A classic DIY tale of fixing something that’s been broken. An edited version of this story first appeared as ‘Not Drowning, Waving’ in The Big Issue in December 2016.
On the second Saturday of every new year, the waters around Lorne heave and churn like a deep fryer of boiling oil with a wire basket-load of chips tossed onto its surface. People pay money to be one of those chips.
The Lorne Pier-to-Pub is the world’s biggest ocean swim race with entries now capped at 5000.
The race has been going for thirty-six years. Organisers introduced a ballot system after 2008, when all available places sold out on the first day of registration.
It is one of the biggest days of the west coast St John’s Ambulance calendar. Organisers have set up the area under the Lorne SLSC clubrooms as a makeshift hospital ward in preparation for the expected casualties. Death by heart attack and/or drowning are high on the list of possibilities. Fears of death by shark bite have so far proved unfounded. Would-be competitors shouldn’t be put off by the fact that ten-swim veterans are referred to as Shark Bait. It’s just that good old Aussie sense of humour.
Veterans of this ocean swim would prefer to be taken by a shark than gain a few seconds on last year’s time. Or worse still, be hauled out of the waters by the scruff of the neck by the overzealous lifesavers in the rubber ducky. Either of these disastrous scenarios expose you to the scorn and derision of other Shark Baiters. That’s much worse than any damage a two metre white pointer could do.
The overriding fear that kept me from participating was none of the above.
It was the prospect of random physical contact with strangers. I am a girl who can’t go to a football match at the MCG. I hyperventilate at the mere possibility of being crushed to death by a mob. My extended personal space requirements have long been a source of entertainment for those who have had the misfortune to play any form of contact sport with me. Hockey, basketball, aerobics, ping pong — you name it— you’ll find me cowering in the back row as far from the action as possible. That’s the nice thing about lap swimming. It’s a gentle form of recreation kind to mind and body.
The idea of an ocean swim like the Lorne Pier-to-Pub has always been so repulsive to me as to be morbidly fascinating.
I told myself that one day when I was very old I would enter the ballot. If I was the youngest in my age group I would have a pretty good chance of survival. I could be the sprightly 80 year old in the 80 to 90 year age group. With luck I would die before my 80th birthday.
The death of a friend brought forward my schedule. Tony died aged 47 of early-onset dementia and at his wake I met a woman who regularly swam the Pier-to-Pub. I told her of my nebulous plans for some time in the distant future. She chided me gently, saying that Tony’s premature death should have taught me not to put anything off.
Four months later I was queuing in the hot sun on the Lorne foreshore with 4999 other ocean swim competitors.
The woman next to me started up a conversation. Within minutes we both took off our sunglasses and said each other’s names. She was the woman at Tony’s wake and the reason I was there. Even now the memory causes the hairs on the back of my neck to rise.
Competitive ocean swimming is like climbing Everest: it only feels good when it’s over. Try wrapping yourself in rubber so tight you can hardly move, then lying in freezing cold, wet cement and propelling yourself along with your arms and legs while simultaneously remembering to take the odd gasp of air. All this while other similarly-clad bodies launch themselves at and over you in their quest for the finish line. You’ll get the idea.
That first year I competed in the race and survived to tell the tale. When asked why I had done it, I named Tony as my inspiration but his early death didn’t explain why I had felt the need to challenge myself in this way in the first place. I still don’t understand the impulse that made me swim it that first year and again the following year – a year of strong headwinds and choppy seas – after which I decided I didn’t ever have to do another ocean swim again.
And then I broke my neck in a car accident.
A broken neck does not necessarily lead to paralysis. Despite two fractures, my spinal cord remained intact. For the next nine months, my life was very simple. My sole focus was my health. It’s an experience I wouldn’t have missed, in spite of the inconvenience of spending the first three months imprisoned in an upper body brace that never came off. The following three months I wore a moulded collar and the final three months I dealt with the physical consequences of not having lifted anything heavier than a coffee cup for nine months. I had survived a serious car accident and got to see my family and friends in a new light as they all pulled together in a common cause: my recovery.
Nine months after the crash I was as close to perfect as I was going to be. Long walks holding the hands of my children for safety, saline injections for my frozen shoulder, regular physiotherapy and gentle training at the gym had rendered me pretty close to perfect. If anyone asked me why I swam the Pier-to-Pub a third time, I had the answer ready. Strangely enough, no one asked me.