Book Review: The Pal Effect

Swimming doesn’t get that much literary exposure, so when a book about swimming comes along, it’s worth investigating. Not that one would expect to find a great swimming story coming out of a country as small as the Faroe Islands, but that is exactly what The Pal Effect delivers.

But first the background; why is a British journalist, known as much for hockey and squash coverage, writing a biography of a swimmer from an island in the middle of the North Atlantic ocean? It all stems from a chance encounter at the 2010 European Championships. In the midst of what was one of Britain’s best ever performances at that level, Rod Gilmour found himself watching the 1500m final, a race with no British interest, but which featured one Pal Joensen, sporting the flag of the Faroes on his cap and racing to a surprise silver medal. One mad dash to the mixed zone to get the story later and Rod was intrigued. So much so that he set about compiling the story behind this remarkable achievement and followed it for the succeeding four years until neatly bookended by another 1500m silver medal at the European championships in Berlin.

Get the book on Amazon
Get the book on Amazon

Along the way Gilmour explores the impact that swimming success has had on a relatively small community, the challenges that faced Joensen as he pursued his dream of a place in the Olympic games and the example that he set to his country. Joensen is painted as a humble character, but one who is driven to succeed, not only for himself but for his homeland. His return from the European Junior championship in 2008, treated as some sort of conquering hero having won a trio of gold medals, comes across as a remarkable event. Coming from Britain, in an environment where swimming barely makes the headlines even when at its zenith, the thought of the prime minister meeting a swimmer off a plane and crowds of hundreds lining the dockside as he returned home is almost unfathomable. It was the genesis for the “Pal Effect” of the title; the belief that victory really is possible if you work hard enough for it, that has permeated Faroese culture in the years since.

The section of the book that covers Joensen’s journey to the London Olympics is perhaps its strongest, dealing as it does with the changes in environment, training and coaching that were necessitated by the Olympic patronage Denmark has over the Faroes and hence the need for Joensen to represent them if he wanted to compete at the Games. On paper access to more long-course pool time, enhanced sports science support and better coaching should have been a springboard to success, but that didn’t prove to be the case and the swimmer’s disappointment on the pool deck in London drips off the pages. Just as the incredible events at the world championships in Kazan this summer would have been a fascinating addition to the story (and they may yet be added in a future edition), it’s clear that the ideal conclusion would have been a medal winning success in London, something that was just not to be.

Some of the technical swimming language may grate on occasion, and some of the historical asides feel a little shoe-horned in, but those minor issues don’t detract from a story that is both fascinating and uplifting in parts. If you like swimming, you’ll like this book.

The Pal Effect is available on Amazon