8 Emotions of Learning to Ocean Swim

by Marty Pinkstone 11 Oct 2016

Summer is coming, and with it, my favourite part of the year: the Sydney Ocean Swim.! Not just because it’s where I started my own Can Too journey two seasons ago, but because the annual summer swim attracts all shapes, sizes, abilities, in a pretty foreign environment where they go on to achieve amazing things. The Can Too Ocean Swim means different things to different people; rewarding because it’s such a crashing kaleidoscope of emotions at times, which also makes learning to ocean swim such a life-changing experience. Now that Spring has sprung, it’s time to reflect on some experiences from the Can Too community from Sydney Ocean Swim  programs gone by.

#1 ... Fear.

Most of us start here, right? We’re land mammals! It’s all the ‘what if’ moments that come crashing in, pressing all our primal fears of that other world, the ocean. But you know what? As you overcome challenges you never thought possible, as you become an ocean swimmer, it’s also what makes the whole thing so damned rewarding!

“I was one of those people,” says Can Too founder & chair Annie Crawford AM. “I started the swim program to face my own fears and do an ocean swim. Those first steps are hard, and it’s not easy, to keep turning up every week and getting back in the water. But eventually the fear starts to subside, and you realise that you are indeed going to reach that goal!”

Matt Renshaw, a former captain of the Australian Swimming Team and dual Commonwealth Games gold medallist who now coaches for Can Too, agrees. “The only thing to fear is fear itself. I’ve witnessed swimmers achieve astonishing progress each summer by taking small steps, tackling their fears slowly. We focus on teaching real skills to create competent swimmers.”

But fear takes many forms.

For Dr Vibeke Catts, a cancer researcher who’s now completed two Sydney Ocean Swim  training programs with Can Too, “I fear my step-daughter, who lost her own biological mother, maternal grandmother, and great-grandmother – all women in three generations – to breast cancer, will one day face the same diagnosis. I fear that the assurances I have given her that research now delivers much better outcomes for women diagnosed with breast cancer – now a 90% survival rate in 2015 – don’t hold true, and that I will have somehow let her down.

#2 ... Trust.

I personally love the ocean. Just being around it has always brought me a sense of peace. I love scuba diving (it’s such a lazy sport!) but I was never a confident swimmer, particularly in the surf zone. I found my first program pretty confronting: just turning up to the pool and stripping down after my first (very lazy) winter living in a big city was a big deal. Facing the ocean, that was a really big deal! But like a few thousand people who came before me, I trusted in the program, and running up the beach like a conquering hero from the ocean after swimming the 2.7km was one of the most liberating experiences of my life!

Annie Crawford AM started Can Too in 2005 as “an opportunity to believe in people until they believe in themselves. We go to great lengths to create a supportive, safe environment for people to learn to ocean swim. We know that our people will succeed. We believe in them. They trust us. That we do it as everyday people in this adverse environment, is the true strength behind our community.”

“It’s the simplest truth of life: we learnt to walk by falling down,” says coach Matt Renshaw. “We learn to ocean swim by taking those first steps, by having faith: in yourself, in the program, in us as coaches, in the water safety team who support every ocean training session. There will always be setbacks, but there will also be breakthroughs. It takes time! Which is why we use the whole summer to get people ready for race day.”

#3 ... Anger.

We all feel this at some stage on the journey fundraising for cancer research. Cancer is indiscriminate: it takes the young, the old, the healthy. We wall want to do more, but what? According to cancer researcher Dr Vibeke Catts, “in 2015 there were just 516 projects funded by the National Health and Medical Research Foundation – 3,344 missed out. That’s our brightest and most committed researchers wasting 3-6 weeks of valuable research time, only to miss out on funding anyway. It’s such a wasted opportunity, which is what makes Can Too’s mission so important.”

#4 ... Disgust.

This one was easy for me. I was single when I did my first Can Too program. I was down at the beach on a Saturday morning after a Friday night. It wasn’t pretty! But over the summer I stuck with the program. I went to bed earlier, trained more, and changed my lifestyle. That first was actually where I met my beautiful fiancée. Miracles really do happen when you least expect them!!!

Annie reminisces, “I’ve always found one of the most amazing things about Can Too is seeing the way people learn to love their bodies and be liberated from stereotypes. At the start of the program, everyone is covering up. They don’t want thighs exposed, they don’t want to be seen in their budgie smugglers.”

I was definitely one of those people!

“However, as the weeks go on, our Can Tooers see their bodies for what they truly are: strong, fit, machines that with the right education and experience are able to swim long distances in the ocean.”

#5 ... Surprise.

“I love the life-changing moment when you’re able to show people how to breathe properly while swimming,” coach Matt says. “The light-bulb that goes on when swimmers learn to breathe out steady and slow underwater, so that they turn for a breath, they’re ready to breathe in. This simple efficiency reduces stress, increases comfort, and suddenly they’re totally different swimmers.”

“I remember training for my first: I felt like I had won the Olympics!” recalls Can Too founder & chair Annie Crawford AM. “I told everyone about my achievement, even the guy at the petrol station. I was so surprised, and excited, and liberated. I felt such a sense of empowerment, and I’m so glad that Can Too has been able to offer that experience to so many others in the decade since.”

My own greatest surprise came about halfway through the program. We’d done a famous point-to-point, swimming the length of the beach and back again – peppered with stops to tread water as a group while the coaches explained the next leg of our swim, clustering us together, making sure we were all comfortable before attempting to move on – and were back on dry land when coach Gary announced, “Well … you just swam a kilometre. That’s the same distance as your goal event.” We didn’t have to swim the whole way without stopping? We could pause for breath if we really needed to? I felt like we’d just discovered fire! The idea of an ocean swim race suddenly felt so much more possible.

#6 ... Sadness.

I loved the swimming, but I found the fundraising tough at first. Here I was, doing these amazing things for charity, devoting my time, facing my fears, kicking goals, on this amazing high of positive emotions. And on the balancing side were some of my closest friends and family refusing to donate to my cause. It was really tough. I asked myself more than once: do they not care, did they not want to see me succeed? Toward the end of the program it was as confronting as the body confidence issues were at the start of the program. But as sad as I was that some people wouldn’t support me, there were plenty who did. And like everyone who’s fundraised for Can Too, turning that sadness into victory is a very liberating experience.

For Dr Vibeke Catts, a cancer researcher, the saddest part of her second season training for an ocean swim with Can Too was learning that a “vibrant, special lady I first met through Can Too has been diagnosed with cancer, and is facing chemo and it’s nasty side effects. It makes me very sad, watching her journey, wishing there was more that I can do.”

Annie Crawford lost her dad, her sister-in-law, and now her uncle to cancer. “Despite the amazing progress thanks to cancer research, I’ve lost these amazing people from my life, leaving a hole that can’t be filled. We just learn to live with that hole, and do what we can in the future.”

“While many experience sadness,” says coach Matt Renshaw, “I’ve never met a sad ocean swimmer at Can Too. Everyone is so positive, they’re there for each other. It’s a real community, and that’s what makes coaching for Can Too so worthwhile.”

#7 ... Anticipation.

“I love watching the transformation of our amazing Can Tooers as they morph in front of my eyes over the 14 weeks of a swim program. I can already anticipate the thrill, the pride, the excitement that our people will experience as they cross the finish line to the cheers of their Can Too buddies. It doesn't matter if it is their first Can Too program or their fifteenth – it is incredible.”

According to coach Matt Renshaw, “anticipation creates the adrenaline that we all need to perform our best on race. Part of the program is learning to control this, to try not to anticipate every single eventuality. The ocean is a glorious, but no-one can predict what conditions will be like on race day – except maybe Annie! – so it’s important to relax. Gaining experience swimming in different ocean conditions is what makes Can Too confident ocean swimmers by the end of summer.”

And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. I remember standing on Palm Beach, where I’d never been before in my life, ready to face my first ocean swim. When I’d started the program 12 weeks before, I was utterly convinced I wouldn’t make the 1km race by the end of summer. And there I was, lined up on the sand in my Can Too budgie smugglers, timing chip around my ankle, ready to swim 2.7km around the headland in the open ocean like it was just a normal thing to do ...

#8 ... Joy!!!

It's that simple thought ... "I MADE IT!!!" Then the realisation that I’d just swum from a beach I’d never been to before, around the headland in the ocean with a few thousand other swimmers, just shy of three times the one kilometre distance that I’d originally signed up for, without stopping once, swimming the entire distance, pulling myself out of the waves and running up the sand of a beach I’d never even laid eyes on before, I felt like a conquering hero as I came out of the ocean. It was one of the most gratifying physical achievements of my entire life. I’d made it. I MADE IT! I REALLY MADE IT!!! I WAS AN OCEAN SWIMMER!!!

Watching the faces of our people as they cross that finish line with pure joy (and relief) written all over them, it’s easy to share in,” says Annie. “The beauty of ocean swimming is that you never know what nature will deliver on race day. The joy of making the distance is fantastic. I feel pure joy, not  just from swimming, but from cheering in my people!!!”

Coach Matt Renshaw feels the same way. “Seeing so many happy faces crossing the finishing line, all those people that have swum from one beach to another beach, it brings me a lot of joy. Listening to their stories, of how they thought they could never do it … but they did! The sense of self-satisfaction at the physical feat of ocean swimming, knowing that their sacrifices will save the lives of others by funding Australian cancer research. It’s a pretty rewarding feeling, seeing the result of the Can Too learn to ocean swim training program on the sand at the end of summer. It’s a pretty amazing experience.” 


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