Girt by Sea

17 Jan

As many of you know, I’m privileged to be the captain of a Can Too swim pod this summer. I have two absolutely fabulous mentors assisting me (and no, they don’t resemble Eddie and Patsy although…); all 3 of us are Poms. Imagine the poor Can Tooers turning up for their first session, anxious and intimidated; contemplating a summer of trauma dealing with their terror of the big blue, putting their heads under water, parading around in lycra and asking people for financial support; only to find that 3 Englishmen are custodians of their journeys, foils for their fears and the inspiration to counter their insecurities. You only need look at the mettle of the English cricket team to underscore (perhaps not the best choice of word) how they must have been feeling.

Ironic then in some ways that for most of our charges, their goal swim (The Big Swim or The Little Big Swim) falls exactly on Australia Day this year. As Australia Day looms (just 9 sleeps away), the meeja will doubtless engage in the usual debate about whether we (yes, I have been Australian for almost a decade now) are all loutish larrikins that would do anything for a VB and a chance to put one over the Poms or latte supping multiculturalists with an inexplicable fondness for the monarchy. Coming from overseas (as indeed 25% of Australian citizens do – although a fair few would be Kiwis so I am not sure that that counts) gives one a unique perspective over those born in this Big Brown Land of what it means to be Australian. photo

Although sometimes, it’s difficult to empathise.

Typical (although on reflection, relatively unique because it’s very thoughtful, objective and well written) of the annual debate last year was an article tweeted by Mr Oceanswims penned by BBC’s former Sydney correspondent Nick Bryant.

I went to Uni with Nick and if he wasn’t playing football, he was probably standing beside me as we supped on a half pint of orange juice and got our daily lunchtime fix of Neighbours in the TV room.  How funny that Nick and I should both end up calling Australia home (albeit of course, that he has now left but will forever be drawn back by his beautiful Australian wife Fleur).

I can’t imagine anything more appropriate to do on Stra’a Day than to take to the water in an ocean swim.  Maybe that is because I am a New South Welshman who as Tim Ferguson would say needs to pull the speedos up the crack in my arse to keep the left and right hand side of my brain separate.  As Dorothea Mackellar calls it, the ‘jewel-sea’ is all around us.  We are of course girt by sea.  Not uniquely, the United Kingdom is also so girded.  But there is something irresistible about the Pacific Ocean as the mercury climbs on an antipodean summer’s day and the cacophony of cicadas reaches its climax.

It was Australia though, not Britain, that called me.

It was Australia though, not Britain, that called me.

It’s just not the same in England.  My heart bleeds for one of (in my view and Kerry O’Brien’s) this country’s greatest living expatriates who has had to confront that he will never again return to Australia.

Yet Clive James’ description of Australia’s charms in the last paragraphs of Unreliable Memoirs resonated so much with me that I kept that book at my bedside for days before and after I emigrated here.

But there is more to ocean swimming than the simple lure of the crushed diamond water.  And much more to endear it to us as a quintessentially Australian sport.

Men at work

Men at work

First, it is egalitarian. As a commentator on os.c once reminded us ‘One of the things I love most about ocean swimming is being able to turn up every week in $50 worth of kit (togs and goggles) and not be disadvantaged by anything other than my irregular style and profuse circumareolo-pecto-sternal hair’.  Click here if you need further explanation.

Paul Ellercamp persists (rightfully in my view) in proselytising about what a great leveller the sport is.  A garbo and the prime minister can stand on the beach shoulder to shoulder and but for someone recognising one or the other (as we surely will given the meeja’s penchant for pitchers of Tony’s toned paunch in sluggos, nobody will know which is which).  Note to Tony to be extra vigilant in the Big Swim this year now that he is no longer leader of the opposition as Australia has a rather unfortunate history of prime ministers leaving the beach.  Olympians and novices rub shoulders in the same events.  Last week at Avalon, one of our Can Tooers won a lucky door prize.  She had her photo taken with her prize and a work colleague who had won a medal in the same age group and is soon to swim the English Channel.  The beginner and the pro together in the same event.

It is a sport that does not adhere to pre-conceived ideas about; body image: fat just makes you more buoyant; age: how many of us have had the pants whipped off us by someone not willing to adhere to society’s silly standards about appropriate pastimes for the geriatric; or, disability: Marc Radatt (‘my biggest fear is the damn shark, I don’t have a spare leg to lose’) beats me every time and James Pittar humbles and inspires me.

Second, it is a sport that requires courage.   Our pitch is not ordered with the grass groomed, watered and caressed.  No.  We have to confront the array of whatever Mother Nature and King Neptune have to throw at us whether it’s frigid waters, rips, swell, algal blooms, cyclonic tides, jellyfish, sea lice, marine vessels or bondi cigars.  Not to mention, man-eating predators and the fact that we were not born to swim and there is a very realrisk of drowning.  This is particularly true for Can Tooers, not because they tend to be ‘average athletes’ as Avalon SLSC said (and immediately took back) last weekend.  No, Avalon, there is nothing average about any Can Tooer that I have ever met.  But because we are, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, doing the thing which we think we cannot.  Many of us come to the programme unable to swim well or even at all, with no surf skills or with very real fears about what’s out there.  But like the animals on the Australian coat of arms, we won’t let ourselves take a backwards step.  That courage is not just about the determination which is needed when fear grips your heart and questions your commitment but also the courage to know our ability and admit our limits (like so sadly needed to be confronted by many last year.

Katherine at Avalon.  She got a prize for coming (even though she didn't) last.  The placegetter that I hold in the highest awe and regard in every ocean swim.

Katherine at Avalon. She got a prize for coming (even though she didn’t) last. The placegetter that I hold in the highest awe and regard in every ocean swim.

Last, it is about mateship.  Can Tooers not only swim for ourselves but we swim for those we have lost, those like Clive James who are battling this insidious disease right now and for those yet to face that heartbreaking diagnosis – we swim in the hope of finding a cure.  We don’t swim alone.  We swim with the tremendous support of our friends, work colleagues, families and total strangers who collectively have contributed more than $12 million to Cure Cancer Australia since Can Too began.  And with the incredible teamwork, support and camaradie of each other.  In Driven, the brilliant  marathon swimming movie, there is an observation about how often a record breaking lone endurance swimmer drags themselves up an empty beach absent any media interest or public support.  Not if they were from Can Too!  We’re always there for our mates.

And the mateship’s not just unique to Can Too.  All over Stra’a, aquatic buddies swim side by side  whether it’s simply squaddies or one of the veritable plethora of informal open water swimming communities be they the Bongin Bongin Dawn Busters, the Bermagui Blueballs, the Narooma Numnutz or some other tribe.  And special mention to the Forster Turtles, the Toowoon Bay Buttercups and the Bold & Beautiful to name but a few who have been visited by our own Can Too pod swimmers already this summer and been hugely supportive and welcoming.

This coming Stra’a Day, I will be lining up with some of my charges to try and swim the 2.7km from Palm Beach to Whale Beach.  I’ve done it before.  Three times in fact.  But I was still wide awake at 5-o-clock this morning, sweating and gasping for breath as I replayed images in my mind of the break at Whale Beach.  How will I manage?  I’m not sure but it’s not so much to ask of myself when I think for example of my friend Libby.  A fellow Can Tooer she conquered the 2010 Big Swim albeit slowly as she constantly had to stop to vomit stricken by overwhelming seasickness.  But Libby would tell you now that that was a walk in the park compared to the 6 months of chemo and associated chronic nausea that she has just had to endure culminating in 48 hours in ICU earlier this month.  Now, that’s courage.  And with that perspective, I will swallow hard and head as one of my former compatriots almost once said, once more unto the beach next Sunday.  I won’t think of England but of how lucky I am to be Australian and to have the opportunity to participate in this amazing and quintessentially Australian sport and wonderful culcha.

Oh, and on’ya Libby, you’re a bloody legend mate.

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