Thank You Australia
Australia just gave me a lesson I will never forget. I had to go all the way to Down Under to learn that things do not always go down the way we plan and that sometimes you cannot fight against the elements, especially against the sea. It is the first time in my life I haven’t finished a race, and the first time in my life I’ve cried in the water.
The week leading to the Port to Pub – i.e. the longer version of the Rottnest Channel Swim – could not have gone better. I won my age group and ended 3rd overall in a shorter race in New Zealand, I trained in both Bondi and Manly beaches in Sydney, and I was feeling very strong both physically and mentally for the 25km solo in Perth. On Friday morning, we attended the briefing to learn that conditions were not optimal due to strong winds, but that we were going ahead anyway.
I didn’t think much about it – one thing an open water swimmer must be used to is the unpredictability of weather and other elements. Three weeks ago, and for the first time in 60 years, the Rotto swim had been over for over 100 participants due to a shark sighting, so what were the chances of that happening again? Or that the swim would be canceled due to weather conditions, which had also happened only once in the past?
After the briefing, I tested the waters with Michael Pranckl, an Austrian living in Canberra and joked that it was not too much of a pool and that we should lower our finishing time expectations. Then, the usual pre-race routine – protein lunch, carbs dinner, shaving and an early night. I almost never have problems with my sleeping, so I had a good 7-hour rest, from 9pm to 4am.
We had met both the skipper and the paddler the night before so logistics were clear. Johana would join Adrian and his dad on the boat and look for us at km.6 of the race, while I would join Will and his kayak on the beach. At 5.50am, P2P organizers welcome us at the Fremantle Life Saving Club and inform us that after a careful review, the 2018 race is a GO. I am all fired up.
At about 6.10am the nutters – 45 solos for the 25km Ultra Marathon – are called in and I line up at the starting line along with old friends like Lynton Mortensen, an incredible marathon swimmer whom I swam with in Manhattan, and new ones like Ned Wieland, the youngest Australian to complete the English Channel and the fastest crossing of all 2017. I was the only one coming from overseas and had attracted a fair amount of attention with my Continents Seven challenge.
The announcements, the Australian national anthem, and the bell – we are off for the first 5km loop between North Fremantle and Cottesloe, before heading to Rottnest Island. Winds are strong and it is not easy to relax during the first 2.5km but I keep busy looking for my paddler and sticking to the leading group. We turn the pink buoy and I reckon I am top 5 which I am happy with, but the winds are now against and waves keep growing. At about km.4 I get a strong shock as a jellyfish fully grabs my left forearm, and stings me in my nose too. I hate when they hit in the face – isn’t that against the rules?
We enter the Channel, and we see the only boat with the Spanish flag – I love seeing the red and yellow bands but I can see how hard it waves. So here comes the first warning: the sensation of a swimmer is always biased and we never realize how bad it looks from outside. My first feeding confirms my concern – we’ve covered only 6km in 1h45’ so I should be looking at a 7-hour swim if all goes well, instead of the 6h30’ I had planned – oh well!
I try to get my cruise speed and breath bilateral but the waves make it challenging. I keep good spirits though and have my second feeding on 2h45’ – “Australian bananas are not that tasty”, is the first thing that goes on my mind. “These are probably the hardest conditions I’ve ever faced but I feel strong like a bull, there is no wave that can stop me”. However, I can see Johana’s serious face on the boat and my kayaker’s struggle to stay afloat. Will is a 6’5’’ ft, super strong competitor, so that worries me. I can see other kayakers fighting hard to follow their swimmers.
Right before my third feed at 10am, I can see how he approaches and talks to the boat and stops paddling. I instantly think of sharks – “they’ve seen one but it’s fine, I am away from it and will be able to carry on”. But then I hear the words “they’ve canceled it – the swim is over”. I cannot believe it – I was so focused on the swim that I hadn’t realized that the conditions were worsening by the hour. All the teams and solos were being pulled out, with no exception.
I want to keep going, I want to keep fighting against the waves and to show everyone what I am made of. The thought of getting to the finish line when most couldn’t motivates even more. Some officers on jet ski approach me and say it’s fine for me to continue but that they need to pull out. I am fine with that – isn’t a boat all you need in other swims like the English Channel? Johana is dead worried but says she won’t stop me, and Will’s and Adrian’s support is unconditional so I decide to keep going at it.
But then the reality hits me in the face. The officers’ boat comes over to tell us that I am the last swimmer in and that if I continue I do not only put on danger myself and my team, but also the potential rescue team. That’s enough – I am ambitious as it gets, and a fighter, but the last thing I’d like is to go against the spirit of the sport – or worse yet, to put in danger anyone around me.
I take off my yellow cap and goggles while I look upsettingly at Rottnest Island before me. I have covered 12km, half of the race and I know I could finish it. The frustration and disappointment that covers my body is immense and I shout, I cry and I hit the water while I float for another 5 minutes. But I see it the minute I jump onto the boat – the sea is roaring, and reminding us how little we are. The ocean is bigger than any of us. The water lashes my face and I get seasick as we make our way back to Perth and I cannot help but feel bad for my team – who were holding to it and supporting me till the end, despite these treacherous conditions.
Swimming for Australians is like football for Spaniards. I learned a lot and loved participating in an event Down Under. Most importantly, I am amazed by the professionalism that the P2P organization showed from the beginning till the end and I now know that they took the right call.
The Port to Pub was a key swim for most of my goals, and I need to re-do some planning. Loads of time, money and energy – I will feel frustrated for a while, but on perspective, I am just happy that the whole team is safe, and I am very thankful and humble from the lesson Australia taught me: I will keep swimming in the open waters and fighting for my ambitious goals but always keeping in mind the respect for the oceans and the spirit and sportsmanship of the sport.
Quoting Winston Churchill's words, "Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts."