Bray man takes on a gruelling global challenge for peace in his home country of Moldova
Ion Tiron: “I want to help people and raise awareness of the people suffering in Moldova. Sport doesn’t have a language or skin colour. Sport unites everybody.” Photograph: Eric Luke
Ion Lazarenco Tiron’s friends and family thought he’d gone crazy when he announced his plan to swim nearly 240km in just over a week.
“I’d done sports since I was a kid but this was a new challenge. The guys working in the local swimming pool thought I was mad, 99 per cent of people laughed when I told them my plan. I was the only one who believed I could do it.”
The Dublin Bus driver, who moved to Ireland from Moldova in 1997, swam in local rivers and lakes as a child but was never seriously dedicated to the sport. However, in 2011 he read about a Tunisian man named Nejib Belhedi, a former officer in the air force, who swam the entire 1,400km of Tunisia’s coastline. Belhedi undertook the challenge as a call to build bridges of peace not only in Tunisia but in conflict zones around the world. Inspired by this message and unsettled by the unrest in his home country, Tiron decided to swim the Dniester River.
The Dniester runs through Ukraine and Moldova before flowing into the Black Sea. Tiron arranged to swim it over eight days beginning in Soroca in north-east Moldova and swimming an average of 30km a day to reach the city of Dubasari.
“I came up with the idea of doing it for Moldova as a swim of peace. I had been going to the seafront in Bray anyway to get rid of the pain of injuries and two operations on my knee. I started training on February 11th, 2013 in the pool in Bray and on June 20th, 2013 I began my swim of peace. “I swam the river and prayed that it would unite us in good times and bad.”
A lot of people migrate illegally so they can’t take their children with them. They think they’ll come back but they don’t. It’s a huge disaster.
Tiron was training to be a member of the Moldovan military police when his girlfriend was offered a job with an Irish company based in Belgium in the mid-1990s. When she was re-located to Ireland he followed her and soon after began working with Dublin Bus. The couple now have two teenage children and live in Bray.
A couple of years before Tiron left Moldova, in 1992, the separatist region of Transnistria – a strip of land between the Dniester River and Ukrainian border – broke away from Moldova after a brief conflict which killed up to 700 people. More than two decades on, Tiron still feels uncomfortable about the presence of Russian troops in the area which he describes as “Moldova’s Northern Ireland”.
‘Corruption and inequality’
“There’s a big military presence there and now and again these just bully us,” he says. “I wanted to promote Moldova as a good country but the law has always been under the foot of the Russians. As I was living in a democratic country I felt I had to give something back. My adopted country has done so much for me and both my kids were born here. I wanted to attract international attention to the corruption and inequality in Moldova. That’s why I always carry the Irish flag and the Moldovan flag when I swim.”
One of the other motivating factors for Tiron’s first long-distance swim was to raise money for orphans and children with disabilities in Moldova. He explains that many Moldovans emigrate in search of jobs abroad and plan to send for their children once they’ve settled. “A lot of people migrate illegally so they can’t take their children with them. They think they’ll come back but they don’t. It’s a huge disaster.”
According to Unicef, this “parent drain” has become a major feature of family life in Moldova where one in five children has one or both biological parents working abroad. Children left behind are cared for by their grandparents, extended family members or, in some cases, live on their own.
I was swimming towards Catalina Island when I saw a white shark about five metres under me
Tiron says Irish society taught him that life was not only about working and making money. “What this country did for me and my family was to teach me that we should be more loving and caring towards each other.”
After his initial swim in Moldova, Tiron returned to Ireland eager to continue training as an open-water swimmer and to raise more money for children in his home country. He set the goal of completing the Ocean’s Seven: seven long-distance open-water swims in channels across the world, a feat first completed by Irish man Stephen Redmond in 2012. Only five other people have completed the challenge meaning, if he was successful, Tiron would become the seventh person in the world to make it through this gruelling challenge.
Before starting the Ocean’s Seven challenge, he swam the ice mile in the Wicklow Mountains in February 2014. Then, that May, he swam across the Strait of Gibraltar, completing this initial channel swim in four hours and 41 minutes. Four months later, in September, he swam the English Channel in 13 hours and 34 minutes. In November 2014 he was invited by the swimmer who inspired his journey – Nejib Belhedi – to take part in a swim for peace in Tunisia.
Ion Tiron: “We men think we are strong but without a woman we are nothing, we are zero. Doing this calibre of work, you need someone beside you to help and my wife has been very supportive.” Photograph: Eric Luke
The following August he completed the third swim in the challenge, making the journey across the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland in 16 hours and 23 minutes. Freezing water, unpredictable weather and Lion’s mane jellyfish make this swim one of the most difficult of the Ocean’s Seven.
The next step was to travel to California where he swam from San Pedro in Los Angeles to Santa Catalina Island at midnight. “I was swimming towards Catalina Island when I saw a white shark about five metres under me. Like any mammal it can sense fear and weakness so I tried to stay calm and not panic. The kayaker who was with me told me afterwards that his knees were shaking.”
In October 2016, Tiron swam the Molokai channel in Hawaii in 18 hours and 11 minutes. During this fifth swim in the series, he tackled 25m waves, big swells and sharks while being stung by man o’ war jellyfish.
I’m not a politician but I want to help people and raise awareness of the people suffering in Moldova. Sport doesn’t have a language or skin colour. Sport unites everybody.
Tiron will travel to Japan in July 2017 to take on the Tsugaru Strait before facing the final swim across the Cook Strait between the North and South Islands of New Zealand.
Since embarking on his international swim challenge, Tiron has set up a charity called Sport Unites to build basic sports facilities for children in his home town in Moldova. He has also made the three-day overland journey from Ireland to Moldova a number of times, driving a large truck across Europe filled with clothes, shoes and toys for disadvantaged children.
“I’m not a politician but I want to help people and raise awareness of the people suffering in Moldova. Sport doesn’t have a language or skin colour. Sport unites everybody.”
Tiron says he never could have completed the swims and raised the funds for his projects in Moldova without the support of his wife, other family members and friends. “We men think we are strong but without a woman we are nothing, we are zero. Doing this calibre of work, you need someone beside you to help and my wife has been very supportive.”
He also hopes to encourage members of the Moldovan diaspora to take a greater interest in the affairs of women, men and children in their home country. “My three aims are to promote Ireland and Moldova, raise money for children in need and to be an inspiration for others. There’s more to life than greed and jealousy.”