Philippe Croizon comes out to meet me wreathed in smiles. He is a happy man. So happy that his infectious enthusiasm for life fuels his career as a motivational speaker. “Anything is possible,” he says. “Look at me! Come in!”
He does not mind people looking at him, despite having had both arms amputated, the left above the elbow, and both legs amputated above the knee. He is not wearing prosthetics, and his sleeves are rolled up revealing the stumps of his arms. He is at ease with his body and the way it looks.
In 2010, Philippe became the first quadruple amputee to swim the English Channel.
In 2012, he linked the world’s five continents by swimming the straits between them. In January, he completed the gruelling Dakar rally.
He has broken a diving record, written books, received a bucket load of prizes... “You see? Everything is possible!” he says.
He gets comfortable in his wheelchair and grins. I have interviewed him by phone several times over the past few years, and he is as open and friendly face to face as he always sounds on the phone. But sitting around the table drinking tea and scoffing chocolate fingers, I am curious. How did he get so happy?
In 1994, aged 26, he suffered an electric shock from an overhead power line while adjusting the TV aerial on his house roof. The burns were so severe doctors amputated all four limbs.
Months of operations and intensive care, followed by extensive re-education, meant he survived physically, but was in a state of profound depression. Then his marriage collapsed. His wife and two sons moved out.
“Not really what I wanted for Christmas. I spent seven years sitting on that sofa over there. I sat there in the blackest despair, thinking with no arms and no legs I couldn’t do anything.”
But in 2006, he somehow overcame it and today the depression is gone. He has a successful career, a lovely home in the Vendée and lives with the love of his life.
How did that happen?
“It was just a decision. One day I just decided to change. It was a choice.
“I had to do something, reach out to people. Otherwise I’d spend my life on the sofa in mental hell, doing nothing.”
So, using voice recognition software, he wrote a book called J’ai Décidé de Vivre (I Decided to Live) and he joined a dating site.
“You have to reach out to people. No-one is going to come knocking at the door.”
What would he say to men who say they cannot find love because they are not handsome/tall/rich? He replies: “Anything is possible. You don’t have to be a pop star or have a Porsche to find romance. Look at me!
“You just have to go for it, approach people, make it clear you are interested in them.
“You have to show what’s in your head, what’s in your heart; that’s what counts!”
His fiancée, Suzanna Sabino, flicks him a quizzical look. Philippe laughs at her expression. She is the love of his life, he says: “On the dating site, I would start chatting with people but the minute I told them about my disability they would disappear. But I refused to give up and when I met Suzanna, she didn’t disappear.”
“I liked the way he expressed himself, the way he spoke about his accident,” she says.
She is not a big talker, and is not interested in sharing his growing fame, but it is clear she adores him.
After a year of emailing and dating, she and her three daughters moved in with him in 2007.
“She made me back into the man I used to be. She made me do things for myself instead of just waiting to be waited on hand and foot. She encouraged me to swim the Channel. She was with me all the way. She is everything.”
After his Channel swim, Philippe was invited to the Elysée by President Sarkozy to receive the Légion d’Honneur, another step which radically changed his life.
“I received thousands of letters from people saying I’d given them hope. It literally took years to answer them all, and these days I simply can’t.
“People phone, they email, they write. They say thank you, they tell me their stories, ask for advice. One woman even turned up here at the house. She’d driven all the way from Paris with her disabled husband in the car, and wanted me to speak to him because she said I was his last hope, he was so depressed.
“Well of course we invited them in and I spoke to him about his accident. But I don’t know what happened. I never heard from them again.”
Even out shopping or at a restaurant he is asked for selfies, and every day invitations arrive to attend events and to join expeditions.
“It’s a deluge. One lot even wanted me to join them on a hot air balloon! But honestly, every time I appear on TV [once a month on France 5’s Magazine de la Santé] more people contact me. That’s the sad thing. There are so many
desperate people who have nowhere to turn.”
Philippe is a thoroughly entertaining raconteur, and adores having an audience. So I ask what he is planning after Dakar – skiing, flying?
He shakes his head. “No, nothing! Dakar was exhausting. Far more than we’d anticipated. We had such bad luck; the buggy broke down practically every day so we often only got a couple of hours sleep. I would literally fall out of the driver’s seat and sleep where I landed on the ground. And the rain! God, there was mud everywhere! What a thrill though!
“A brilliant experience. I remember at 5,000metres above sea-level the views were so great we stopped and took photos. And the teamwork, the people, the excitement.
“It was a fabulous experience, and I proved even a quadruple amputee could complete the Dakar, but I was in bed for a week when we got back. And now I’m staying home for a while.”
Dakar was physically draining for Suzanna too. She drove a camper van the entire distance, often on her own, often having to take long detours in order to stay on marked roads.
Philippe says: “She drove about 10,000km. She did the Dakar as well. That’s why I proposed to her when we completed the rally! She was there, all the way! And she’d been dropping hints...”
Suzanna does not respond to the bait. She does not want to be drawn about their wedding. It will be a private affair, for family only.
She says: “Dakar was hard. When you’re in the desert, nothing is adapted for disabled people.
“Life is easier here because the house is specially adapted for Philippe. We have a Japanese loo, for example, so he can use it alone.”
“Before, can you imagine?” says Philippe, cackling with laughter. “Trying to seduce Suzanna when I knew she’d have to help if I needed the loo! I mean, it’s not very romantic!”
A Japanese loo, he explains, incorporates an automatic bidet and hot air drier.
“I learned so much about disability when I moved in with Philippe,” says Suzanna. “Things are getting better, but the world still isn’t really designed for wheelchairs.”
Philippe also gives motivational conferences and educational talks and they are packed out. “As I talk, people cry, they laugh, they cry again and lots of them send me thank-you emails afterwards. I’m giving a talk to 8,500 in Paris next month. I love it. I love telling my story, giving people hope.”
He especially enjoys talking to children and says they are glued to their seats during his talks. “I motivate children, show them that anything’s possible, but I also educate them about disability, and what
disabled people can do.”
He says he does wear his prosthetic legs when he goes out, but rarely uses his prosthetic arms.
“They’re too heavy, and they feel weird,” he says, looking at one of his arms, lying on the table so I can see it. “I like waving my stumps around when I talk!” and he does another of his comical mimes, making me laugh.
“You have to accept your disability, no-one else can deal with it for you. You have to stop caring about it and then other people won’t care either.”
He says sport helped him achieve acceptance. “It gives me resilience and hope. You can overcome anything if you have passion and desire in your life. I’ve had family and friends who have supported me all the way. I’ve never been alone. That must be terrible. I’ve been so lucky.”
Philippe’s autobiography Pas de Bras, Pas de Chocolat! is out this month (in French). Book him for talks/conferences (especially schools) via agent Anne Bayard (email@example.com)