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.
Much like a professional golfers caddie, the swimmers handler is obviously responsible for the gear, but their true role is much more complex. They give technical advice, handle logistics, negotiate arrangements with service providers and manage the many and varied moods of an athlete under stress for long periods before, during and after an event.
With the scientific accuracy of Heston Blumenthhal the swimmers feeds are refined by the handler in consultation with a nutritionist to provide the exact amount of carbs, electrolytes and energy needed per hour to keep their swimmer going for long periods. Here there’s no one size that fits all. Before each swim twice the number of required feeds must be prepared to account for spillage in rough weather when consumed in 20 seconds while a swimmer simultaneously treads water, swears and pees.
As proficient at arts and crafts as any early childhood educator, a handler makes contraptions for getting food to a swimmer without bodily contact involving poles, buckets, containers, wires, rope, floats and tape. The many other skills of kindergarten teachers are not wasted either.
As to communications during a major swim, all marathon swimmers know that all handlers lie. Unless hypothermic and near death, a swimmer knows this is happening when a handler uses key words like, ‘only ‘or, ‘just’, as in, ‘only two more feeds’ or ‘just 3 km’s more’. They know they’re lying, we know they’re lying, they know we know etc. It’s a game we play to kill time.
Lie as they might, it’s at the margins that a true professional knows their swimmer needs the truth. When the tide starts to run and their swimmer needs context to dig deeper after having swum hard for the length of a working day, the handler will tell the swimmer like it is and call for more; a faster stroke rate, a bigger catch, a six beat kick, whatever it takes.
For all the preparation and working together, it’s that special moment of truth between a swimmer and his or her handler that distinguishes the good from the great.
(Pictured – my handler James Goins with me after my second Rottnest Channel crossing , February 2014)