Graham Sharpe, Chairman of Judges and co-founder of the Award, said:
“In the 30 years since launching the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, we have occasionally considered, but never ultimately awarded, a dead heat. This year, after hours of deliberation, our judging panel found it impossible to separate these two jointly deserving but very different books.
“The astonishing story of how and why Tom Gregory swam the Channel at such a young age is a memorable and truly one-of-a-kind tale. We were plunged into the deep waters above and below an impressionable young man being almost coerced into a feat beyond the capabilities of most adults by his maverick coach. We found Tom’s story, his debut book, to be captivating, entertaining and beautifully told, in just 180 brilliantly crafted pages."
When Gregory learnt to swim, he struggled to manage a width. Four years later, aged 11, he swam the Channel from France to England. A change of rules by the Channel Swimming Association has ensured that he remains the youngest person to achieve the feat. Thirty years on, he has written a compelling account that serves above all as tribute to John Bullet, his charismatic coach.
Gregory’s memoirs of a middle-class childhoood in Eltham, south London are almost defiantly ordinary. He describes struggles with schoolwork, following his football team, keeping up with the earliest iterations of the Now That’s What I Call Music compilation series, negotiating friendships and crushes. It was as an appendage to his older sister that he joined the local swimming club, aged eight and, he writes, “the slowest swimmer in Miss Morgan’s school swimming lessons”, unable to make it across a width of the pool without standing up. One might assume that the transformation from tadpole to dolphin would involve the uncovering of a prodigious talent, but Gregory is far too modest to point us in that direction. On his account the credit (or blame) for his singular achievement goes almost entirely to his trainer, the manager of the local swimming baths, founder of the swimming club, and self-taught outdoor swimming guru John Bullett.
This memoir is structured around Gregory’s account of that swim, and he makes no bones about how horrendous it was. At various points he fell asleep, hallucinated, developed agonising shoulder and hip pain, and cried so much that his goggles filled with water. If you are thinking: “Who would put a young kid through an experience like that?” the answer is Bullet, a maverick coach who ran the swimming club in Eltham, south-east London.