Immerse yourself in swimming culture after moving to Australia

SYDNEY, Australia – The spring sun may be warm, but the Pacific Ocean off the edge of Sydney is like an ice tray. I ducked my head and tried to breathe in a steady rhythm as I swam faster than usual to warm up, keeping an eye on a few people swimming my way along the rocky shore.

As the distance between us shortened, we both stopped and seemed to be pointing at each other. I lifted my head.

“Bull ray,” said one of them, a woman about my age in an orange swimming cap. I peaked underwater. It was midtide, clear blue water, but all I could see were rocks and sand about 10 feet deep below.

“Where?” I shouted as I regained my senses.

“Right there!” She pointed directly at me. “Right under you!” I pushed deeper on my next dive, and then I saw it: a stingray wearing a black blanket, wider than my height, its wings fluttering at the edges as if it were right. was taken off.

My heart races with, what – fear, surprise, appreciation? Maybe all three. Stingray most are docile creatures, but their spines are venomous. I’m pretty sure one of them was responsible for the death of Steve IrwinAustralia’s Nature Superstar.

I’m not Steve Irwin. Before moving from Brooklyn to Sydney in 2017 to open the New York Times office in Australia, I was a docile innkeeper. I would take a dip in the ocean a few times a year, relax around and then rest on a beach chair. My version of exercise includes running four miles, three times a week.

But in Australia, something has changed. I went from ignoring swimming to hating it to craving the feeling of being in the water, relaxing my body and mind with the creatures and currents of the ocean. Two years ago, I tried to be a volunteer lifeguard on one of Australia’s most dangerous beaches. These days, I surf or swim in the Pacific Ocean four or five times a week.

I made it there only because the people around me, from my neighbors to my children, insisted on me participating. “Try it,” they said. Let go of individualism and journalistic distance, give in to the pressures of Australian friends and embrace something American life rarely celebrates: expertise.

The word simply means “skillful to do.” No exception, no superiority. Completely proficient. In Australia, that’s the level of competence required of all 181,000 volunteers patrolling the country’s beaches alongside smaller squads of professional lifeguards. Grandma, triathlete, politician and immigrant, we all became proficient after six to eight weeks of group training in flows and rescue, CPR, shark bites, jellyfish stings and resuscitation.

Ocean swimming is a prerequisite – and a starting point for something deeper. For me, proficiency in the water has become a source of liberation from the religions of indignation and optimization on land. In the sea of ​​ups and downs, I can be imperfect, playful, apolitical, and happy as long as I’m moving. As a father and a citizen, I often wonder: What would the world be like if we all found a place of risk and reward that requires humility, where we can’t talk or tweet. , where we have to do better?

The communal, sea-savvy culture I had in Australia dates back 50,000 to 65,000 years ago when some of the continent’s first inhabitants crossed the bridges on land and in the sea to the northern tip of the land.

Australia’s surf rescue has begun in Sydney with men like John Bond, a soldier and medical officer who assembled and trained a few local swimmers around 1894. Commanding and dressing up in photographs, he is a revered figure. when he landed, and so did I – in Bronte, a coastal suburb of Sydney that surrounds a small beach where the southern bulge often produces waves 12 feet high and where currents have can move at the speed of an Olympian.

I came to Bronte because the public school teaches Spanish – something my children, ages 8 and 6 when we arrived, had mastered in Mexico and at their bilingual school in Brooklyn. At our new home, they have another language to learn. About nature. About a world where the sublime and the terrifying blend together.

Australia’s national anthem describes the country as “girt by sea.” Worldwide, about 40 percent of the population lives within 100 kilometers, about 62 miles, of an ocean; in australia, 85 percent of the country’s 25 million people live in half that distance. Speedo began operations here in 1914, and even inland – in arid towns the color of smog – public pools are as popular as playgrounds. Somehow, swimming seemed to be everywhere and expected by everyone. In Bronte, most people seem to know someone who tried swim across the English Channel.

For my son, Balthazar, known as Baz, and his sister, Amelia, the integration process began with a grassroots lifesaving program called Nippers. For generations, it has been a Sunday ritual. Thousands of nippers aged 5 to 14 hit Australia’s beaches between October and March to race in the sand, swim deep into the ocean and practice using life boards. The cute name doesn’t begin to understand what action looks like – every age has its own colored swim cap; Each child has his or her name on it and a neon pink rash guard, better known in Australia as rashie. Parents trained as lifeguards guide them in the water, wearing orange hats to brighten the scene.

The first time I saw it, I wanted to laugh. It reminds me of Baz Luhrmann, the Australian director of great films like “Strictly Ballroom” and “Moulin Rouge!

But the longer I stayed, the more I thought of it as a summer camp (or boot camp?) for courage and community. The kids pushed each other to get all the work done. Together they face the storm. Fear and tears are simply ignored, not taught, not rejected.

One day, my son found himself at the center of it all. He was riding a board inward, bobbing in waves twice his height until he reached the fault zone. A wave lifted him and – with the force of a freight train – crashed him to shore, flipped him over the sand and glided away.

I ran to him, trying to calm my racing heart as a bunch of teenage girls surrounded him first. “Best wave of the day,” said one. Baz could barely breathe, his face filled with tears, tears and sand. A few minutes later, he smirked proudly and was ready to move on.

My daughter is even braver – she’s the one who convinces her skilful friends to jump off cliffs or go for a long swim or another ride on the life board.

And then it was my turn. Baz challenged me. Amelia concurs: Dad needs to get a Bronze Medal, lifesaving degree earns rashie orange.

It’s time to become proficient.

Many people who have been swimming for sport or exercise since they were young have written and spoken about it with a sentiment usually reserved for romantic poems.

My approach favors four-letter words.

On my first attempt to qualify for Bronze Medal training, I failed. I couldn’t swim 400 meters in less than nine minutes, as required. I finished in 10 minutes 17 seconds, gasping for breath.

That led me to take swimming lessons in my 40s from the same enthusiastic young woman who taught Baz and Amelia when we first arrived in Australia.

Embarrass? Correct. But the worst part of swimming is actually swimming. In Bronte bathhouse, the ocean pool was carved into the sandstone cliffs on the southern edge of Bronte in the 1880s, Each 30 meter lap is like climbing Mount Everest.

Finally, I have started to improve. At some stages, I switched to my freestyle, breathing every third time instead of every two, which helped me glide and see my left and right conditions – this became even more important when I left the pool out to sea. Bondi Beach is where I learned to surf, so I started swimming there. With no lanes and no one swimming beside me, I started to enjoy practicing and exploring. I marveled at the silver fish and the sand patterns in the water. One day I even wandered in a pod of dolphins diving and snorkeling while I stared in awe while I could barely hold my breath.

It was time for me to try the life-saving test again, after a few months I finished the 400 meters with over a minute to spare.

New struggles followed. As part of the training, we were scheduled to swim together at 6am. It’s spring: The water temperature is below 65 degrees. The proficiency task also involved a group CPR simulation and a rescue simulation, which meant chest compressions close enough to smell each other’s breaths. We are a group of strangers, men and women, about 15 to 50 years old, with different backgrounds, jobs and political views. Nothing is important. We bond to build our skills. We made it through not because we were great but because we were good enough – generally, even after a wave knocked our swimmer off the yellow spine board.

I realized that mastery is not the same as victory, success, or anything else that governs America’s goal hierarchy. It is more forgiving, more inclusive, more noble – if we make it a priority. And we? How often are any of us looking for a risk or a physical and mental challenge unrelated to work or achievement, with an allowance for error, interdependence, and grace? grace?

Researching a book on all of this – Australia, risk, community – I discovered the broader benefits of becoming proficient. Martin Seligman, an American psychologist known for two very different streams of inquiry (learn helplessness and positive psychology), told me that a quest for capacity could offset what he calls America’s disturbing tendency to fragility. For decades, he says, our culture has sought emotional protection, believing that self-esteem is the source of achievement. But that’s backward, he explained. People don’t do well because they feel good; they feel good because they do well, often after failing and improving.

Maybe children are the ones who have to compete. Here in Sydney, the new Nipper season has just begun. While my son convinces me to let him enjoy life in the water with just water polo and surf, my daughter continues to gain strength from Sunday morning ritual in Australia.

Amelia is 11 years old now, and sometimes we swim together near where I saw that stingray. Recently, when the surf was unusually quiet, we jumped off the rocks by Bronte Baths and head south to where we’ve never been because the usual waves would have smashed us to pulp. We could still feel the strong current and we knew there might be sharks nearby, so we stayed close. Without panic or recklessness, we swam a few hundred meters without noticing the distance until I saw another wonder of the abyss – a blue grocer, a giant fish the color of the noonday sky so sluggish that it was protected from spear fishing.

“Here,” I shouted. “Green salesman!”

Amelia was beside me for a moment, then down below. I followed right behind, silent and peaceful in a foreign realm, pulling myself towards the beautiful fish and the brave little girl. Immerse yourself in swimming culture after moving to Australia

Olly Dawes

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