This Saturday will see 200 open water swimmers from around the country taking on the 2008 Cadiz Vista Nova Freedom Swim.
A trip to Robben Island is usually a time for reflection. For South Africans it is an emotional reminder of the past, whereas the sight of Nelson Mandela’s cell gives foreigners an idea of the sacrifices that have been made for the freedom of a country.
For the swimmers who gather there this weekend, however, politics and history will take a secondary role, as they attempt to swim 7.5 km from the island to Blouberg Strand.
A uniquely South African challenge
Those who have completed the event know that there are few challenges quite as rewarding as the crossing from Cape Town’s famous island to the mainland, in one of the world’s most beautiful settings.
Since I was convinced to enter the race a few years ago, the event has expanded to include almost two hundred swimmers. The addition of a relay event has made the race far more accessible to those who don’t feel up to the whole distance. The real battle, however, is against the cold waters of the Atlantic.
The distance is one thing
The Freedom Swim is operated under the English Channel rules. These state that no wetsuits or second skins may be used. The only aids that swimmers are permitted to use are goggles and a cap. They can also grease themselves against chafing.
You don’t have to be a local to appreciate how frigid the Cape waters are. The famous Clifton Beach is characterised by the yelps of people brave enough to go for a dip. Joburgers cringe and shudder when they get in, whereas Durbanites sit on the beach, shaking their heads in disbelief.
The waters surrounding the Cape Peninsula fluctuate between 11º and 18º. The biggest threat facing swimmers is hypothermia, and they prepare themselves by routinely acclimatising themselves to the cold.
Research carried out by various institutions, including the Sports Science Institute in Cape Town, has suggested that the body can be trained to be far more efficient in retaining body heat when it is exposed to cold water.
It’s all in the training
Alongside their cold water preparation, participants in the Freedom swim will have devoted many hours to building up their endurance. Long distance swimmers use a longer, less powerful, and more efficient stroke. They tend to put less energy into their kicking, and focus on building and maintaining a rhythm.
At the end of a long session a swimmers stroke tends to deteriorate, and they can become more susceptible to injury. Changing styles and distances, and cross training on the road and in the gym, reduces the chance of injury, builds more strength, and keeps training interesting.
With all the endurance training, increasing the amount that you eat becomes vitally important. This is because a lower body mass index leaves you more vulnerable to hypothermia.
A higher body mass index makes a big difference, as the cold can penetrates right down to your bones. After one of my colder training sessions I thawed myself out by sitting in the car with the windows closed and the heater on, when it was nearly 30ºC outside!
A true test of determination
Taking place in the quintessentially South African setting of Table Bay, there are few events that can match the passion and determination that characterise the Freedom swim.
Teenagers have finished the event, as well as participants who are well into their seventies. Many people who are not strong swimmers, or who battle with the cold, have completed the event through sheer hard work and fortitude. The 2008 Freedom Swim is likely to be no different in showcasing the courage of its entrants, as they fight their way to the mainland.
(Jonathan Skeen, Health24, April 2008)