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"Before it was a thing": Rhett Sampson's colourful life of ocean swimming

Ahead of the Oceana Funds North Bondi Classic, Bondi local Rhett Sampson recalls his lifetime of ocean swimming and why Bondi swims are the best.

Rhett Sampson, a Bondi local, was one of those lucky ones that grew up with Bondi Beach as his backyard playground. So, it was a given that he would fall in love with the ocean and eventually ocean swimming.

“I have been a swimmer all my life. My dad was a very good swimmer and water polo player and I grew up at Bondi Beach, so it was a given I would be drawn to the water,” said Mr Sampson.

“I was actually diagnosed with bronchitis at a very young age, which apparently should have been asthma but essentially I was told that I could do deep breathing exercises every morning for the rest of my life or take up swimming.

“So I took up swimming as it was the easy choice and fell in love with it. It was also good as growing up on Bondi Beach, I used to surf on rubberies before graduating to a fibreglass board, so I was also in the water.”

It was a given that Mr Sampson would eventually find his way into the sport of ocean swimming and he has been ocean swimming at Bondi since before ocean swimming was a ‘thing’.

“I first started swimming laps of Bondi with a mate of mine, Steve – he’s a crazy artist – in the 70s,” said Mr Sampson.

“We would swim one or two laps of Bondi at least five times a week.

“At that point in time, ocean swimming wasn’t a huge thing like it is now and we were really the only two swimming laps of Bondi. It was just the odd mat of bluebottles and a few fish.

“In 1989, I decided to do my first ocean swim event over in Hawaii. I did the Waikiki Roughwater and Maui Channel swim.

“They are both great swims and very fun. After I came back from Hawaii, I did my first North Bondi Swim and after that, I swam in every ocean swim in Sydney for about a decade and now I have tapered off and Just really do the Bondi swims.”

It hasn’t also been smooth sailing for Mr Sampson, with an array of injuries sometimes hindering his ocean swimming abilities but he always finds the ocean pulling him back even after open heart surgery.

“About ten years ago I broke my neck in three places body surfing at North Bondi, so I am very lucky to be here,” said Mr Sampson.

“I found some real statistics that say, only 3 out of 100 people walk away from an injury like mine, so I am very lucky. And then about two decades before I broke my neck, I broke my pelvis which caused me to have some time out of the water, both times.

“About two years ago I had open heart surgery to fix my aorta and valve, which has had a dramatic effect on my ocean swimming in a good way.

“It was a tough recovery but I got back in the ocean about 10 weeks after surgery to just roll my arms over and gradually I have been getting more capable but recently just around Christmas it was like a flip switched and I am now getting full oxygen which is helping me bring my arms out of the water on each stroke, like when I was a kid.

“I am feeling fantastic and better than I have ever felt while ocean swimming which is a huge positive.”

We asked Mr Sampson what his favourite thing about the Oceana Funds North Bondi Swim Classic is and replied in laughter “I can still physically do it”.

“I do love that I can still do the swim at my age of 66 years old and after all my injuries,” said Mr Sampson.

“Honestly though I love the camaraderie that the swim brings. It is great to be on the beach with other swimmers and know you are supported.

“I also love getting to see my old swimming buddies and say hi and have a good chat about our old ocean swimming memories.

“It’s also just great to swim in the ocean with others that love it as much as I do. I see the ocean as my spiritual home and quite meditative so to get out there and swim with others that love it is something I will keep coming back for more until the day I die.”

Having grown up on Bondi Beach and with an array of ocean swims under his belt over the years, we asked Mr Sampson for his top tips heading into the swim this weekend. He laughed and said, “just enjoy it.”

“My top tips would just be to swim straight, stick your head up and look for the buoy occasionally,” said Mr Sampson.

“Also, be nice, don’t get too argy-bargy around the cans, every other swimmer is also just there to have fun like you.

“Most of all just enjoy it, and have a good time, because the North Bondi Classic really is a great swim.

“If you are lucky you might catch a wave into shore, which I think is the best part of ocean swimming.”

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  • Written by Ocean Swims on 7 February 2023
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