Owen O’Keefe is both the youngest and the fastest Irish swimmer to swim across the English Channel. At only 16 years of age, he swam the Channel in just 10 hours 19 minutes in September 2009. In July 2009, he was the first person to swim from Cork City to Myrtleville (26 km) with a 5 hour 47 minute crossing. Owen completed his second Ocean’s Seven swim when he crossed the Strait of Gibraltar on July 2010 in 3 hours 52 minutes at the age of 17 years. At only 19 years old, Owen has already become a well known and respected open water swimmer. Since we set our goal of crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, we’ve gotten to know him and some of his friends including world ranked open water swimmers Damián Blaum, Donal Buckley and Trent Grimsley. What strikes us is how small the global OW Swimming community is- everyone knows each other! Owen even swam with Jen Schumacher one of the stars of the Gibraltar video that inspired me initially. I recently asked him about why the global OW Swimming world seems so close-knit and here’s what he had to say….
One aspect of open water swimming that, to my mind, separates it from other sports is the extent to which swimmers of all levels from all over the world are connected. In my ten years of swimming, I’ve gotten to know many swimmers of a huge range of ability and from many countries, but I’ve come to know all of these swimmers through open water, rather than competitive pool swimming. I’m certainly not unique in this – I don’t know of any pool swimmer who couldn’t get beyond age group competition who has a global network of swimming friends and acquaintances, and yet, most open water swimmers that I know, regardless of ability, know swimmers of all abilities from all over the world. How can two disciplines of the same sport be so different in terms of social structure? There’s no simple answer to this, but I’ve narrowed it down to a few main reasons…
Open water swimming is still a pretty small community. Many swimmers may not know of anyone in their locality who is also interested in open water. They are forced to cast a wider net and utilise modern media such as Facebook and Twitter to find other like-minded individuals. Facebook groups such as “Did you swim today?” allow swimmers from all over the world, who might only ever swim alone, to feel part of a wider community. Social media might also help swimmers discover open water “pods” much closer to them than they had previously thought– before long, they have a wide network of swimming friends. Now, Ireland is a small country and, in a manner of speaking, everyone knows everyone else! All of our open water pods are connected in some way by swimmers who are part of two or more pods, swimmers who have friends in other pods and swimmers who’s second cousin twice removed lives over the road from an uncle of a swimmer in another pod – it’s just how Ireland works. To this end, most open water swimmers in Ireland know each other, and with most Irish people having relatives abroad, we have many connections with pods in other countries. So now, you can see how easy it is to become absorbed into the open water world, especially if you’re Irish!
Another element that makes the international open water community such a close-knit one is the existence many world-renowned training camps. These include the Ned Denison’s Cork Distance Week, Jamie Patrick’s Swim Camp in California, Sally Minty-Gravett’s Swim Camp in Jersey and the SwimTrek training camp in Gozo. At any of these camps there may be a few dozen swimmers from various places around the world and most are there with the common goal of completing English Channel or other marathon swims. These camps usually last for one or two weeks and involve swimming twice a day every day for the duration of the camp. Many of the swimmers share meals and accommodation and get to know each other very well. Since most swimmers belong to pods such as those at Sandycove, La Jolla Cove and the Serpentine, pods from different countries become effectively twinned as so many of their swimmers know each other from attending these camps. I have only ever done Ned’s camp, but from that alone, I know swimmers from all over Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as swimmers from England, Scotland, Jersey, Guernsey, Italy, the USA and Canada.
The English Channel has been a proving ground for open water swimmers for nearly 140 years. Like Mount Everest, it is a sort of a flagship challenge for our sport and one of the great human challenges. Swimmers of all abilities for the last 140 years have dreamed of testing their physical and mental limits by attempting the 34 km swim from England to France, a feat first achieved by Captain Matthew Webb in 1875. The reverence in which this challenge is held has led to the town of Dover becoming a Mecca for open water swimming. If you visit to Dover between the months of June and October, you are likely to meet legends of open water swimming – past, present and future.
- In September 2012, I travelled to Dover with Donal Buckley (Ireland) and Alan Clack (USA & Canada) for Alan’s successful Channel solo. On our arrival in Dover, we met with David & Evelyn Frantzeskou, the proprietors of Varne Ridge Holiday Park and a Channel swimming institution in their own right. I stayed here during my own Channel solo in 2009 and on two subsequent occasions. It is an amazing place to meet other swimmers and David & Evelyn’s hospitality knows no bounds, they become like surrogate parents for the anxious swimmers waiting for their chance to swim the Channel. As soon as we arrived, they introduced us to a group of Malaysian swimmers, most of whom were taking part in a relay attempt while another was going for the solo, and Patrick Thomas from Cape Town, South Africa. After having a chat with Patrick, we discovered that we knew a few people in common – thousands of kilometers means nothing in open water swimming!
- The next morning, we went to Folkestone and met Alan’s pilot, Reg Brickell, widely regarded as one of the best pilots in the Channel. Back at the caravan park we met none other than Trent Grimsey (Australia), FINA Grand Prix Champion 2012, who was over for his World Record attempt! We also met Trent’s coach, Harley Connolly. Later on we met Trent’s support swimmer and World #2 in the open water, Damián Blaum (Argentina). It was surreal to be standing on the White Cliffs of Dover, talking to World #1 and World #2 in the open water, both of whom also knew my friend, Chris Bryan, who is Ireland’s only world class open water swimmer – mad!
- When loading up the boat to start Alan’s swim, we were joined by our third crewmember, Jim Boucher (Northern Ireland), who has completed a Channel solo and countless relays himself. We also got to see Tom Healy (Ireland) beat my record (!) for the fastest Irish solo crossing of the English Channel on that day and meet him at Varne Ridge afterwards.
- When we returned from Alan’s 11 hour 30 minute successful swim, we again met with Trent and he invited Donal and I to crew for him – well, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you just don’t turn down! It was once again surreal to be privy to Mike Oram’s pre-WR briefing with Trent and then to be crewing with Donal, Harley and Damián during the swim. Standing on the boat filming the finish of Trent’s 6 hour 55 minute crossing is something that I’ll never forget (it’s when Trent broke Peter Stoychev’s world record!). Also, at the end of the swim, I spotted a South African flag flying from “Sea Satin”, which is Lance Oram’s boat, the boat that I swam from. I assumed that it was Patrick, as I knew that he was swimming that day also, but then saw that it was his friend, Myles Wilson, also from Cape Town! At dinner in the Royal Oak that night, I couldn’t believe that I was sitting across from Damián Blaum, with Harley Connolly next to me and Trent Grimsey across from him.
The next morning we went to the beach to meet the swimmers still training in the Harbour. There, we met the woman with the record for the slowest successful crossing, Jackie Cobell (UK), as well as Freda “the General” Streeter and Irene Wakeham, who was the Official Observer during my Channel swim. After that, we went for a late breakfast at Chaplin’s and just before we left we met Chloë McCardle (Australia), who I had gotten to know in Dover in 2009. She was fresh from a 2-way Channel swim and still looked amazing! We arranged to meet up at Cullin’s Yard for drinks in the afternoon. While back at Varne Ridge for a while, we met Thomas “Gladiator” Noblett and his wife, who were down from the Lake District of northwest England for Thomas’ fourth Channel attempt. We all went down to Cullin’s Yard to meet Chloë and her husband, Paul, for a few drinks. While there, we happened to meet Muna Al-Sharari, a 17 year old girl who had just become the first Jordanian and first Arab female ever to swim the Channel – what an achievement for someone so young!
What a crazy week? Visits like this remind you that Dover is the Mecca of open water swimming. It is the foundation stone of the global open water swimming community insofar as it has been well established as such since the time when post and telegraphs were the only forms of long-distance communication. Without a place like Dover, the “global village” of open water swimmers would not exist to the extent that it does.
As well as the above, there are many iconic events at which the world’s regular open water swimmers converge. These include the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, the “Vibes & Scribes” Lee Swim and the HBF Rottnest Channel Swim. There are also plenty of dry-land events at which open water swimmers make connections; these are events like the CSA and CS&PF annual dinners, Ned Denison’s Marathon Swimming Party and the Global Open Water Swimming Conference hosted by Steven Munatones. I could go on to talk about even more networking facilities such as the MarathonSwimmers.org forum and Nick Adam’s Channel Swimming Google Group, but “brevity is the soul of wit” and I wouldn’t want to go on forever…
In conclusion, open water swimming has an incredible global network of connections. This makes it possible for swimmers from all over the world to discuss their goals and their experiences, sharing their own piece of knowledge that might help someone else and improving the overall level of participation in our beautiful sport.