Long distance swimming – one veterinarian’s obsession

Dr Oliver Wilkinson (BVSc 1997)

Back in the day, I remember swimming for Kendall Hall in the college swimming champs. As I recall our men’s relay team, ‘selected’ from all four of the available male swimmers in our year, won the medley relay race, which felt like quite an achievement for such a small college.

My swimming career started at a very young age, which set me up with a solid technique and a competitive desire to win races, but by the time I got into vet school in 1992, I was coming to the end of serious club swimming, having reached qualifying times for national competitions, but running out of time and enthusiasm for the amount of training required.

Aside for swimming for Kendall Hall, I did very little swimming during my university years. I picked it up again as a pleasant distraction from the stresses or being a new graduate when I started working in a new city - Adelaide. One of the benefits of picking up this pastime as a mature aged swimmer was discovering that competitive swimming existed beyond the swimming pool. Adelaide had a number of popular ocean races and as I had always enjoyed longer distance events they suited me rather well. I was even inspired by the members of the local swim club that would travel to Perth every year to swim the 20 km Rottnest Channel swim; a swim of such epic distance that I could only marvel at those that would tackle such a challenge.

In 2000, I moved to the UK to locum and travel around Europe. It was here that I met, fell in love and married my wonderful wife, Vickie. Vickie has many amazing qualities, but the one that inspired me the most in the early days was that she tackled and won many long-distance triathlons, eventually travelling twice to Hawaii to complete the Hawaiian Ironman. Not to be outdone, I thought I would take up triathlon too, but quickly discovered that, as triathlon involved three disciplines, only one of which I was actually good at, I was much better suited to stick with swimming! Still if my wife could do a 10-hour endurance race, perhaps I could do something similar, and as we were living in the UK, why not tackle the Everest of longdistance swimming - The English Channel!

To cut a long story short, I trained exhaustively for 9 months, swum about 1300 km in the buildup and achieved my goal in 2009. It was without a doubt the most unpleasant experience of my life! The English Channel is 33 km of very cold water, the swim is strictly non-wetsuit and the conditions, as you would expect in the UK, are usually variable at best. The swim took me just over 11 hours and by the end I was hypothermic and desperate for it to finish. I swore I would never do it again, it wasn’t exactly the sort of experience that inspires you to repeat the exercise. However, the mind is a funny thing, unpleasant memories fade, the sense of achievement remains and, if truth be told, the one thing I had discovered in the build-up to the English Channel was that I was actually rather good at very long-distance swimming. As part of my preparation, I had swum in several other long distance races around the UK and ended up winning all of them.

I returned to Australia the following year and decided to have a go at the Rottnest Channel swim. The water would be warmer, the sun toasty overhead and 20 km now seemed like a relatively short distance. I came a respectable 6th in a field of several hundred swimmers and it reignited a feeling of enjoyment, rather than unpleasantness, with the sport. With that in mind, I decided to tackle another of the great international open water swimming challenges - the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, a 45-km circumnavigation of Manhattan Island in New York.

In 2011, I lined up at the southern tip of Manhattan, jumped into the water across the Hudson River from the Statue of Liberty and headed off under the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a memorable swim, a lot more scenic than the English Channel and I did well enough to be invited back later in the year to take part in a two-person match race. The idea of the race was to take advantage of the fastest tides of the year to see if it was possible to challenge the 16-year-old record for the fastest lap of Manhattan. So as not to gain an advantage from each other, we were set off 11 minutes apart. The other swimmer, Rondi Davies, started first and completed her lap after 5 hours and 45 minutes, breaking the record by less than a minute. I finished 10 minutes after Rondi, breaking her new record by just 45 seconds. My record still stands today!

Since then I have swum between several of the Hawaiian Islands, including the Molokai Channel or Channel of Bones! A 42-km channel of wild, deep ocean, popular with tiger sharks. I’ve swum the Rottnest Channel again, coming second and watched a hammerhead shark glide effortlessly beneath me. I have swum across Lake Zurich in Switzerland, Lake Windermere in England (6 times), and the Gibraltar Straits between Europe and Africa.

Despite my promises to the contrary, I swam the English Channel a second time as part of a two person relay from London to Paris, with my wife. Vickie ran the 140 km from London’s Marble Arch to Dover (in 14 hours and 14 minutes), I swam across the Channel (9 hours and 8 minutes; this time in a wetsuit) and then we ‘relay’ cycled 290 km to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris (in 12.5 hours). It took ‘just’ 43 hours and 18 minutes of almost continuous activity!

Last year I swam a marathon distance (10 km) every day for 30 days in the local 50-metre pool/Lido. At some point, you have to ask why!

This year is the twentieth anniversary of our graduation year. I am tackling a surgical certificate to upgrade some of my skills and keep me motivated to stay at the top of my game, or at least a bit closer to it. Swimming has been a pleasant diversion from the day to day challenges of being a vet. Sometimes as you progress to being a practice owner and all that that entails a few extra diversions do you good!

Next month I will tackle the 30-km Catalina Channel off the coast of California. It is the third of what is called the ‘Triple Crown’ of ocean swimming, including Manhattan Island and the English Channel.

Sometimes I tell myself that this will be the last big swim, surely I can only put myself through this so many more times. Still it helps to have a goal, something on the horizon to work towards, and actually the swim is only a small part of why I do it. The training and the daily discipline of fitting in a hobby/pastime around work and all the other daily duties keeps me focused and motivated. If I didn’t swim I’d just have to find some other obsession and I already know I’m no triathlete!

You can see more about Ollie at www.olliechannelswim2009.blogspot.com