In The Swim
By Sarah-Jane CollinsApril 10, 2012
Swimming is bound up in Australia’s cultural identity. Millions flock to our beaches each year, and there are pools in towns and cities across the country. Why do we love it?
Sometimes, when the morning is grey and the water is cold, the trudge to the pool can be a chore. Pulling on the silicone cap that snaps over my ears, muting the rhythmic thwack of the limbs of those already immersed, I catch myself thinking that I would have been better off staying in bed. But pushing off from the wall, eyes on the thick black line below, arms cutting a path through the chlorine-sweet swells, breaths measured out, it all falls away.
I am transported. I am alive only to the instant demands. Breath. Momentum. Buoyancy.
And I am not the only one.
We are a nation of swimmers. We converge on beaches, we build Olympic-sized behemoths in tiny towns. New South Wales alone has about a hundred ocean baths. Our beaches receive on average 80 million visitors a year. As early as the 1860s competitive swimming competitions were garnering crowds in the thousands. Our stroke, the Australian Crawl, has spread across the world.
Mostly, I think, that love must come from a culture that is stoked through childhood, a life filled with beach holidays and lazy afternoons at the local public pool.
It might be any Sunday in the early 1990s. On a hot day, in the northern suburbs of Brisbane amid a flat sweep of grassy dirt, the Newmarket pool is heaving. Half the 50-metre pool is reserved for leisure — there are no serious swimmers on a sweltering school holiday afternoon — and fathers in Speedos rub thick masses of sunscreen on their children's summer-brown skin.
I dive under and hold my breath. Climb up on my brother's back. Scramble and splash and wear myself out. On the way back to the car, loose gravel underfoot, I suck on a Paddle Pop, thoroughly exhausted. We are taught to love water, not to fear it.
Tourists are often caught out by their disadvantage. Between July 2010 and June 2011, 19 international visitors lost their lives in our waters. "Tourists must be educated about basic water safety messages including: when entering the water, it is vital that all people are aware of their swimming skills and understand the conditions they may encounter in the water," the Royal Lifesaving Society's annual drowning report says.
For the most part, Australians get taught those things. The information is drummed into us from a young age.
Early memories of salty Easter holidays spent shaking the sand out of my hair, standing in my thongs at the door of the borrowed Caloundra holiday house. Dad. Strong arms around my waist as he dunks me under the waves. Laughing. Admonishing me to keep my eyes open, my mouth closed and my lungs full. Watch out, he warns, for the little wave that always comes straight after the big one. Surface too soon and you'll get smacked in the mouth.
Standing in the surf at Mooloolaba, my mother holds my hands and teaches me to read a rip. When the sea drags back the wave, sand shifting between my toes I dig in my heels. "Stand your ground, wait for it to recede and use the next one to ride back to shore." If you get dragged out, swim with it, not against, she cautions.
Years later, as I swim with a rip for almost an hour in rollicking waves off the Victorian coast, I wonder if a little fear might not be a good thing. After all, this is Cheviot Beach, near the holiday spot of Portsea, where Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt famously and mysteriously disappeared in 1967. Lost at sea.
And we know education is not enough.
Hundreds of people — most of them Australians — drown every year. In 2010-11, the number was 315. Some of those deaths, caused by devastating flooding, could not have been avoided with better education, or more caution, but others maybe. Young men, so often the target of road safety campaigns, clearly need to be watched in the water too. Overall men are three-and-a-half times more likely than women to drown. And young men 18 to 34 are the largest cohort.
New South Wales and Queensland are the leading states for drowning fatalities. But there are tragedies everywhere. In 2007, two Indian students were wading in seas off the Great Ocean Road at Hutt Gully, near Anglesea, when they were caught in a rip. The beach was unpatrolled, and the students were not swimmers.
International students and migrants are some of the most vulnerable when it comes to water safety, and swim-between-the-flags campaigns are often targeted at new migrant communities.
A friend hosting overseas visitors recently took them to the beach. "Swim between the flags," she told them, pointing out the narrow strip between the red and yellow markers. In the water, they get frustrated. "How can we swim between them? They keep moving."
It is dangerous, this thing we love. But in spite of that, Australians seem unable to get enough. Perhaps it is the climate. In Queensland the heat can knock you out when combined with soupy, unrelenting humidity — sometimes spending the day immersed is the only escape.
In an article for the scholarly journal Sporting Traditions in 2005, academics Richard Light and Tracy Rockwell look back on the origins of Australian competitive swimming:
"There was concern with the type of society that would develop from convict stock and the effects of an alien and threatening natural environment. Within the context of these concerns sport was seen as a bulwark against perceived threats to the building and maintenance of a civil society," they wrote.
Does it all come back to the shackles of our settlers? Well, not entirely.
Bathing houses were built to stop people congregating and bathing in public as part of a larger push for "temperance, sobriety and family values" in the early decades of the colonies. Deemed necessary, it seems, because of the sport's widespread popularity. Perhaps the earliest settlers took their lead from the indigenous people who lived in the Sydney area. Indigenous people who lived near water — whether ocean, river or lake — were keen swimmers.
In 1791, Bennelong is reported to have swum to the aid of some capsized sailors. A member of the Wangal people, Bennelong was captured by Governor Arthur Phillip in 1789 in an attempt to better understand indigenous language and culture.
Whatever the motivation, swimming was a firm favourite in the New South Wales colonies from the get-go. In 1834, the Sydney Gazette declared swimming the "favourite recreation" of the colony.
Victorians too, despite the disadvantages of their climate, have a real commitment to their swimming. In the height of summer the ocean temperature there would be lucky to make it to 20. On a miserable winter morning, the sky dark as night, the temperature less than five, the steam rises from the surface of heated outdoor pools across Melbourne, where swimmers pound out their laps. In Queensland you don't think about the ocean in temperatures. There's just warm and cold. But cold, every Queenslander will eventually learn if they spend any time in the southern states, is relative.
On the day after his surprise election victory in November 2010, Victorian premier Ted Baillieu was out for his swim. An Iceberger — brave souls who venture into the unforgivingly cold seas of Port Phillip Bay — he had already planned the swim, but Baillieu's advisers were probably very happy at the prospect. Images of the premier-in-waiting striding from the sea at Brighton would make for great copy. Baillieu, who is a regular at the Hawthorn pool, probably just wanted to blow off some steam.
What is it about swimming that has penetrated so deeply into the nation's psyche? The outback may be the most familiar landscape in our imaginings, but it is the seaside that has captured the vast majority of the Australian population in practice. Eighty-five per cent of Australians live within an hour's drive of the ocean, and swimming is part and parcel of our childhoods.
Then there are the swimming stars, who from before Federation have burst on to the international scene and captured the nation's hearts and pushed along the cause of Australian competitive swimming.
In the beginning it was largely the women. In 1902, Sydney woman Annette Kellerman won her first swimming title, the ladies' 100 yards and mile championships of New South Wales. From there Kellerman built an international career around her swimming — travelling to England and attempting to swim the Channel, and becoming a film star in Hollywood dubbed the "Australian Mermaid". She campaigned for women to wear less cumbersome swimming attire, casting off the skirts and bloomers her society demanded.
Kellerman paved the way for other women swimmers, who became the first Australians swimming for Australia to win Olympic gold and silver (the first Australian to win Olympic gold was Freddie Lane, but he swam for Britain in the Paris games of 1900). Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie took the medals in the Stockholm games of 1912 after winning the right to compete. Women were largely excluded from the early modern Olympics, gaining access to events incrementally. The year 1912 saw the introduction of some women's diving and swimming, but the Sydneysiders faced opposition at home from authorities who disapproved of "mixed bathing".
Ultimately, public support won out and the women took their spots in the team. And so, from almost the beginning of the modern games, we have come to expect Olympic gold from our swimmers, who often deliver an impressive haul.
And they in turn have dedicated many hundreds of hours to the pool. So much time, you might think, that on retirement they would hang up their cap for good. But in recent years we have seen some champions emerge again — sometimes flabby, always eager — and attempt to get back to the top of the heap.
When Ian Thorpe announced his retirement in 2006, he said it was because swimming was no longer his top priority. Aged 24 — young enough to stay in the game — Thorpe walked away because he said his life lacked balance.
"You can swim lap after lap staring at a black line and all of a sudden you look up and see what's around. That's what it feels like to me," he said. "What would my life be like without swimming? It's a very, very dark question for me… I haven't balanced out my life as I should."
After failing to qualify for this year's summer Olympics in London, Thorpe expressed his desire to continue to compete. His form, a long way from its Sydney and Athens heyday, had not returned as he hoped, but his passion for the pool has. He told the Sydney Morning Herald after the trials that he never had expected to be back in the pool — it had caught him by surprise.
"Literally the day before, I had no intention of swimming again, I never thought I would. It's one of those things: when I stopped swimming, I wasn't loving it, so I'm really glad that I've returned to a point where I love what I do again," Thorpe said.
Thorpe, who won five Olympic gold medals in Sydney and Athens, says he will continue to train for next year's world championships, and he hasn't ruled out persisting with the Olympic dream as far as 2016. He has the bug, again. So too Geoff Huegill, who also missed out on a spot in the London team after a long and public comeback road.
Libby Trickett, another comeback kid, was more successful. She'll be on the relay team in London.
"This whole journey for me has been probably more challenging emotionally and spiritually and mentally than it has been physically," she said after her qualifying swim in Adelaide.
But you don't have to be an Olympic medallist to feel the pull of the water, or to revel in its charms.
When, after two months' confinement following an unfortunate car accident in late 2009, I finally was able to walk again, I just wanted to go for a swim. My left hip — dislocated then relocated and treated with kid gloves — needed strengthening. So, after a gap of many years I returned to the back-and-forth of lap swimming. The wonderful solitude. The singular responsibility. I returned half-heartedly and on cold days I gave up, but the seed was firmly planted.
In gregarious, gorgeous Sydney the ocean is everywhere. Moving north last November it was the beach that called. Real surf. Expanses of sand. Imposing headlands. Rocky outcrops. And ocean pools, beaten smooth by the waves from Coogee to Bondi. "Sydney. Everyone there wears resort wear," a black-clad Melburnian dryly observed.
It was meant to be an insult, but I don't think I mind.