A remarkable all-action septuagenarian grandfather from Northamptonshire is to take on the challenge of Europe’s biggest open water swimming event in aid of cystic fibrosis.
Two of Leo Leslie’s granddaughters suffer from the incurable genetic disorder and the 71-year-old – a former swimming school teacher and qualified scuba diver from Cogenhoe – will take the plunge in the Great North Swim, which takes place in Lake Windermere from Friday June 12 to Sunday June 14, to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust.
Leo intends to swim a two-mile section of England’s biggest lake – no mean feat for a gentleman of his age and even more so for someone who was buried in a landslide as a child, told to prepare for a life in a wheelchair by the time he entered his 40s, left partially deaf after being depth-charged by the Israeli Navy and who has overcome type two diabetes.
“Several times in my life I’ve been disabled and by quite rigorous exercise and various dietary regimens, I’ve returned to probably exceptional fitness,” said Leo, reflecting on his intriguing life-story.
“When I was nine years old I was buried in a landslide for some time. I was on holiday on the Isle of Wight, playing at the base of the cliffs with a young friend of mine and the cliff collapsed. That would have been 62 years ago, about 1953.
“I went through my primary and early secondary school years with crutches and a stick. I was actually referred to as ‘the cripple’ by the sports master. Now, of course, you probably wouldn’t be allowed to say that.
“When I was in my early 30s and starting to teach swimming, various X-rays showed a spinal degeneration and I was told to prepare for being in a wheelchair by the time I was in my 40s. Not good news!”
It was not the end of Leo’s major trials. “Not long after that, I was depth-charged by the Israeli Navy, although I’m in no way military,” he continued.
“I was living in Israel at the time and actually diving in Egypt, quite legally and in Egyptian waters. But the gun-boat saw me and, just out of spite, threw a depth charge which has left me permanently partially deaf in both ears.
“Then 15 years ago, I was diagnosed with type two diabetes and was advised that I had to inject on a regular basis. I took a rigorous diet – the 5:2 diet – and combining that with probably about 4 to 6 hours exercise a week I’m no longer classed as a diabetic.
“And, as it’s a progressive and incurable disease, I reckon that’s pretty good.”
It is that. At 71, having overcome all of the afflictions that life has thrown at him, Leo is a living inspiration who has been preparing for his Great North Swim challenge by training five times a week at one of the Trilogy Health and Fitness gyms run by Northampton Borough Council.
“They run an excellent service for everybody,” he said. “I do one class called Insanity, which is probably the highest impact aerobic class that’s ever been designed.
“I’m the oldest in the class by 30, if not 50, years, and I come out totally shattered, wondering if I’m going to live for another minute.
“I’ve also been training in a lake just outside Bedford. There am I training in my 70s with guys in their 20s who are doing Iron Man triathlons and all the rest of it.
“I just swim along in their wake. About an hour later, I finish. But they’ve changed, had their tea and gone home by then.”
The incentive for Leo is to raise money for a cause that is close to his heart.
“I have three granddaughters and it’s absolutely tragic that two of them have cystic fibrosis,” he said. “They’re Sasha, who is five, and Erin, nine. They live in Wales.
“A few years ago their life-expectancy would have been about 12 but there’s been a lot of research and now it’s is probably middle age. In the future, with more research and development, hopefully things will get better.
“They’re the liveliest, healthy-looking kids you could imagine but the parents spend hours a day in therapy with them and occasionally, when they get a cold, they’re in hospital.
“Research funded by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust is vital both for treatment and hopefully for a breakthrough to give my granddaughters a normal life expectancy.
“Although I guess I’ll be one of the oldest competitors, I’m determined to swim the two mile ‘wave’ in the Great North Swim to raise money to help them and other sufferers of this terrible disease.”
Leo owned and ran an old people’s home before setting up a swimming school in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, which became the oldest private swimming school in Europe. He retired at the age of 45, but then trained as a yoga teacher in India and as a scuba diver instructor.
“I currently work on remedial yoga therapy with anybody that wants it, on a voluntary basis,” said Leo. “And I’m also in the process of writing a book, ‘How to retire at 45’.
“I retired at that age and virtually at no stage of my life have I earned more than the national average wage. You don’t need to be rich to do it, but there are a few tricks, so I thought I’d write a book about it.”
Clearly, the Leo Leslie story has a few more chapters to run in every respect.
The Great North Swim is the flagship event in the Great Swim series with over 10000 participants taking part over three days. The event is suitable for swimmers of all abilities and offers a range of distances - or more information or to enter visit greatswim.org/north