RITE OF PASSAGE
My father has always been a passionate sports-lover. During the ‘50s, he
was the Belgian Champion at the 110-metres hurdles athletic event. His
mantra was “mens sana in corpore sano”, a healthy mind in a healthy body.
This ‘state of mind’ soon became my quest.
When I turned 12, my father became chairman of a tennis club, and so he
encouraged me to play tennis. He noticed that I had a certain talent for the
game and pushed me to become better. Naturally, being young and eager to
please my dad, his motivation gradually became my ambition. I saw myself
at Wimbledon, following in the footsteps of Bjorn Borg, who was my tennis
hero at the time. Slowly, I improved and climbed up the ranking, becoming
Junior-Champion and was chosen by the Belgian Tennis Federation to
represent my country. Everything was fantastic, especially when I was given
lessons by one of the best tennis coaches at the time, the Englishman Marc
Neighbour, who was able to keep my attention focused while hitting the ball
back and forth for hours on end. He was the first to initiate me to the ‘inner
thinking and searching for a deeper meaning. The goal was not only to win
but also about the path to winning. This helped me to develop as a human
being and free myself of boundaries (at least in my mind). At the age of 21, I
became one of the five best-players in the country, reaching the finals at the
Belgian doubles championship. The coach of an American University (SIU)
recruited me and I received a full athletic scholarship. After University, I
played professionally for two years and was selected for the Belgian Davis
At the age of 23, I decided to stop. I felt that I had reached my peak, and that
my natural talent (as a tennis player) was coming to an end. I had achieved
my initial goal and needed a new challenge: one that would provide me with
more satisfaction and understanding.
This was the start of a new period in my life. I soon realized that by exploring
my deepest feelings, I was following a pre-ordained path. The road to my
final destination was more important than the actual goal itself.
In 1986, I had heard about a man that swam across the English Channel (36
km from Dover to Calais). At the time, it seemed larger than life but I decided
I wanted to try. I found a swimming coach who was willing to train me, and
for three-and-a-half years I swam and practiced every day for many hours.
The coach was a tough man and warned me that if I decided to go for it, I
had better make it across, because he would not save me if I decided to quit
halfway. At the time, I did not know if I should actually believe him, but I
accepted his conditions and began my Channel crossing. The water temperature
was 17 degrees Celsius, and I was permitted to wear only swimming
trunks! My ordeal took me ten-and-a-half hours before I successfully set foot
on the other side. This was probably the toughest physical achievement in a
single given day of my career. I was exhausted and drained of both physical
and mental strength, but I felt a tremendous sense of achievement. If I (as a
non-competitive swimmer) was able to achieve this, then every other dream
or goal I set my mind to was possible!
And so it began. I would pick out a sport I always wanted to do (race-car
driving, flying, diving), gather as much information as possible and find a
teacher or school to help me with any of these ambitious plans while keeping
focus on the target. I realized that it was not easy but with enough perseverance,
courage and motivation, you can make any dream come true!
The first step was to learn how to control my emotions. This was easier said
than done. I began with meditation and exercises in patience and taming the
rage and fear that formed a stumbling block and prevented me from performing
the task. The next was overcoming primal fears (being trapped in total
darkness, being unable to breathe or fear of the unknown). Once I was able
to control these phobias, I was filled with a sense of satisfaction and self confidence.
A feeling of mental liberation followed this. I don’t claim that
these anxieties have completely disappeared but I have learned how to deal
with them. In other words, I’m always alert and aware. I try to stay focused
and concentrate, leaving all emotions aside.
I’m often asked what drives me to take on so many ‘extreme’ challenges. All I can
say is that after playing tennis, I simply followed my gut instinct in looking for new
adventures. Whenever I had achieved a goal, I soon came across someone or something
that inspired me to reach another. I didn’t always achieve everything I’d hoped
for, but I gave it all I had. If I felt I’d done my best, I knew the time had come to look
for a new ‘test of strength’, but not before I’d stored the experiences of my previous
achievement in my memory.
When I was young, most people thought I was crazy. They have gradually
changed their minds and are now my most fervent supporters and, of course
they are genuinely concerned when it comes to my well being. Sometimes
they try to dissuade me from taking on a new, often dangerous task, like those
who heard that I would soon be going to South Africa to swim with the great
white shark, without a cage! They were convinced I wouldn’t survive and
asked me if I had already drawn up my last will and testament. My parents
for example, do not know ahead of time what I’m about to embark on. They
usually read or hear about their son’s latest ‘achievement’ upon his return –
otherwise they would just find it all too stressful.
Is there anything better than being able to get away from the triviality
and monotony of life? Everyone has a dream. And making it come
true is an incredible gift. Continuing to do your utmost is the best way of not
becoming stale. Taking things further not only engenders more inspiration in
various parts of your life, but it also strengthens the will to go even further.
The search for further challenges has also given me the opportunity to meet
many people from different cultures and backgrounds. I would like to discover
the five continents in my own way. Every nation and every culture has
customs that are both useful and valuable, and you can use them all to your
own advantage. I want to share my knowledge and experience with others.
Through the books I have written and movies I have made, I wish to inspire
others in the way that I have been inspired. I want people to know that if
they can overcome their most extreme fears, then their other anxieties will be
much easier to deal with. I wish to grow old and be able to look back at my
life with satisfaction, knowing that I am proud of what I’ve achieved and that
my life was worthy of the gifts I’ve been given. Everyone needs to realize
that they have certain opportunities, and by accepting life’s challenges (and
stepping outside of their comfort zones) they can be surprised by what they
are able to achieve.
I can’t say what the future holds, but I hope that fate will continue to protect
me in my pursuit of all new challenges I may seek to undertake. The blood
in my veins flows as powerfully as ever before. I still have a variety of plans
and dreams to accomplish – flying from North to South Pole, swimming with
crocodiles, and I dream of playing the saxophone at a rock concert. I don’t
seek danger as such; I simply want to experience the blissful happiness the
legends have felt. To achieve this, I must not hesitate or constrain myself but
grasp whatever the day holds with an open mind.
Controlling the ‘how, where and why’ which plays a major role in extreme
conditions has made me more philosophical about life. I believe that we all
follow a fixed path although we just don’t know what the next step will be.
My instinct tells me I’m on the right track. My aim is not simply to brave
danger. After all, my life is my most valuable possession. But today it is these
extreme sports that come my way and dominate my thoughts. Tomorrow it
may involve some other, less physical commitment, but the challenge will
be just as great.
Every time you move on in life, you take the knowledge with you and whatever
you achieve as a person you pass on to your children. Your highest
point in life is the starting point for them and the more you grow personally,
the better base you are able to give them. If there is anything I wish for my
children, it is that they have courage, resolution, and respect for their fellow
man, mental strength and most of all a healthy attitude to life.
Rudyard Kipling put it like this in a poem to his son:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And - which is more - you’ll be a Man, my son!