(Article published in Helsingør Dagblad on 28th September 2016, translated by my fellow translator Billy O’Shea)
“There can be a fantastic loneliness in those hours looking down into the dark depths”
François Kofoed can swim practically naked for nine hours in the open sea. But he knows nothing about football, and that’s fine by him – today.
By Andreas Mayerhofer
Extreme sports: After nine hours in the water, François had to be hauled up into the escort boat. He was just 4½ kilometres from his goal of swimming across the Fehmarn Belt – the waters between Denmark and Germany – but after several hours with an average speed of 200 metres per hour directly against the current, there was no point in struggling any longer.
A lot of money, training and mental preparation went to the bottom not far from the German coast on that cold day in August. It sounds like a real downer, but for marathon swimmer François Kofoed, it was a celebration.
“There were so many things I proved to myself that day, and I was incredibly proud,” he explains. “The weather conditions were terrible, but everything else in the boat and in my team worked just as it should, and it was absolutely fantastic.”
As most people with a reasonably accessible short-term memory will remember, there were some pretty miserable weeks in August, compared to the summer weather.
Carried out into the Baltic Sea
It was precisely during this period that François Kofoed paid DKK 30,000 to have an escort boat and crew at his disposal for a week.
When that week had passed he was supposed to pay another DKK 30,000, but the crew took pity on him and let him jump on board after he had been waiting at the hotel in Germany for 10 days.
“I knew there would be two hours of good weather,” he says. “After that it was a lottery. I fought for as long as I could, but then the current turned, and I was being carried out into the Baltic Sea without really making any forward progress. So then they took me up. But I proved a lot of things to myself that day – including the fact that I can swim for nine hours naked in water with a temperature of 15 degrees. Now I know it’s possible, and I will try again next year if I can find the money.”
The trip almost across the Fehmarn Belt was this extreme sports athlete’s first attempt at the so-called Danish Triple Crown – in which, with no aids except for an escort boat, swimming goggles, swimming trunks and swimming cap, you must swim across the Fehmarn Belt, the English Channel and Catalina Channel in California, USA.
Loves the challenge
What on earth causes a sane man of nearly 40 to throw himself into a relatively cold sea to swim up to 25 kilometres wearing nothing but swimming trunks?
“I love the challenge of the long distances,” says François. “I have run a great many marathons, and some Ironman competitions. Marathon swimming is a very special experience. It’s a huge struggle with yourself, but there can be a fantastic loneliness in those hours looking down into the dark depths. You have time to work on yourself and your thoughts, and as you lie there in the water many positive thoughts arise, but also many negative ones. The negative thoughts are often that you’re tired, bored and so forth, while the positive ones are about gaining a great respect for your own abilities. That’s a really good feeling.”
Danish at heart
François is a Belgian citizen, but moved to Elsinore in 2002 – a town that he loves, although he will never be a native. The town has helped to make him Danish at heart, even though it still says ‘Belgium’ in his passport, and he has built up a sports company there that aims to get the townspeople out and active – while having fun at the same time.
“I was bullied a lot in my childhood,” says the 39-year-old long-distance swimmer. “I was the queer who couldn’t play football. It left me with a few psychological scars, but I have put them behind me now. Denmark helped to do that for me, because here I can be the football-ignorant gay man that I am, without anyone looking down on me for that reason. I feel very Danish at heart, and I don’t need a Danish passport for that.”
François Kofoed came to Denmark for the first time in 1995, before settling here in 1999.
“Before I came here, I knew nothing about Denmark,” he says. “In my mind it was part of the ice sheet called Scandinavia that lay to the north of Germany. A place of blonde girls and cold temperatures. But I lived with a fantastic family in Vallensbæk and fitted in well. So it was in Denmark that I settled down.”
Almost an Elsinoran
In 2002, after a few years in Copenhagen and Lyngby, François moved to Elsinore. Today he has built up a wide network through his work, and he considers himself an Elsinoran – almost.
“It’s a small community up here, and you will never be a native. I haven’t gone to school with all the others, or gone out on the town with them. But I feel welcome here, and I enjoy my life in the town,” he says.
He was born and raised in a tough neighbourhood in the Belgian city of Charleroi.
He is married to Martin, who is also a trainer in the running club that belongs to François Kofoed’s sports company, Formel76, and which also offers several other forms of training. It is part of the couple’s livelihood, but it is also a passion, says François.
“I have discovered that I can help to lift people up through this work, and that gives me an awful lot. And I think that there are many people who could benefit from the training.”
A running club –Isn’t that something for the 40-plus age group who are in a panic about their poor condition in their busy lives?
“Ha ha ha. There are of course some who fall into that category, but that’s no bad thing,” says François Kofoed. “Quite often it’s because the children have flown the nest, and so the parents have time to take care of themselves again. We help to create a framework for that.”
“Lots of people also come for the social aspect. There was Susanne, for example, who came on the first day and said she hated running, but her friend was in the club, so she wanted to see what it was like. Today Susanne is on our experienced team, and even though she may not love running, she loves being in the club,” continues François, who in addition to his activities in extreme sports also works as a coach and a translator from French.
In Denmark, open water swimming is still a very small sport, and here François Kofoed is trying to take the lead and inspire people to take the leap into the big tub.
“We have the sea all around us here in Denmark. It’s a fantastic element that we ought to make much more use of. We need to get people out swimming along the coasts. It’s wonderful,” he says.