Bondi Beach Inspector, Bill 'The Whale" Willis, was the first to do it. A lap of Bondi Beach from the North Bondi boat ramp to the 'the boot' in behind Icebergs was 800 meters. The Whale opened the bidding with two laps. It was the late 60's.
It could have been the start of a channel swim anywhere in the world.
Nervous laughter. Strange rituals. Last minute costume changes. Google adjustments and malfunctions, tantrums, tears, coaches trying to get their charges in the right frame of mind. Apprehensive loved ones watching on with a mix of emotions; pride, fear, and joy.
But it wasn’t.
It was the Little Heroes Swim Academy for children with special needs and their siblings, in a tepid indoor pool above a leagues club south of Sydney on a Sunday afternoon.
In 3 hours over 50 children between 4 and 12 came and went seamlessly as the instructors handed one back to a parent in exchange for another on half hourly intervals.
The classic drills were all in use - bubble, bubble breath - big arms - one arm, two arms, and there were torpedo’s and submarines. As children’s swim schools go it was on one level all pretty normal.
Except it wasn’t.
The students, in the main, live with autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, and all manner of conditions from who knows what causes or consequences. It doesn’t really matter to anyone present, except for an awareness of what’s safe and what’s possible.
And it occurred to me, we are them, and they are us.
Their goals are relative. It might be to get to the edge, to get in, to immerse, to swim, to finish. There are days, many days, when the best of us struggle with these very same tasks. What matters is that we all have goals.
They were most probably born with their conditions, we might have been too or perhaps we acquired them along the way; depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, substance abuse. It’s not a competition, they’re all debilitating. The competition lies only within, when we determine to beat that which threatens to hold us back in that moment.
Water brings with it community, relationships and friends. We might have coffee and banter before and after our swims. Their emotions might be expressed in a cheeky splash, the confidence to try something having seen a peer succeed.
And for the non-verbal, the unsighted and hearing impaired it might be a touch, or the lessening of a vice like grip as trust builds and the sound and feel of water has its calming way.
These are little heroes and they instruct the best of us.
www.littleheroesswimacademy.org is the nominated charity for the Australian Channel Swimmers Inaugural Dinner, 17 November 2018 Tickets available at www.stickytickets.com.au
Two hundred bucks was all it took. Even then it wasn’t much but it was all The Age would pay to have him swim the 25 miles from Port Arlington to Frankston, Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne. It was a race the Melbourne paper had sponsored and for which they were struggling to get a field. It was a small fee indeed, agreed one night on the drink with his journalist mates, that started a middle-aged obsession for the remainder of Des Renfords’ life.
As you swim south around the back of Wedding Cake Island off Coogee Beach and take your sightings, you’d be excused for thinking the circus had come to town. With its distinctive blue and yellow panelled railings, changing pavilions sitting atop enormous wooden pylons and steep winding stairs that lead down to the coral lined enclosed ocean pool, the site is indeed carnival like.
John Koorey was the hare to Des Renford’s tortoise but unlike Aesop’s fable there was no ingenuity or trickery, just two big Sydney personalities from opposites side of the Harbour Bridge doggedly trying to be the first.
How very Australian that our proud record as English Channel swimmers should have its genesis in an act of teenage rebellion.
The humble kebab, that staple of the late night drunk, has become my focus in these last days of preparation for my Catalina Channel swim. Not just any kebab, my kebab is made of big juicy pieces of meat done to perfection and swivelling freely on a ramrod straight skewer and it's making a huge improvement to the way I swim.
Like bipolar disorder there should be two categories for the condition we know as 'did not finish'. DNF1 might be for not finishing for circumstances beyond the swimmers control. The other might be much harsher.
The train leaves every morning at 7 36 am. Some days it might be late due to a whinge about how far and hard we’ve already swum and a negotiation about how far we’ve got to go. The old rattler is called the ‘Extra Mile’ and it all stations to a channel somewhere.
I have come out twice in my life. Once at 40 with bipolar disorder and once at 50 as gay. I hope at 60 all I have to declare is that my prostrate is a bit doggy.
By far the hardest was telling my wife of 28 years and my 4 teenage children the truth about my sexuality but the hardest to navigate publicly has been my mental illness
Two hard, one easy. It’s a formula employed by swimming coaches and mental health therapists alike.
At the pool its purpose is to break down a tedious 4.5km session into manageable tasks – two laps swum hard followed by one lap easy is more palatable than swimming three laps at a moderate pace and then repeating that for an hour and a half.
Anxiety called last week. She always does before something big.
She’s nothing if not persuasive and within minutes had me convinced I couldn’t go on with my second Oceans 7 swim, the Catalina Channel in just under 2 months.
Yesterday, a stick poked me. So named for his insect like build, Stick’s a mate of my eldest son, Luke and he interviewed me for a university radio piece on mental health.
Two things happened day that couldn’t have ended my trip better on a better note.
I swam with my London based Vladswim friend, Chris McAnney in the Serpentine, Hyde Park where I swam with James Goins on my first day here. I was great to bookend my visit with these swims and in the company of these gentlemen.
It’s a little over two weeks now since my swim, and I am well and truly rested and relaxed. Thanks to all my readers, family, friends and donors. Your support has been overwhelming.
The day started inauspiciously when we boarded our vessel and it wouldn’t start. The spare battery was also flat. Thoughts of an all day swim suddenly turned to a day night game. Boat pilots are tight, so in no time we had a couple of batteries and we were off.
After a couple of false starts due to weather I’m set to start my swim at 6 am Tuesday (5 pm Tuesday night, Sydney). I will post this when I get final confirmation tonight and then surrender all social media devices while I try to get a few hours sleep.
I was always going to be the last swimmer of our group. It’s just the way the bookings worked.
My sports psychologist, Paul and I worked on this scenario before I left Australia: the other three would cross and I’d be left alone training and waiting.
The role of a marathon swimmers handler is a difficult one. They share the pain, ride the emotional roller coaster with their swimmer and then, when the job is done, selflessly step back allowing their charge to accept the glory from those who don’t know what’s gone on behind the scenes.
The third of our group of four Frosty Nuts has moments ago crossed the English Channel. I’m writing this with tears of joy welling in my eyes.