How I Started Open Water Swimming

How I went from zero to completing my first two swimming events in three months.

Table of contents

  1. The invitation
  2. Supporting a friend
  3. My swimming history
  4. The beach visit
  5. Practising on my own
  6. The first open water swim event
  7. Overcoming the fears
  8. The coaching sessions
  9. The second open water swim event
  10. My reflections
Fairy Swims

Sydney is a coastal city, blessed with countless beaches and temperate climate. As soon as the weather turns ever so slightly warmer many Sydneysiders typically flock to the beaches to swim and sunbathe. In the three years that I’ve lived here, I’ve not ever considered swimming in the ocean because I found, as someone who hails from the tropics, swimming in seawater temperatures below 25C is too cold for my tolerance. This was all about to change for me in 2018.

The invitation

“Would you be interested?” asked my friend Khairul over a text message to me in late December. He sent me a link to a website promoting a two-kilometre swim event in January at the Sydney Harbour Bay near the Opera House. Two kilometres, yikes! I baulked at the idea and instantly replied, “Euww no, lol.”

Khairul probably assumed since I liked fitness, I’d jump at the chance to throw myself into the deep end and do a swimming event. “It’s like a marathon, but two kilometres in water,” he tried to convince me. Huh, what?

I hesitated, then said that if I wanted to do it, I’d have to train much longer than the few weeks that we had left until the event day. “Open water swimming is messy as hell,” I told him.

“Messy why?”

“Have you ever seen a triathlon swim event start? People swim all over each other, you get kicked in the face and stuff, it’s not pleasant!” I explained with conviction, citing past experiences from friends and from what I’ve seen in videos. Plus, if we participated, we were going to be swimming among watersports-loving Australians who are like duck to water and swam like fish, we’d drown instantly in their wake.

“I haven’t swum in ages,” was my last defence to my friend. I then added, “At least in running, if you get tired, you can walk, what happens if you swim and then get tired?” Images of me bobbing aimlessly in the water appeared in my head because quite frankly I had no idea what swimmers did if their arms got tired while swimming in an event. Do they scream for help?

Supporting a friend

In the end, I wasn’t that lousy of a friend. Instead of just ignoring Khairul’s initial invitation, I promised him I’d come and support him in his maiden swim event at the Sydney Harbour Bay.

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Along with Yanti, we came as pom-pom girls on that beautiful summer day in January and cheered Khairul as the man came out of the water and got presented his hard-earned medal at the finishing arch. He looked tired at the end but also had a look of satisfaction on his face that only anyone who’s ever paid to join a sporting event for fun and completed would understand.

Video I made of Khairul’s first open water swim

I took some videos and photos and made a commemorative video log for Khairul as a souvenir. As I watched back the edited video, a curiosity hit me. Khairul had completed the two kilometres in the bay in under an hour (when the event allocated a generous 90-minute cut-off time). If he could do it with virtually minimal training (and by that I mean one open water swim practice), could I also achieve the same?

My swimming history

I first learned how to swim when I was eight years old when my family lived in the northern and dry state of Kedah. The pool was always a welcome respite from the heat. My parents were members of the local golf club there where they had swimming pools. I took swimming lessons there and learned the breaststroke and freestyle. Sometimes the pool had broken tiles on the floor and occasionally some of us kids in the group class would cut our toes on them!

I loved swimming a lot as a little girl and would do continuous laps for hours, then eat like a horse after. Some ladies at the pool would talk to my mom and ask, “Is that dark girl your daughter?” (because my mother is fair and sometimes mistaken for being Chinese, so they wondered). I was already a naturally brown-skinned girl and got even darker (Westerners would say “tanned”) from splashing outdoors in the hot tropical sun

Me after swimming at a beach in Tioman Island, 2001.

Anyway, I’m grateful to have learned this life survival skill at a young age, it’s much easier to learn swimming when you’re younger because you are less fearful and more adventurous. Kids will be kids, parents would scream bloody murder before their young ones would leave the water, if they could they’d stay submerged till their fingers wrinkled up like prunes.

After my childhood lessons, throughout my teenage and adult life, swimming was pretty much recreational and sporadic, you know – the odd dips and lazy laps here and there at hotel pools, friends’ houses and snorkelling in the open sea on beach holidays. In short, the activity was never a sporting thing for me.

The beach visit

It was finally during the summer in February that my intention to practise swimming again became more firmly resolved after a visit to Coogee Beach’s rock pool. There I had a ton of fun getting friendly with the waters and I absolutely loved it. My apprehension about Australia’s “cold ocean waters” seemed to have dissipated on this hot summer day.

My freestyle stroke was rusty so I resorted to breaststroking in the rock pool, and then later in the open sea, all afternoon till my back got so burned, despite putting on sunblock with SPF30. Australia’s sunshine rays are unforgivingly notorious so I’ve since switched to SPF50 sunblock and this works much better for me nowadays.

Well, sunburn aside, I knew I wanted to pick up swimming again. There was just so much fun to be had. Or was it?

Practising on my own

Targetting to do an event is a great way to motivate yourself to train consistently, so Khairul and I agreed that we would aim to do an event together sometime in April. We found one, the Coogee Island Challenge, it had a 1km and 2.4km event. We agreed to do the 1 kilometre. And so the practices in the pool started. I started with coming over to Khairul’s apartment and using his 25-metre pool there to do laps.

Later on, I located an Olympic-size (50-metre) swimming pool near my office so I started going there during my lunch breaks during weekdays to practise. When I tried to simulate a 1km swim for the first time (10 laps), I was almost discouraged. It was hard and so exhausting! How the heck did people manage to swim so far and still be strong?

One of my open sea practice sessions

I chose to ignore my voices of doubts so I continued to practise breaststroking in the pool for at least half an hour to 45 minutes on every visit. Every stroke mattered. The only time I didn’t/couldn’t swim was when I went away on vacation to New Zealand in mid-February for two weeks but I continued to practise promptly after I returned to Sydney.

On the weekends I aimed to hit the beach and practise swimming in the open sea with Khairul. I tried to work on my freestyle stroke here. I was thankful to have at least a swimming buddy, and in the interest of safety, it’s best to have one. Training always seems easier with a friend, no matter what sport you choose to do.

The first open water swim event

In early March, as I was browsing swimming resources online, I discovered an event called the Balmoral Swim for Cancer. They had a 1km and a 5km marathon swim and Balmoral Beach is located in a sheltered bay and not so openly exposed to the open ocean as say, Bondi Beach. The waves should be less choppy and good for beginners, I reasoned to myself. I excitedly told Khairul about my idea, “Hey, maybe we should try the 1km as an open water event to prepare for Coogee!” He agreed.

We signed up online a day before the event. The swim was to start at 10 am on a Sunday so we left home about three hours before the event started. We took the public bus because I didn’t want to deal with parking anxiety on the day.

When we arrived I was excited to pick up my swim cap at the venue (it was lime green) and had my number scribbled with a thick Sharpie marker on my right bicep. A nice lady at the booth helped me put on my timing chip on my ankle. The water that day was 23 degrees Celsius, and with the hot and sunny weather that day, that was actually a nice temperature to swim in.

Swim events are released in waves according to age group and every cap colour denotes that particular group. Just before it was my wave’s turn to go swim, Yanti made an appearance on the beach, she had come to support me, the angel! I was so happy to see her. She took pictures and videos.

1km swim route at Balmoral Swim for Cancer

When the gun went off for my age group, I ran to the water and dived into the waves. My heart rate rose up. The other swimmers were much faster of course and left me far behind. Before I knew it I was the second last person in my wave and it got lonely very fast.

About 200 metres into my swim, I had a panic attack as I realised I was already in very deep waters and my breathing was getting laboured. The mental game had started, I started to question myself, what the heck was I doing here in the middle of the ocean??

I remembered the advice my seasoned swimming friends and Ironman finishers Muneq and Mira gave me about swimming in open water: “Don’t panic!” I tried to calm down and gain composure when I saw a lifeguard on a surfboard. I decided to swim towards her and cling on to her board to catch my breath.

“Are you okay?” the lifeguard asks, concerned that I was having a panic attack. “I’m fine, just need to catch my breath,” I muttered, trying to sound nonchalant, yet feeling like a wreck.

“We can bring you back to shore if you like,” she assured me. The words echoed in my head and I was horrified at the idea of being taken to shore so soon after leaving it.

“No! I’ll be okay,” I said defiantly. I finally let go of the surfboard and resumed to swim again, but I can tell my form was really off because I kept wanting to keep my head out of the water. I was so scared of immersing my head in that deep water with nobody near me!

Now I have since learned that keeping your head out of water at an angle while you swim causes your legs to sink and you don’t swim very far per stroke. It is not a streamlined position and it’s a terrible way to move in the water. Putting my head down in the water in a position where I’m staring down at the sea bottom, however, will bring my legs back up and that is the best way to move forward. So eventually I knew I had to calm down and pretend I was in a giant swimming pool and do my breaststrokes like I would normally do during my pool practice.

I don’t know where I found the courage to do it but I managed to find a good pace and rhythm to pass all four buoys that were positioned on the course and completed the 1km swim. In the last 300 metres, there were more swimmers were around me as later groups that started after me began catching up. I felt somewhat at ease. My mind wandered off and I thought of two dear friends who I had lost to cancer (Gai and Zaza). I decided to use their memories as a motivation to finish strong. I was alive and I can do this, I can swim for others who no longer can.

A short video of my first OWS event

With that in mind, I brought myself all the way back to the shore, alternating between breaststrokes and freestyle. Then on jelly legs, as I exited the water, I wobbled through the finishing balloon arch like a drunken sailor. A female volunteer asked me if I needed a medic and I declined with a smile. The timing chip scanner registered my number and beeped loudly, snapping me back to reality. It was over!

Overcoming the fears

My first OWS (open water swim) event really felt as dramatic as I have described it. I understand myself a lot better now and why I was afraid of swimming in open water. It essentially all boiled down to lack of experience and practice, but apart from that, the fears were more deeply rooted in basic instincts.

First, it was the fear of the unknown of the deep water that caused me to panic. How deep was the water? Was I going to sink? Are there sea creatures that are going to come up and nibble at me? I was swimming in Australian waters, after all, sharks do get wide media coverage and for a reason!

There were sharks?? My reaction after the Balmoral swim…

Also, after about 100 metres out towards the open sea, you can no longer see the seabed and that’s when you truly know you’re out there. There’s no longer the comfort of knowing you can step on soft sand if you got tired and stand up, you were truly on your own.

This then brings me to my next fear, what happens if my arms get tired, what do I do then? At this point, the only way to survive is to keep swimming and if I can’t, I have to float, either through water treading (i.e. floating vertically in the water while sculling, or moving my hands in a figure-8 motion to help propel me) or float on my back. Neither option sounded enticing to me. Because I was breaststroking, my arms were not as tired as say doing the freestyle so I could still move forward without drama, just a little slower if I got tired.

After I was done at Balmoral, I knew that to be faster in the water I needed to relearn the freestyle. I also needed to also get over this fear of swimming in open water. I decided to seek help. I got myself a coach.

The coaching sessions

After some browsing online, I found a former triathlon champion and local coach named Spot from Bondi Fit who’s been coaching swimming for 30 years. I initially signed up for his 1-on-1 stroke correction class so that I can figure out why I can’t swim freestyle for more than 25 metres without feeling punctured. He asked me to bring a pair of flippers and a kickboard, both of which I had to purchase before I went to see him that Saturday afternoon.

After a brief introduction Spot asked me to show him how I swam the freestyle while he recorded me. As usual, I only lasted about 20 metres before I stopped. He spotted my issues and played them back to me on his phone. First, he said I was moving too frantically (“a lot of movement, exhausting myself and not going too far”), and that my attempts to breathe bilaterally (i.e. breathing on the left, and then on the right, after each third stroke) was unnecessary.

First, Spot told me to swim slow. No rush, he said, swimming slow is harder than swimming fast, and he was right. Secondly, his recommended method was to breathe on one side only, on the second stroke (“You get 50% more air that way!”). It sounded unconventional, especially after reading all these online resources telling me to breathe on both sides so that supposedly I will swim straighter.

The other important aspect of the freestyle breathing was the exhalation part. I relearned to exhale as I turned my head to breathe, not when my face is facing down towards the pool floor. This too was a fairly alien concept as I thought you always had to exhale when your face was in the water regardless where it was positioned.

Spot broke down the breathing corrections a bit more and made me do breathing exercises in a standing position on the shallow end of the pool where my face was facing down in the water. I had to turn my head to one side where one side of my goggles was in the pool and one side was out of the water as I breathed. This felt a bit like waterboarding because he held my head in place to make sure I was doing it right and if I didn’t time it properly I actually breathed in water. Tough love! But I knew this was the way I had to do it to learn how to turn my head properly to breathe so that it’s not raised too high and cause my legs to sink.

My fins and kickboard

The fins I wore on my feet helped to bring up my kicking legs so that I can concentrate on raising my elbows high on my arm strokes and execute proper breathing, and the floating kickboard was used for drills to isolate my arm movements (e.g. holding the kickboard with one arm extended and stroking the water with only the other arm, etc).

These concepts are probably a bit too technical for non-swimmers, but essentially these were some of the things I had to go through in order to relearn correct swim freestyle strokes which are important if I wanted to move efficiently in the open sea. Sure, I survived with breaststrokes in my first event but I knew I had to be more confident with the freestyle if I wanted to do better.

After this one hour 1:1 session, Spot invited me to come swim with his stroke correction squad the following Tuesday morning at 6 am. It was bloody early, but I paid and came anyway and got to experience what it was like to train in a squad. It was 14 degrees that morning (a bit chilly) but thankfully the pool was heated to a comfortable temperature (Olympic standard of 26-28 Celcius) so it was actually warmer to be inside the pool than outside! As many as 5-7 people shared a swim lane and the pressure is there to keep moving because you don’t want to cause a traffic jam.

I also went for another lesson that same weekend on Spot’s “rookie surf” swim session. I was late that day by 5 minutes and he was strict about it and gave me an earful (sorry, coach). There were three other ladies in the group who apparently had been coming to these surf sessions regularly (I remember two of their names, Pam and Lis). Basically, the session involves you swimming out in the open ocean at Bondi Beach and before that, Spot teaches and quizzes you on how to identify rip currents and surf waves, and how to use them to your advantage to move out to sea and back to the shores.

(Side note: When you’re swimming at a beach, it is important for you to know what a rip current is and what to do if you are ever caught in one. Too many people drown in rip currents because they don’t execute the right actions. To identify a rip current, look for the darker coloured water that sets it apart from the white water (i.e. “waves.”). If you want to know more, check out the rip education piece by the Bold and Beautiful swimming group over in Manly, they do a much better job of explaining this phenomenon and how to survive it than I can.)

During this particular rookie surf session, as I was swimming my way back to the shore on my last lap, I got stung by a blue bottle jellyfish (or “bluey”). I felt the stings on my face and left arm, it was like a blade cutting through flesh. Wondering what had hit me, I realised what it was when I saw a blue “wonton” floating to my left.

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The day I got stung by a “bluey”

Blue bottle jellyfish

When I finally made it back to the beach, I was handed over to the lifeguards who put me under a running hot shower (not urine, thank God!) to remove the jellyfish toxins. As I was showering, two toddlers with similar stings came crying with their dads, poor babies. David, the lifeguard who was attending to me, tried to calm down a little girl and pointed to the trail of red welts on my left arm to show her that I got a piece of the action too, only to make the poor kid cry harder!

Pam offered to stay with me for a little while as I was told by David to stick around at the beach for at least half an hour in case I had any other reactions to the sting. But thankfully I didn’t, so I left with Khairul thereafter (who had just arrived from finishing a swim at the nearby Icebergs rock pool) and we went to grab lunch together.

I guess the old adage remains true: no pain, no gain!

The second open water swim event

The eighth of April rolled around and it was the day of the Coogee Island Challenge. A few days before I had actually started to develop signs of fever, evidence by a nagging sore throat. Desperate to get well, I self-medicated and gargled down Betadine’s iodine throat gargle to reduce the infection – because if left untreated my tonsils will flare (I get pretty bad tonsillitis) and I’ll be sick for sure.

Fairy on Coogee Island Challenge Day

I told Khairul I might not swim on the day, pending on how I felt but said I would come with him, regardless. I picked him up that early Sunday morning and off to Coogee Beach we went.

We had not yet signed up but decided to assess the water conditions and do an on-the-spot registration if the waters didn’t seem scary. In Australia, you can still enter most sporting events on the day of in the early morning, just pay an extra $5-10. As we looked out to the horizon we could see the water was relatively calm and further out a bit you could see the pile of rocks that is Wedding Cake Island, the namesake of the event.

Khairul then turned around and slowly said to me, “I think I’m going to do something crazy, I’m going to do the 2.4km around the island.” I gawked, and then said, “Go for it!” I was going to stick to my original plan to finish the 1km, definitely wasn’t going to go out on a limb and extend the swim any longer than I was prepared for. The event organisers promoted the island swim as being an underwater visual feast as you approach it (not too sure what you’d see there, abundant marine life, beautiful coral reefs?) but waters are a bit rough out there, so it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.

Coogee Island Challenge course map

So along with 400 late registrants, we both signed up at the booth and got red swimming caps for our age group of 30-39. The caps didn’t have the event branding on them as the Balmoral one did but that’s okay. I decided to wear two swimming caps and wore my black one first before putting on the red one. This was so my head would be kept warmer under the water because I was still feeling a bit feverish but nothing too unmanageable. Not sure if it was from my tonsils still recovering or that I was feeling sick from the excitement. Nonetheless, I was hoping the swim would do me some good therapy.

“Hey, you’re here!” I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and a female voice behind me. It was Lis, whom I had met the week before at the rookie surf class in North Bondi. I said hello and shortly after I saw Coach Spot, who called me over to come and do a few warm-up swims with Lis. He made us dive out into the ocean and swim about 20 strokes and back to shore to loosen up our muscles and get acquainted with the cool water. I estimated the water temperature to be in the low 20’s, cooler than it was at Balmoral just three weeks before.

Lis and I before our warm-up

There were a dozen other swimmers too who coached with Spot, and he herded us all for a group photo before the gun went off. The man had already swum 3 kilometres that morning (as a warm up!), and later I found out he was going to do the 1km AND the 2.4km at Coogee! You had that option to do that in this event, and you still pay the same price for it ($50). I think the people who actually do this are downright mad but totally AWESOME!

This Coogee swim event had more than 1,000 swimmers so there were many waves to flag off. When it was my turn to go, I dove in confidently and started with about 10 breaststrokes before breaking into freestyle and swimming towards my first buoy. I remember feeling in control of my breathing and felt calm as the water got deeper. I concentrated on my strokes and there were still other swimmers who shared my pace, so it was not as lonely as I expected. The water felt cold and refreshing on my face and I had to draw deep sharp breaths to inhale.

An important part of open water swimming is being able to look up from your strokes quickly to sight your buoy markers so that you’re on the right track. Since I was swimming in freestyle more in this event, I could not see the buoys as frequently as I did than if I was in breaststroke mode so I decided to briefly switch to breaststroke mode to sight and catch my breath and then continued to freestyle after. Sighting during freestyle is a skill I definitely need to practise more on.

I was going at a good pace but I think I approached the buoys too closely because I definitely got brushed against, elbowed and kicked by some male swimmers who took a tight corner. Coach Spot advises his students to take a wider left (if the buoy had a right turn) so that we’d stay clear of such a commotion. I’ll have to remember this for next time.

As I approached my second last buoy I could somewhat see the bottom of the sea, the shore was coming nearer. I continued on until I saw the last buoy, a black and white checkered one. I exited the water and ran up the beach as fast as I could carry myself and past the balloon arch and the timing scanner mat went off. I stopped my Garmin watch and was pleasantly surprised that I managed to shave off four minutes off my previous one kilometre swim time in the open sea! Later on, the official results online confirmed it, I had a new personal best for the 1k!

Coach Spot was there at the finish line to take my photo as I came in. I gave him a big hug after, saying thank you and that I was happy with my swim. The coaching sessions with him and my hard work of practice sessions paid off. My swimming is getting more efficient!

The day of Coogee Island Challenge

(After throwing my red swimming cap into the recycle bin, I went to see Khairul off as his wave got into the water to start the 2.4km swim. I then showered and got changed while I waited for him to finish his 2.4km swim. Below is the video of his comments about the swim, if you’re curious.)

A rookie’s comments about the 2.4km swim at Coogee

My reflections

These last three months have been quite an adventure in the water and rekindled a pastime that I once loved as a child, all because a friend asked me to do what I thought was mission impossible. Long distance open water swimming is not for everyone. I understand why some people would be afraid to venture into it, it definitely calls for nerves of steel and plenty of mental and physical preparation as I’ve discovered on this journey. You have to be comfortable in the open water and it’s a skill that that needs to develop over time with a good support system (e.g. friends with experience, coach, beaches with lifeguards, etc).

Honestly, I’m still a bit terrified of it. But once you’ve found your groove, OWS is actually a relaxing sport, you almost feel primitive and close to nature, and swimming in big groups is both exciting and calming at the same time.

I nearly expected this, and true enough, when friends knew I’ve done a swim event, they tell me to go buy a bicycle to enter triathlons! I think people have this perception that swimming is the hardest part of the swim-bike-run sport so once you’ve got that bedded down, the other land-lubber parts are supposedly easier. I honestly have renewed respect for triathletes, it’s hard enough to do a swim, but to throw in cycling and running into the mix? Madness. I don’t know if I want to do a triathlon at this point, I find training for it very time consuming, apart from the expensive gear purchasing! Who knows maybe at a different juncture in my life I’ll find the motivation to do it.

During this endeavour, I’ve learned a lot of things about swimming at the beaches in Australia, particularly around safety, for example: swim between the red and yellow flags put up on the beach (that’s the vision of sight that lifeguards are patrolling and can keep an eye on you). Don’t swim during dawn or dusk when sea predators like certain species of juvenile sharks could be in the area and take a curious bite out of you (as did happen to a woman in Congwong Beach). And if you’re ever caught in a rip current, don’t try to swim against it, just follow the flow and keep floating and keep calm, until you get to swim yourself back to shore via another way (or else raise your arms for help).

With my second swim event at Coogee done and dusted, I caught the tail-end of the swimming season here in Australia as the weather gets cooler into mid-autumn. There are still some open water events running until at end April/early May. The sea waters are beginning to feel cooler and winter will roll around by June here in the southern hemisphere. I’ve also recently purchased a beginners 5mm triathlon wetsuit to experience and learn how to swim in one, in anticipation of cooler waters.

I most likely won’t be looking at any more swim events until later in the year when winter is over. If my state of mind and physical conditions permit, I would like to do another swimming event, and who knows if the timing is right, maybe even prepare for an aquathlon (swim-run event) in the future. So to keep myself in good shape, I’ll continue heading down to the swimming pool as often as I can to practise my strokes. I don’t want to have to go through a crash course again to get these swimming arms into working shape!

I’ve also accepted that it’s okay to be afraid of something, it’s what makes you human. But if you truly want to overcome these fears, there are four things you can do: believe in yourself, practise, don’t panic, and in the words of Dory the fish, JUST KEEP SWIMMING!

My tips: Believe in yourself, Practise, Don’t panic and Just keeping swimming
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Hi! I am Fairy from Petaling Jaya, Malaysia - currently residing in Sydney, Australia. This blog contains write-ups on my fitness adventures, whether it's running, swimming, hiking, Zumba, whatever! If I sweat, I write! As a young adult in my twenties, I led a relatively sedentary lifestyle before I had an awakening in 2011. I was overweight by age 30 and finally decided to turn my life around, so I started to reclaim my health back by losing 20 percent of my then body weight by playing dance and fitness video games! I've not looked back since and now happily lead an active lifestyle. If you want to get in touch with me, please email me at fairy[at] or DM me on Instagram @myindo. Thanks for stopping by!

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