Last weekend I participated in a photo shoot in my swim bikini for some stock photos under the theme of “gritty women of sport”. The production company approached our open water swimming group and I thought it sounded like a fun and easy way to make some extra money. All we had to do was run into the water, dive, and walk out slowly adjusting our goggles while we laughed at each other. Basically, a typical Saturday morning for me except that they were taking lots of videos and photos of us. It all seemed a bit far removed from the theme of “gritty women of sport” though. But the concept made me reflect about how being an open water swimmer (in your bikini nonetheless) in Cape Town, South Africa did require some true grit.

In the last few months I have…

  • been stung seven times by jellyfish with the worse being on my mouth which left my lips swollen and puffy for days (instant Botox) …
  • battled with the freezing Atlantic Ocean with temperatures ranging from 9-14 degrees Celsius and felt cold to my bones and exhausted for hours….
  • had to dig deep and push through for the last kilometre of each of my two long distance swims (7.5km and 9km respectively) when my body was tired and my shoulders ached…
  • swam in massive swells against the current with my heart racing as each swell picked me up.

And last Sunday, I walked over a bed of sea urchins at the start of a 2.5km sea swim race, finished the race with sea urchins embedded in my left foot, and ended up in the emergency room the next day to have them painfully dug out of my foot. Not to mention having to deal with the constant questions from casual observers about great white sharks which feature in Cape Town waters. Yes, I do sometimes think about them when I swim and it terrifies me but I have yet to see one.

The worst experience still has to be when we were swimming against the current for a long-distance swim around Cape Point about two years ago. We hit a wave or wall or squadron (or whatever you call a mass collection) of blue bottles (Portuguese-Man-of-War) for an hour and a half at the end of our swim. I must have been stung over 50 times. I was crying underneath my goggles and had to constantly pull off the long tentacles that were wrapped around me to keep on swimming. I’ll admit there was some sobbing from the pain when I got out after the swim. But I still finished the swim.

And all of this could have been avoided if I had chosen to stay on the couch or done my exercise within the safe confines of the gym. Although I hear athletes foot is always a possible risk at the gym.

But I cannot stop swimming. The ocean calls to me with an irresistible pull. And so, I am learning from my older and wiser fellow women swimmers about how to better handle these knocks. Regardless of what happens during the swim there is no drama, no complaining, no screaming or freaking out and definitely no tears. It is all endured in stoic silence and they always finish the swim. And despite the layers of toughness and endurance, the innate sensitivity is still retained. The celebratory hug at the end of a long swim, worrying about other swimmers when the swells are big and holding the space for each other when our hearts are broken. It’s the framework of sensitivity and softness which makes the depth of the reserve and sheer strength of the women who swim in the open water all the more compelling.

Some days I think I am almost there to being a “gritty woman”.


Some home remedies for sea maladies

·       Blue bottle stings: Soak in hot water for at least 45 minutes

·       Jellyfish stings: immediately apply vinegar and also soak in hot water

·       Sea urchin spikes: there are various remedies like olive oil and hot water, papaya, vinegar           and 8-xtract cream but eventually mine had to be taken out with a needle.