Ocean Swimming: What a Human Wash Cycle is Like

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When I saw the poster for the Balmoral Swim For Cancer, I was smitten.

I knew I had to do it, even though the last time I’d swum freestyle was for my swimming certificate at age five. Only 47 years before.

I could sort of do breaststroke – with head out of the water like a drowning gecko – and I was pretty sure that wouldn’t cut the mustard.

On the spot, I decided to learn to freestyle properly.

(Read how I did, with the help of the late, great, wonderful John Konrads.)

It didn’t occur to me that open water swimming might have other challenges.

In love

The safety of concrete at North Sydney Olympic Pool

Twelve months later, I was in love.

I had found the sport that I had longed for all my life.

It was sensational to be slicing (albeit very slowly) through the water, feeling safe and supported.

It was so clean and fresh, nothing like those frantic RPM classes at the gym, with eight sweaty cyclists in a tiny cubicle.

After 12 months, I was swimming eight kilometres a week, but open sea swimming was just as far off.

I was still a coward, doing safe laps in a 50-meter concrete pool, terrified of the open water.

Worse than drowning 

Sure, I’d been going to the beach all my life.

But ‘swimming’ was a quick splash between sun-baking sessions, maybe only for a minute. I didn’t even get my hair wet.

It wasn’t just drowning that scared me; it was all those other marine hazards, like sharks, blue bottles and jelly fish, not to mention kayaks and windsurfers. The list was endless.

Yet I had a nagging thought: if I was going to compete, I had to get into the sea.

Brave at Balmoral

Swimming at Balmoral in a small safe group

I started hanging around Balmoral looking for swimming groups.

There are a few, but I settled on the Balmoral Braves, a friendly, non-competitive bunch of all ages. I felt safe with them, mentally at least, but I still had to actually swim in the sea.

The first time I did, I was petrified.

There were about 10 of us, so I should have felt safe, but the water was deep, dark and cold.

It was like a living thing, moving in all directions, not smooth, clear and warm like at North Sydney Olympic Pool. No black line, either.

Short but Sweet

But there was no turning back; I’d told everyone that this day was the day.

I plunged in after the first few swimmers, making sure I was in the middle of the pack, just in case.

Bad idea. I kept colliding with everyone, then stopping to check where I was, getting even more in the way.

The Braves were very understanding and, eventually, I completed a 500-metre swim in open water. Short but sweet. A real milestone.

Like a dream

Within 3 months, I was swimming with this wonderful group around the island, between Hunters and Edwards Beach and back.

It was magical, swimming over rocks encrusted with oysters, the sun twinkling through the water and small fish darting between waving seaweed.

It was blissful, like a dream come true. (At least in summer. In winter I gave up when the water went below 18 degrees. No one else did.)

Race day

Before the Balmoral Swim for Cancer – still smiling.

There was nothing dreamy about the race.

I was prepared or so I thought. I’d swum double the course distance at Balmoral twice a week for a month. I was sure I’d be fine.

But, on race day, everything was different.

The beach was teaming with people, like a sea of lice in red caps. Thousands of people were jostling to register and get their caps and numbers in time. It was surreal.

When my age heat finally came up, I nervously dived in.

Nothing could have prepared me for what came next.

It was like being in a washing machine with hundreds of bodies, all churning around, swimming into and over each other. There were arms, legs and heads everywhere; I felt glancing blows to my body and head. It was nothing like swimming with the Braves.

I began to panic.

Grip or drown

Suddenly I thought: ‘What if I had a heart attack?’

In a flash, I saw myself sinking like a stone, being fished out of the water, Kim distraught over the lifeless body. In an instant, I realised I had to get a grip or I could drown.

I stopped, trod water for a few moments and tried to calm down. Everyone swam past me.

Then I started again, ever so slowly, focusing on every stroke, every breath, every kick as if I were doing drills in the calm, safe, warm water at North Sydney Pool.

It worked. Slowly, I felt the icy terror start to thaw.

The finish

At the end, I’m not the one smiling.

Somehow, I finished the race, dragging myself from the water and staggering over the finish line. (Later, I’d find I was last in my age heat. My time was double that of the winner.)

Putting on a brave face, I searched for Kim in the crowd. His arms felt so warm and safe.

He was so proud of me; I was not.

Once is not enough

A few months later I did it again.

A sucker for punishment? Well, I thought it might have been beginners’ panic; if I did a few races, maybe the terror would go away.

I wanted not to be scared and I had the perfect excuse.

John Konrads (my erstwhile swim teacher) was now living in Noosa. It was his birthday and there was an ocean swim on the same weekend.

He and Mikki had invited Kim and me to the party. What an opportunity. I was in.

A helping hand

The gorgeous water at Noosa on race day

The water at Noosa was aquamarine, clear and warm.

It felt buoyant and safe, just like the water at North Sydney Pool, but fresh and salty. I hoped this time would be different, but for no reason at all.

I’d told John about the nightmare Balmoral Swim; he knew I was more worried than I let on.

What an extraordinary man. In a blink, he decided he’d swim the whole race with me. Incredible.

(No registration for him of course; just imagine if the great former Olympian recorded a Tracey James time.)

With people milling around everywhere, John chose his moment and slipped quietly into the water.

Slow and steady

This race was totally different. The fear was gone (well, almost).

I focused on swimming, slowly, methodically, feeling safe in the warm, clear water, knowing John was swimming (albeit with half the strokes and zero effort) beside me.

Then I had a sudden flash: ‘How are we going to get out of this at the end?’

It was almost as if John had done this before. Judging by what he said later, maybe he had.

John Konrads or Bond?

Sprung! Noosa Swim finish.

Between breaths, John told me to go ahead and finish the race. I did.

A few seconds later, he popped out of the water, nonchalantly, as if being in a women’s heat was perfectly fine.

It was like that scene from Goldfinger, where James Bond emerges, shedding his wetsuit to reveal a tuxedo.

(A bit of trivia: John did do this once. He swam from North Sydney to Millers Point wearing a tuxedo under his wetsuit. Clearly, a James Bond fan.)


‘Is that John Konrads? It is. What are you doing here, John?’

As I heard the words over the public address, my heart stopped.

Cool as a cucumber, quick as a flash and not remotely out of breath, John said ‘Oh, just rescuing a damsel in distress.’

I was never in contention to win.

(Hah! What joke. I didn’t bother to find out my time but I know I was at the end. No matter).

It was a bit of a lark for John but a huge confidence boost for me. What a blast. What a lovely man.


I’m not doing any more ocean swims; my right shoulder is shot and surgery didn’t fix it.

Noosa – all smiles after the race.

Anyway, back then, I wanted to see if I could complete an ocean swim, not make them a ritual.

There’s nothing like swimming in open water. It’s addictive, awesome and magical as Julia Baird, who swims every day at Fairy Bower, describes in her book ‘Phosphoresence.’

11 years later, I’m glad I took the challenge and learned to swim later in life.

(I recommend swimming at any age but with a caution: if you’re over 40 and starting out, be gentle and increase your distance gradually. Unlike me, you might avoid serious injury).

I will be forever grateful for the wisdom, generosity and patience that John Konrads showed me, and I miss him greatly. He was so much more than a great champion.

I’m also chuffed that I completed two open water swims at the age of 54.

Sure, I was scared witless in one and, shamelessly, had help with the other, but who will ever know?

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Kim Brebach

Tracey James

Hello, I’m Tracey James, boomer, former scientist, technical writer and Fixer of Things at M&M. In my spare time, I like to walk, swim and garden.   

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