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Russians in Chukotka thwart limbless Frenchman's Bering Strait swim

Suzanna Caldwell
Philippe Croizon celebrates his crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar separating Morocco and Spain.
NADF Photo
Philippe Croizon in Papua New Guinea before swimming to Indonesia.
v.hulin/Radio France photo
The village of Diomede, on Little Diomede island.
Courtesy George Kalli
Little Diomede island, foreground, and its Russian counterpart, Big Diomede, are seperated by only 2.4 miles. Wednesday, March 14, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Little Diomede, looking towards Big Diomede Island.
Stephen Nowers photo
Philippe Croizon, a French swimmer who has no arms and legs, in Alaska with members of his team.
b.blanzat/Radio France photo
Philippe Croizon prepares for a cold-water swim in Alaska with his custom-designed flippers, wetsuit and snorkel.
b.blanzat/Radio France photo
Philippe Croizon celebrates after crossing the Red Sea connecting Egypt and Turkey.
Cath Productions photo
Philippe Croizon swims with the help of custom designed flippers and a snorkel. His swimming partner, Arnaud Chassery, accompanies him.
Cath Productions photo

A French swimmer with no limbs still planned to paddle the Bering Strait Friday; however, diplomatic complications have thwarted his attempt at making history.

Despite weeks of working with the government of Chukotka, Philippe Croizon will have to turn around at the maritime border between Russia and the United States after hopes to secure final border permits fell through.

Croizon's plan was to swim the transcontinental channel separating Asia and North America -- his fourth such swim -- between Alaska's Little Diomede Island and Big Diomede, in Russia. Expedition leader Marc Gaviard said the team had received clearance from Moscow to make the two-and-a-half-mile swim, but border guards in Chukotka are balking.

Chukotka -- an autonomous district located in Russia's far east -- is asking that the team receive an invitation to visit the region's borders. However, the only people who can issue an invitation are the ones in charge of the border, Gaviard said. So far, Chukotka has not been willing to do so.

“We had one set of paperwork saying yes, but people on the border saying 'no,'” Gaviard said.

The team has been trying to secure the permits for six weeks. The French ambassador in Moscow had high hopes it could be resolved, but with a powerful Arctic storm clearing and still no final permit, Croizon has to cross now if he's to attempt the swim at all.

Gaviard said if Croizon can complete the swim it will go to show that the will of man can overcome most obstacles -- but not all.

“This is one man willing to break all barriers,” Gaviard said. “But some still exist. Not in the Middle East, but between America and Russia.”

While Croizon would be the first man without limbs to swim across the border, he would not be the first ever. In 1987, American swimmer Lynne Cox made the crossing, which was heralded at the time for building bridges and easing Cold War tensions.

Croizon lost his limbs in 1994, electrocuted while trying to fix a television antenna on his roof. During his long rehabilitation, he watched a woman swim across the English Channel. Croizon decided that he'd attempt the feat, too, despite his new disabilities. In September 2010, Croizon completed the 21-mile crossing, wearing custom-designed flippers that attach to the remainder of his legs.

With the English Channel down, he decided to swim four channels separating five continents. The Bering Strait, separating Asia from North America, is his final crossing.

Croizon is swimming to support the charity Handicap International.

Weather in the area has been poor in recent days. A storm with wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour caused 10-foot-high ocean swells. That weather has let up, although seas are still choppy with three to five foot waves.

Croizon plans to hit the water at 3 p.m. Alaska time.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com