Walking on water.
Island Challenge, Coogee
Aussie Ocean Swim, Coolangatta
The great life skill of ocean swimming
Thinking about Sunday's Island Challenge at Coogee, we were reminded of a stop-work meeting we attended with a horde of pinko hacks in Canberra in 1980. The executive of the Canberra branch of the Australian Journalists' Association occupied the dais, whilst the floor overflowed with a rank and file lusting for strike action. One of the executive on the dais, known for his ponderous journalism and verbosity, not to mention his drinking during stop-work meetings, attempted in response to a question from the floor to describe the profession. Indeed, was it a profession? Was it a trade? Was it just a job?
As the empty beer glasses accumulated in front of him, he trailed off, a far-away look in his eye, as he groped in his inner monologue for the right word. Moving on, a stream of rabid hacks, frothing, their beers spilling in agitation, arguing from the floor for an instant strike that would deal a blow to the proprietors where it hurt the most, the executive member on the dais would think of another word... "Art?...", he interjected, trailing off again, ignorant of his irrelevance -- the debate had moved on -- another beer glass plopping on the table amongst the collection in front of him, the high tide marks on its predecessors hardening into imprints by which we could measure the length of the meeting. Another rabid hack took the floor. Another call for instant action, action that would indeed be instant. And a little bit softer now, a little bit softer now... "Calling!..."
He never did find the right word, but then he usually didn't even when he had hours to mull a story in quiet privacy. Reading his pieces was hard work.
It's a bit like that attempting to describe what ocean swimming means to us. Is it a sport? Is it a pastime? Just another leisure activity? A fitness or competitive obsession, as it definitely is for some?
Like most things in life, any object, thing or concept means something different to each and every one of us. It all depends on our parameters, our personal philosophies, if you like. We keep coming up with descriptors, none of which quite suffices. The closest is "an experience". It's an experience in chapters, much as Aquagirl styles her reports from Melbourne swims, each chapter inside a separate phase. Any experience in life is good if one learns from it. Ocean swimming experiences are no different. Each adversity, each personal triumph turns us into better swimmers and better, more rounded people. Or they should.
Why do we think of this? Why did we think of this as we loped around Wedding Cake Island on Sundee? Well, we didn't, really. We think of lots of stuff as we lope around swim courses, most of it disconnected babble in a disjointed mind. Then every now and again, there's a flash of insight, like a television set hanging on to a weak signal, and we perceive another insight into life's big picture.
Sunday gave us the kind of swim that makes this sport worthwhile, as indeed did Forster two weeks earlier: it was a bit longer than most, in benign, almost gentle conditions, a slightly rolling sea into us on the way out, undulating through us as we traversed the back of the island, and rolling through us, toe to top, as we headed back into shore. You couldn't call it chop; the wind wasn't strong enough for that. There was backwash off the island, which confused the swell behind it, but none of it was so sharp or sudden to throw one off our stroke. The easy conditions allowed us to drift off into another dimension...
Lope is the wrong word, too. Some people lope through a swim like this. Graeme Brewer, who won the Island Challenge on handicap, lopes through his fastest swims, not just his slowest. That's just his stroke. Kieren Perkins and Grant Hackett in their primes loped through warm-ups and warm-downs. Wally Eggleton, Kazimir Boskovic, and Josh Beard lope, even at full speed. But you could never accuse us of "loping". We don't so much "lope" as "barge"; "bash"; "churn" "...struggle". Yes, "struggle" probably is closest. We have a surfboat rower's stroke, instantly recognisable as both arms flailing widely, crash through or crash, the absolute antithesis to the Golden Fleece of streamline. Anyway, what is a "lope" to Coach Brew is a "struggle" to us, but as all things are relative, we are grateful for it.
Our "relative lope", then, around a longer course, in conditions that don't challenge the stroke too much, allows the mind to wander. Bills we haven't paid; emails to which we haven't responded (we mean yours, Parfait); that forgotten expiry on the parking meter. And we thought, inter alia, how lucky we were to be able to have this experience, just as we thought on the way from One Mile Beach to Forster Main Beach.
And we're lucky for myriad reasons. This weekend, this glorious swim came amidst fomenting debate in the meeja about the future of swimming pools. Oop north, Hornsby Council wants to close the Epping pool because it's old, worn out, and would cost too much to repair and maintain relative to the returns from users. They want to develop Hornsby pool, instead. Reports claim that 6,000 punters have signed a petition to the council to keep the pool open, and an Epping resident alleged, on the beach on Sundee, that the council had been "deliberately" running the pool down for three years, to create an environment in which closing it down would become an inevitability and a necessity. Perhaps he would say that. "Pool patronage has been dropping..." the council will say, justifying its decision as the only one possible with commonsense. A redeveloped, bigger facility at Hornsby will meet demand!
Something we've never seen before: the bloke in the middle has a harness with a GoPro strapped to his back. Should get some nice vision, provided his legs don't drop.
As attention descended onto Epping pool, other under-threat pools around Sydney emerged in the meeja, including that at Guildford. Now, we've never swum at Guildford, but we feel as if we know it intimately. Guildford is the home of the Guildford Institute of Sport for Mature and Elite Athletes, housing a small but enthusiastic sub-peloton of lane hacks once led by one of our fave ocean swimmers, Barry "The Lurv God" Lang. Or Barry told us of this institute, to which he claimed to belong, along with his sidekick, Terry Short. We wondered, metaphorically as we traverse the back of Wedding Cake Island, does council appreciate the history and the heritage of these places when making their bottom-line decisions to close local pools? Probably not. How many councils have heritage officers to whom they actually listen?
It's hardly surprising that so many pools are facing crises like Epping's and Guildford's. Many were built around the same time in the 50s and 60s. As little buggers, we were on a team of little community children who collected funds in the early 60s to build Stockton Olympic Pool. We earned a fountain pen with our name engraved on it for our efforts, and we still have it. We've never used it, but we still have it. It's precious to us. We vividly recall the opening of Swansea Olympic Pool, which is where we earned our first certificate attesting to the fact that we'd learnt to swim. Some years later, we watched Lyn Bell swim in the Fridee night club races at Swansea. Bell, already an Olympian, was the first good swimmer we'd seen in real life. The sight remains indelibly in our mind's eye.
Local pools are important elements in community infrastructure.
Now, 60-70 years on, these pools need major refurbishment or redevelopment, which costs councils a lot of money. Other councils have faced these crises, resolving them sometimes by turning their pools into multi-disciplinary community fitness and health centres. Our best example is Sutherland, which was expanded 20 years ago from a 50m outdoor pool to two outdoor pools, 1 x 50m and 1 x 25m, an indoor pool of 25m and 50m, a gym, multiple exercise rooms for different disciplines, sauna, etc, etc. Since then, you've had to battle to get a park to get into the joint, so successful it is as a community facility fostering health and fitness around the community and teaching people, young and old, to swim. We once almost destroyed Stra'as chances of winning the Ashes because, on the way into Sutho for our learn to swim classes (we were a teacher, not a student), our attention distracted by our phone screen, we almost bowled over Steve Waugh, there with his daughter for a swimming lesson (not our class). It was literally days before he left, as cap'n of the Stra'an, team for the UK. Sutho is where we turned level with Thorpey. We started well before him; we finished well after him; but we turned level. Ah, Sutho. So many happy times...
Our only gripe with Sutho is that, over the years, the managers have turned what was one of the best pool shops in the metropolitan area, with a wide array of goggle brands, into one of the worst, due principally to the shrinkage in the number of brands that it stocks in the shop, and the withdrawal of the shop from an open, public area inside the pool complex to a behind-the-counter affair that offers nothing in the way of convenience or opportunity. The domination of public pool shops by one or two brands is one of the great cankers on public administration in the modern age.
Another canker is a public pool without a swimming club attached, which also means without a coaching operation linked in. Stra'a's formidable reputation for swimming springs from the network of local, public pools with swimming clubs and coaches. Too many nowadays exist without either. A healthy pool is one catering to all from littlies learning to swim through adults who never learnt to swim, but at last are now. The swimming club is one of the community's life bloods in Stra'a. So why have so many died out? We reckon one of the main reasons is contract management of pools. In too many cases, councils contract out their pool management to organisations that exist, as commercial operations do, to make a buck. That means cutting costs, which contract managers seem to place as a higher priority than boosting revenue. We reckon that's why Crummy Drummy isn't cleaned properly. We've seen no evidence in years that the contract managers actually use cleaning products in the change rooms. A quick hose out, leaving the seats wet so that you can't use them, is about all the joint gets. We bowled up there for early morning squad one morning to find the mess from the previous day's school swimming carnival still scattered across the bleachers, complete with pharmaceuticals. We kid you not: someone had left tablets amongst the mess, which hadn't been cleaned up, with the next day's school carnival arriving in a couple of hours.
There's one in every starting wave. The bloke at right perhaps wishes he wasn't standing next to him.
This is one of the other great cankers of public administration: the fixation with contract management, which turns local pools into profit centres. Most of them can't live up to it.
One of the best aspects of Sutherland pool is that it's run by council itself. No hoity-toity tugging of the forelock to that great canard of public administration, "the private sector can run it better". Under a dogmatic Tory council in the 90s, shortly after the pool was redeveloped, Sutherland "outsourced" its garbage collections, awarding the contract to one of Stra'a's biggest transport groups. The result was disaster, ushering in a period of the most unreliable garbage collections in our memory. Garbage trucks often would not turn up at all. Waste collections were run by the bottom line, not by the need to provide an essential community service. After a couple of years of this rubbish service, when the numbers changed, Sutherland Council took the waste collection service back in-house, where it remains. This is not to say that financial management is not important; it is to say that public authorities have more concerns than profit and loss.
Sutho's disastrous foray into contracted garbage services comes from the same myopic dogma that blinds councils to pool management. It all began in NSW with the Local Government Act 1993, one of the great philosophical tropes of the Greiner gummint and the academic theorists wot ran it, which tried to separate elected councillors from day to day council management, and to foster "good management" as measured by financial results. Council functions were divvied up into "purchaser-provider" roles, in which every function inside the council was one or the other, either providing a service or buying a service, and everything they did had to balance out financially.
That's all well and good in the private sector, where all that matters is the periodic results and the return to shareholders. But public bodies have other responsibilities, which are difficult, sometimes impossible, to quantify if you wish to slot them into a set of books. Community benefit, say. How does a council quantify the benefits of a vigorous, popular local pool offering an array of services all of which contribute to an overall improvement in community health? If the community is more active and healthy, perhaps the benefits can be felt in a corresponding reduction in the burden on the local health system, which is a state function and a different set of books.
Councils are there to provide community infrastructure that contributes to the community's overall good. You cannot measure that just in money; just in profit and loss; for the community's overall good manifests in myriad ways in which a healthy community functions. It can't be represented simplistically in profit and loss.
At the same time, the public sector – both politicians and managers -- has been bludgeoned into a fear of debt.
It's one thing to prefer your boardies to your budgys, but where's your cap? It's a matter of safety. Awgies should be watching out for this.
Debt is a critical tool available to governments that wish to do things that return benefits well into the future; things that aren't just about this year's financial results. Debt is how governments fund community infrastructure with the burden of paying for it falling on the generations that will benefit from it rather than just the current, sad, usual suspects, many of whom will have carked it by the time the benefits kick in. Such as bridges, libraries, airports, and national broadband networks. As such, debt should be respected and managed as a tool, not denounced as evil, as the meeja commentariat and shock jocks would have us believe, focused as they are purely on who won today's points. Debt is as legitimate a tool of community and financial management as keeping the books. But because we're all told that "debt is evil", gummint at all levels is scared to use it to do things such as turning Epping pool into a multi-disciplinary community health and fitness facility with unquantifiable but undoubted benefits for generations into the future, particularly those that find the hike up to Hornsby too far – as it is – for everyday use. Gummint is scared to use debt because it is scared of criticism. It is scared of criticism over debt because shallow thinkers with loud voices will damn them for it and the public authorities themselves lack the philosophical conviction and the vision, at all three levels of gummint, to argue the case. It's just all too hard, and they're all too scared.
Anyway, this is the kind of stuff that goes through one's inner monologue out the back behind Wedding Cake Island. The wonderful thing about ocean swimming – one of the many wonderful things – is that councils cannot close down our beaches, not permanently, anyway. Newcastle tried hard with their shark scare earlier this season, but in the end the beach is still there and must be re-opened. Full marks to Nobbys-Newcastle awginizah Lee Howes, an artist, for pressing ahead with her swim in the face of pressure against it. Councils can stuff beaches, of course. Coogee is in Randwick local government area, and Randwick is the council that redeveloped the Coogee beach surrounds a few years ago but forgot to include a public loo and showers. They made up for it subsequently in a half-arsed way, and the facilities at Coogee remain one of the worst of any beach in Sydney. They're a disgrace. We were told by an insider at Randwick council, that when they planned the redevelopment, "we forgot" to include the loos and showers.
A fundamental skill
The other great opportunity offered by longer swims in benign conditions, such as Coogee on Sundee, is to practise one's fundamental skills. We talked about this after Forster, two weeks ago. But there is one particular, fundamental skill that we didn't raise then.
This particular skill is absolutely critical to ocean swimmers. It is the ability to disengage the lower half of the body during the swim while the upper half of the body keeps swimming. That is, the arms keep swimming, but everything from the waist down clocks off.
Think about it: swimming is a whole-of-body activity, in which the arms and legs, and the core, work together, in co-ordination, to propel you through the water. Try doing it with only the top half of your body contributing (paraplegics have to do this all the time, of course, which is why some use pull buoys to keep their legs up). Try it next time you're out there in the water: as you're swimming along, try to disengage your lower half: turn off your body from the waist down.
This is no easy thing to do; no straightforward skill to master. If you're a bloke, the first thing that happens is that your legs drop. That throws your balance out, and you lose your stroke. We've done this in the past – disengaging the lower half -- on many occasions, but there's a big difference, we discover, between doing it when you're just out there having a swim, and doing it during a race.
Upper echelons of the fos series follow their leader, not the bloke in front, but the big, loping bloke behind, who went on to win this swim on handicap. Note, he's wearing budgys, not your fancy schmancy jammies.
The effect is different on men than on women, we suspect. But in a bloke, if you disengage your lower half, your legs stop. It's a common belief that blokes don't kick, and by and large they don't. So you might also think that turning off the legs might have no effect on a bloke. But when you do it, you realise that, while a bloke gets no great propulsion from his kick, it's important for his balance. A bloke's kick is token: but it's critical to providing the stability to allow the stroke to take place. When you disengage your body from the waist down, you disengage your legs, you disengage your kick, your legs drop, you lose your balance, and the arms lose the stability that underpins an effective stroke: you simply can't pull through with force.
When the pressure isn't on, this doesn't matter so much. But in a race, it means losing your momentum. So the skill is in disengaging your lower half while not losing your stroke or your momentum. It's a fine run thing.
That said, the skill of being able to disengage your lower half is particularly important in a long swim. To disengage your lower half, you must relax; let yourself go. It is the precursor to one of the most important requirements of a long swim: the ability to wee, and having a wee without stopping is one of the great skills of ocean swimming.
Off to the island.
Angela van Boxtel was at Coogee... Click here