The Malta Independent 21 October 2021, Thursday

50 Shades of Greats: ‘Don’t expect to win every event, but never give up’ - Nicky Farrugia

Simon Farrugia Sunday, 12 July 2020, 11:00 Last update: about 2 years ago

The Malta Independent on Sunday meets NICKY FARRUGIA, a long distance swimmer and triathlete. He speaks about his childhood, the historic crossing from Sicily to Malta, the crossing of the English Channel on the fourth time of asking and his life nowadays.

Nicky Farrugia was born on 25 August 1960. He has been married to Lynn for the past 39 years. Incidentally he got to know her as a little girl while on holiday with her Scottish family. From this marriage Nicky and Lynn have three daughters and four grandchildren.

How were Nicky’s childhood days? “I was raised by my mother, a-stay-at-home wife as was the norm in those days and my father who was a policeman. We were a family of five and I have an older and a younger sister. I grew up in a family-oriented household with my mum, a jovial lady and my dad, more reserved and disciplined. I was raised in St Paul’s Bay, a quiet village with life near the sea and roaming and running in the surrounding fields at the time.”

Nicky received his first education at the local primary school. “I attended the St Paul’s Bay primary and furthered my education till eventually qualifying in telecoms. In the process I attended various courses in Sales and Marketing including courses in Management.”

But how did his interest in swimming begin? Did Nicky look into any other sport? “My interest in sport started when I went to watch my uncle play waterpolo at the Sirens pitch. While at my grandmother I used to look at my Uncle Frans’ (Il-Honey) medals. I recall that on one occasion he gave me two medals. I used to polish them and dream of the day I could win a medal too.”

“At the age of 10 I began to play waterpolo. Winter was for football and summer was reserved for waterpolo. I also played snooker where one of my best buddies was the great Tony Drago. We used to practise at the Anglo Maltese Club, which is situated in Merchant Street, Valletta.”

Farrugia attracted international attention in 1985 when he was the first person to swim from Sicily to Malta (Gozo). How did it materialize and what were the emotions? “After swimming many distances locally, my thoughts kept returning to my dream of completing what Turu Rizzo had failed, that is crossing from Sicily to Malta. As a young kid this story had inspired me to train and prepare so that one day I will cross this vast expanse of water. Going back and trying to picture those days, there was surely great determination by a great team. Though I was at the forefront it wasn’t just me. A Committee of volunteers was set up and a succession of fund-raising events took place. The late George Fenech of Tumas Group was one of my main sponsors. All worked hard so that this dream will come true.”

“This event had many hiccups. In fact being the first is always a trial and error situation. There was nothing to refer to. The route to be taken was pre-GPS days. There were great emotions amid the stress that engulfed everyone. But on arrival all was put behind us and I was super happy to have made it though sad that it was all over.”

Four years later Nicky also made the news by crossing the English Channel. “Yes the euphoria of the Sicily-Malta race didn’t last long as I quickly turned my attention back to the English Channel. This was always my wish since I had already tried to cross the Channel three times. But on the fourth attempt and after eight years, in 1989, I succeeded in doing so.  This was a swim that I knew I could overcome and I couldn’t rest till I succeeded. The Channel is unique in its cold, busy and unrelenting tides. The cold is extreme and you have to train hard to overcome such severe conditions.”

Nicky continued to delve more into this experience. “The Channel is very unpredictable. Flat and calm and within minutes choppy. The tide changes and you can spend three hours not moving at all. And if you are not strong the current will just take you. Apart from that it is also a financial burden. This is because you often play a waiting game for the right tide and weather. Moreover another big plus is having a good boat skipper to take you across, knowing the route for those long hours of tide and currents.”

“Apart these two great achievements I also established various local swimming records through different routes from Gozo to Malta. There is also the first round Malta record, which is still held by me, 72km in 20 hours and 45 minutes. Also I took part in various international swimming races such as Capri-Naples, Lake Como, 24-hour pool race in Brussels and Messina.”

Nicky also made great strides in Triathlon. An endurance sport, which he dominated during the 90s. “After having completed many swimming events both locally and abroad, and having a character where I am always looking for a challenge, I turned my sights onto Triathlon. This was a new sport on our island where I was introduced to it by Steve Trew. This sport consists of swimming, cycling and running. There is also sprint distance to ultra distance.

But how did he fair in this sport? “I won in all categories, three Olympic distance Championships, 10 long distance Championships including one Duathlon Championships (run, bike and run) and also many first time records. Among these was becoming the first Maltese to complete an ironman race (3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42km run) and the first Maltese to finish in Under 10 hours (9 hours 48 minutes). I also became the first Maltese double ironman triathlon champion, competing in 30 ironman races worldwide.

For Nicky, as for every human there were also some disappointing moments. I can remember one particular moment when I had to stop midway through an event due to crashing following a mechanical problem. This meant that I had to abandon the ultra distance attempt of Endurman.And what about the happy moments? Certainly the birth of my girls! Witnessing such a miracle is an undescribable thing and the joy and happiness that this brings is second to none.

In 1989 Farrugia won the Sportiv tas-Sena. How does this honour rank in his distinguised career? When I won the Sportsman of the Year in 1989 it was another feeling of joy and above all a dream come true.  This moment reminded me of when I was still a kid holding my uncle’s medals. What a journey!”

Adding to this I was flabbergasted when I was honoured into the Hall of Fame, going down in history is always a special achievement.

In such an illustrious career there is surely one particular moment that is still encrypted in Nicky’s mind. Of course I can still remember vividly my arrival of my swim from Sicily and the look on my one-year-old daughter’s face as the crowds surrounded me. What a great moment that was!”

We talked a lot about what happened. Let’s now look more into the future “The future of Triathlon in Malta seems very bright. Children are lucky to have all the amenities which we didn’t have, being the pioneers of this sport on our island. Today they have pools, tracks, nutrition and technical knowhow. Added to this they have the financial backup which in our days was inexistent.

And last week’s feat by Neil Agius? What are your thoughts about long distance swimming? “Following Neil’s swim last week, he might possibly have awakened a renewed interest in long distance swimming. Let’s hope this won’t be a one-off situation and that more will follow.

Turning onto a more personal aspect Nicky described the importance that the family has in his life. “My family is unique. They were part of my voyage, travelling all over the world since a very young age. They have watched and encouraged me throughout. They are the foundation of my success and my wife, with her limitless patience, has been supportive for the past 40 years.”

But how is Nicky’s daily routine? “My life hasn’t really changed much over the years. Early morning training, bike/run or swim, after breakfast off to work (pre-COVID), cause at the moment I am working from home, late afternoon and early evening training once again and depending on my schedule I try to find time for my grandchildren who make me feel a child once again.”

Talking about his favourite food Nicky rates fish as his preferred food. “Apart from fish I love salads and rice dishes. Also I like to end up with a good ice-cream.” Farrugia also travelled a lot during his lifetime but rates France as his favourite destination. “France is always the place that I like most since I love the mountain area, peace, clean air and the scenery.”

During his free time Nicky tries to cater for some of his hobbies. “Yes I try to do some DIY woodwork and I also love reading especially sport biographies. Obviously when I have time on my hands I try to pass some quality time with my adorable grandchildren.”

And one final advice that you would like to pass on to the young generation about sport. “Whatever sport they take, it is a must that they first enjoy it and have to be patient for results to come their way. They must not expect to win every event. But eventually with determination and commitment, results will follow, so never give up.”

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