It was 1998. I was a backpacker from England on a working holiday visa who, through some fortunate connections was staying in the old Lifeguard tower at South Maroubra Surf Lifesaving Club in Sydney, trading cleaning and working in the club bar in exchange for somewhere to stay. Up until that point my ocean swimming experience was limited to dabbling in the ‘sea’ where the water gently lapped the shore.
With blissful enthusiasm, reserved for the young and ignorant, I joined in with a Sunday morning club run swim run. I was a pool swimmer, I had competed at Olympic trials. I knew how to move through water. It was 200m of each. I had this.
I set off down the beach, watching the beach sprinters leave me for dust along the Maroubra sand, confident I would catch them once we hit the water. As my toes hit the cool of the ocean my mind had other ideas. I froze. I was unable to take another step. To this day nothing like that has ever happened again, however at that moment in time I was stuck, watching the beach sprinters duck under the waves like they belonged as much in water as on land. I turned around and headed back to my bunkroom defeated.
That experience shaped the remainder of my time in Sydney, I didn’t venture into the ocean or an ocean pool again. Instead I watched with awe as the strong, brave, surf lifesavers smashed through the waves in an IRB, on a board, a ski, or simply swimming.
Fast-forward 21 years to the day, (it had been Mardi-Gras the night before too) I received an offer to go and swim at Maroubra, to visit the surf club and look for old friends who had made my time there so special.
There were 100 or so surfers across the beach, no flags up, just permanent signs saying DANGER, Rip. We entered the water aiming to use the rip to our advantage under the guidance of my new swimming buddies Jo and Suze. The first wave came at me, looking so fierce and strong and it bubbled over and around me. Where was the ferocity I remembered? Where was the fierce power of Margaret River waves? To be honest I didn’t care, I swam over and under the waves out the back, turned north and started to swim to the far end of the bay.
My mind was abuzz. I had done it, I had beaten those demons that stopped me so long ago. I started to think about how far I had come and as I remembered those feelings they started to come back, my chest tightened. I knew I could breathe but started to question the reality. I rolled onto my back trying to calm myself down hoping the anxiety would pass. Repeating my mantra giving myself a talking to. It wasn’t working. Then up swam Suze and Jo, smiling away, happy just to be swimming, to be sharing their home town, telling me stories of swims, marine life encountered, sandy bottoms and baby sting rays.
We started to swim and I let my mind wander, my eyes look and my hands feel the water. That calmed my heart, my breathe and I left those fears, in the middle of Maroubra bay, grateful for the lessons they taught me; of respect for the ocean, of focussing on what you can do, not what you can’t, of being able to understand a genuine fear of the ocean, and empathise with other ‘sufferers’ and of knowing that sometimes you just have to say you can and give it a go. A friend to share it with is a must, and good coffee after helps too.