The Pal Effect - free extract

"THE LAND OF MAYBE"


An extract from THE PAL EFFECT by Rod Gilmour


‘When the British occupied the Faroe Islands during the Second World War, they called this beguiling place ‘the land of maybe’. As in, ‘maybe the weather will change, maybe it won’t. Maybe the boat will come, maybe it won’t.’

For the Faroese, the phrase means more than just ‘maybe’. It is a state of mind and a context that I drew upon when I perused the start lists for the final of the men’s 1500 metres freestyle at the 2010 European Swimming Championships in Budapest.

Covering the sport for the first time for the Daily Telegraph, with no Brits in action, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a chance to sit back and take in the atmosphere at the wonderful Alfred Hajos swimming complex on Margaret Island.

Hungarians love their water, preferably natural and hot. There are centuries-old baths spread across the capital, while the raft of sprawling aqua parks do a roaring trade throughout the summer.

This particular 1500m final had no local swimmers, so it would be a quiet fifteen minutes, without vuvuzelas at least, for the sport’s longest discipline in a long course 50m pool.

Halfway through the race, I looked down the start list again to pick out the leader, a few lengths or so ahead of the pack. I found the name: Pal Joensen. Next to his start lane was his country: FAR.

The Faroe Islands? Surely not. Most sport fans in Britain only knew the country, wherever it was, for the habitual beatings inflicted on its football team in European or World Cup qualifiers. A 5-0 defeat to the Republic of Ireland here, a 6-0 loss to Germany there.

Except that this Faroe Islander was faring rather well. Maybe the swimmer from the land of maybe would win.

It was a thrilling denouement. For whatever reason – and I’m now extremely glad I did this – I raced down to the mixed zone (the walk through where reporters catch out-of-breath swimmers) to try and grab a few words with this gallant islander.

Joensen seemed surprised to be stopped and I was the only journalist wanting to speak to him, bar a prying microphone from the Championship media team. Despite leading at the turn but eventually ending up with second place, he seemed to want to be next to a microphone. Others would have wanted to be anywhere but.

‘I think that’s the first international medal in any sport for my country, but in swimming that’s a fact,’ were his first words to me.

He went on to reveal that his success in recent years had led the Faroese Sportsperson of the Year award to be scrapped after he had won the New Years’ Eve gong so often. Bless those footballers.

Further, he added that he could only train in a 25m pool – it was originally 12.5m – back on his home island of Suduroy, the most southerly of the Faroes’ eighteen. My eyes opened wider. Joensen was an 800m and 1500m swimmer after all, so his Budapest bounty was certainly some feat.

Asked what welcome he might receive on his return, Joensen hinted that it would be a ‘big evening’. It should be a national holiday, I wrote at the end of an article I sent in for the Telegraph.

No one really remembers the minor medals, but this felt like pure gold.

When I got back to the UK, I began researching Pal’s career. Ultimately, it was a YouTube clip from a local documentary maker that heralded the start of a five-year project on this affable islander’s rise, from training in a small pool to racing on the big stage.

I urge you to watch it to get an early sense of this story. For this you can go to the video section at this book’s companion website, www.thepaleffect.tumblr.com, and watch the clip capturing the emotion of Joensen’s return to the islands after winning three golds at the 2008 European Junior Championships.

The water cannons over the plane; the tears rolling down those young Faroese cheeks; the ride on the back of a truck as he travels round the island; the fish factory workers, in white overalls, who congregate outside their workplace and wave to their new hero; what looks like the Suduroy branch of the Hells Angels following the vehicle’s every move.

The clip struck an immediate chord, if only for the fact that it simply wouldn’t happen in the UK. Open-top bus parades and gold post boxes after Olympic gold, yes, but nothing like this for a silver medal.

I kept up with Pal’s career as the London 2012 Olympics loomed, though the Games were an unmitigated disaster for him. Joensen found the pressure and emotion too much – for reasons which will be outlined in these pages.

Undeterred, less than a year later I travelled out to the Faroes. A place of curious and mysterious beauty, with a population of around 49,000, I met the Prime Minister, travelled by boat to Joensen’s home island, attended the National Championships and refrained from buying a knitted sweater made famous by The Killing.

I then charted Joensen’s campaigns at both the Barcelona World Championships in 2013 and the 2014 European Championships in Berlin. All the while, I learnt more about Faroese swimming from passionate and indefatigable flagbearers, Rokur i Jakupsstovu and Jon Hestoy, the former taking over from the latter as Faroese Swimming Federation president in 2014.

At the same time, I questioned when a suitable ending a the book might occur. Mulling over whether to wait for the dream of an Olympic medal at Rio 2016 and the greatest moment ever in Faroese history, I recalled something that Rokur had told me on a night out in the capital, Torshavn.

We were talking about his upbringing on the island and the stories that he had been fed as a child. All of them, he said, were about glorious, mythological failures.

Oh well, there’s always next time: the age-old mantra of the Faroese, which included, in today’s sporting context, the results of the country’s national football team.

Then along came Joensen. The Pal Effect was born; his name a positive symbol for schools and businesses in a society where success really was achievable.

I discovered that this wasn’t just a story of one man’s rise from a small pool to elite swimmer. After all, plenty of athletes have been forced to train in equally tough conditions.

The simplicity and remoteness of his upbringing in Suduroy left Pal and his fellow club teammates with few distractions other than to focus on swimming, as well as a coach who just happened to be rather good at his job.

As the book neared completion, we had several chats over how the book would be conveyed. ‘What is it that makes you decide something?’ Pal said.

He was referring to economical and sociological values. The sociologist perspective (the mind set of human behaviour and its connection to society) was that you follow the norms and values of your surroundings, while the economist’s perspective was that individuals made their decisions based on calculating what benefits you get and at what cost.

While he wasn’t saying that everyone should step out of their normal surroundings, what he hoped The Pal Effect would reflect was that ‘pursuing one’s desire and investing a lot of time and energy to do something extraordinary, will become normal’.

‘I haven’t followed anyone in my pursuit of my goals,’ he told me late into the project. ‘I didn’t do as everyone else. Instead I invested a lot of my time in something I was counting on might benefit my future.’

As he has done this, so he has lifted a tiny nation in the middle of the North Atlantic. And if not a whole nation, then his home village, whose intuitive Mayor conceived, in 2010, a project of truly ‘crazy’ proportions. They built Pal’s Pool.


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