‘My Freedom Day triumph’

2009-04-27 00:00

Five, four, three, two, one … By the time our relay team eventually started the 7,5 km race from Robben Island to Bloubergstrand on Sunday, the suspense had become unbearable. Already the race had been postponed by a day because of rainy weather. Now, our 10.30 start had been delayed by more than three hours because of serious fog. We were not amused. Being full of adrenalin with nowhere to go is no fun.

We had dropped our first swimmer to catch the ferry to Robben Island and then launched our boat at the Waterfront. We set out — the remaining three swimmers, our skipper and a second — to the island. Things were not looking good. The fog was so bad that we could barely see in front of us. Our GPS helped. Then came the interminable wait.

“Freedom Swim delayed due to fog. Wait for next SMS.” Then: “Fog is lifting. Expect an 11 am start. Wait for next SMS.” Then further delays until we ran out of jokes, rusks and conversation.

Tension set in.

At 1.36 pm our first swimmer — 16-year-old Western Cape water polo player Nicholas Melck — ran into the water from the beach at Robben Island as we watched anxiously from our boat.

The big trick at the start of such a race is to find your swimmers and follow them closely. If they get cold, they need to climb on to that boat and warm up with space blankets and hot coffee — and they need to do it quickly.

Our strategy worked. By sending out our fastest swimmer, we had a head start in front of most of the other boats. With 260 swimmers — a record field for the Cadiz Vista Nova Freedom Swim — we had to take swimming traffic and boat traffic into account.

We were well ahead when we pulled Nick out and sent in our second swimmer, Clare Hugo. A year out of school and a complete natural in the water, she is one of those infuriating people who can swim for hours in cold water, jump out, and carry on with life without a shiver.

Our third swimmer, Michael Melck, put in a valiant swim for 25 minutes. He got out and started that familiar shivering and shaking that, after months of training, we have come to expect as part of the sport.

For months now, every Saturday before sunrise, our little group of swimmers has been traipsing on to Clifton Four beach, carrying take-away coffee in one hand and goggles in the other.

Under the watchful eye of coach Anton Louw, with his orange Crocs, we have swum up and down the coast in a bid to get used to temperatures of 13°C — and sometimes even 10°C. The cold-water training has to be done on top of the endless kilometres we put in at the gym, because if you can’t get used to icy temperatures, you can’t even think of Robben Island.

The idea to swim the 7,5km from Robben Island back to Cape Town first entered my head when I interviewed Louw for a story. A respected coach who trains some of the country’s top swimmers, he had decided to take on a group of drug addicts and show them they could turn their lives around by learning to swim — and work towards a Robben Island crossing.

His philosophy: “If they can do Robben Island, they will know they can do anything.”

Having swum religiously three times a week since I was at school, I immediately signed up with Louw to join his cold-water swimming group and to attempt an island crossing.

Then, as fourth swimmer, it was my turn. There is nothing more agonising than plunging into water that is so cold your head aches and your whole body stings.

It’s not uncommon to feel an almost unbelievable sense of panic. If you don’t harness your mind, you can soon convince yourself you are surrounded by sharks and you are going to die of hypothermia within minutes.

We each swam twice, and for the last 500 metres we all jumped in again to swim the final stretch together.

Our team made it in two hours and 15 minutes. We were all draped with medals and beautiful Robben Island towels, custom-made for all finishers.

We ran straight into the heated tent where we shivered and shook for what seemed ages, then chatted to the heroes of the swim. They were tiny schoolgirl Gigi Hock, who did her first solo swim at the age of 16, and the legends: Theodore Yach who has done 54 crossings, one for each year of his life; Andrew Chin, who swam without a cap; and the inimitable Natalie du Toit, who won the race overall as well as the women’s race and looked as if she had just done a few laps in the local pool.

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