is to create and carry out sporting projects to showcase my resilience.”

New Breath Project

Surviving his diagnosis and living with his condition drives Devert to swim but he very consciously also swims for others. “I carry out sporting projects for my own resilience, but also to help young people get out of difficult situations in life,” he says.

“I decided to set up the New Breath Project association to promote and support inclusion through sport. For me, sport is emancipating. It allows you to discover yourself more personally, it allows you to introspect. Personally, on the one hand sport nearly killed me, but on the other it saved my life.”

Whether it’s ultra swimming or something else, Devert’s message is that anyone, regardless of their situation, can access the gifts that challenge brings.

“Everyone should find themselves in a discipline that allows them to discover the challenge, the failure, the difficulty, the ease, the joy and the sensations that it brings, physically and psychologically speaking. You don't need to climb Everest to find all this deep down inside.”

Freedom

But for Devert, everything he is looking for is in the water. He might have found himself after his life-changing diagnosis but that hasn’t stopped him working towards even more growth. For 2024, Devert will attempt to cross the English Channel.

“It doesn't matter if I manage to cross it or not. The aim is to make an attempt for a good cause, for a story, a fight,” he says. 

“I love swimming above all else, and long-distance swimming even more, because it's an environment in which it's easy to get lost.”

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself. Losing yourself in the middle of an environment, a lake, a sea, an ocean, becoming one with nature—when you find yourself alone in this environment, you realize that it’s only you who’s doing this here and now. Becoming aware of that is magical. Sometimes the best way to find that freedom is to lose yourself.” 

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