Melbourne-based Luke Richards fell into the open water swimming unexpectedly thanks to his wife. But it was a pivotal point in the Australian media in 2017 that made him want to pursue marathon swimming.
Richards has battled depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicide since the age of eleven and knew conquering the Australian Triple Crown of Marathon Swimming would be tough but not as tough as overcoming mental illness.
In 2018 Richards set out to complete the Australian Triple Crown of Marathon Swimming in hopes of raising awareness of mental illness and changing the stigma surrounding it in Australia.
In this feature, Suzie Ryan talks to Mr Richards about his unlikely love of marathon swimming, conquering the Australian Triple Crown and the lessons open water swimming has taught him, specifically being an analogy for recovery.
Where it all started
Mr Richards open water swimming journey started in 2015 thanks to his wife, Dominque, and her desire to swim in one of Australia’s most popular open water swims; the Lorne Pier to Pub in Lorne.
This journey quickly became much more than getting involved in ocean swimming but a way to help him continue recovery from addiction, depression, and anxiety while raising awareness of mental health illnesses.
“Growing up I was never a competitive swimmer in any shape or form, but I took up the sport to get fit again and support my wife,” said Richards.
“The Pier to Pub in Lorne had always been one of the things on her bucket list but she was quite nervous about doing it with sharks and everything, so I said, “I’ll swim it with you”.
“From there, I found I loved being in the open water, so I started training more and doing a few more little ocean swims.”
The unlikely love of marathon swimming
While the Lorne Pier to Pub got Richards hooked on ocean swimming, it wasn’t until 2017 that he decided he wanted to up the challenge and try a marathon swim.
“In 2017 when Grant Hackett had a mental health episode in public and was absolutely punished in the media, I thought, this needs to change,” said Richards.
“He was treated like nothing all because he had some mental health issues, and that was just really sad for me.
“It was at this point, I went right, “what am I going to do about it?”
It was at this moment that Richards had been sober for four years and wanted to show people that those struggling with mental health issues can come back and achieve great things.
“I started with wanting to swim the English Channel but that never eventuated, so I just started picking targets that were close to me,” said Richards.
“I then started a platform for people to see that not only can you recover from addiction as well as a full gambit of mental health illnesses like I did, but also live a normal life.”
Mr Richards had only completed a few ten and 15-kilometre marathon swims as well as the infamous challenging ‘Rip Swim’ when he decided to attempt the Australian Triple Crown Marathon Swimming challenge.
“I had done a couple of marathon swims and had loved them, but I wanted to keep pushing myself since my English Channel attempt had been canceled due to Covid,” said Richards.
“That’s when I started looking at doing the Triple Crown.”
The Australian Triple Crown
The Australian Triple Crown Challenge is a three-part marathon solo swim challenge that includes the non-assisted completion of:
- The 25km Port to Pub Ultra Marathon Swim from Fremantle to Rottnest Island in Western Australia
- The 34km The Big Swim – Derwent River Marathon in Tasmania
- The 27km Palm Beach to Shelley Beach Marathon Swim in New South Wales
Mr Richards took on the Australian Triple Crown not only because it is incredibly challenging but also to raise funds and awareness for 100words Mate to Mate, a national network of active local communities to improve men’s mental health and reduce male suicide.
“I looked at the Triple Crown because to get through those three big swims is incredibly challenging and a massive achievement,” said Richards.
“And I thought not many people have done it either, I think more people have walked on the moon at this stage than completed the Triple Crown. So it seemed like a really great challenge and another opportunity to raise awareness of mental health illness in Australia.”
Richards is only one of seven people to complete the Australian Triple Crown (at the time of writing). You can see who else has completed the Australia Triple Crown here.
Swim #1: The Port to Pub Ultra Marathon Swim
Mr Richards completed his first swim of the Triple Crown on the 16th of March, 2019. It was the 25km Port to Pub from Fremantle to Rottnest Island in Western Australia.
This swim was by far the most challenging for Richards, with sixty-knot winds, a two-and-a-half-metre swell, and a steep cut-off time.
“The distance of Port to Pub wasn’t what made the swim hard for me, it was the conditions,” said Richards.
“I would say that most people who swim and train for marathon ocean swimming could make the distance, but it’s the steep cut-off time that gets most people and then you get pulled out of the water if you don’t make that cut-off time.
“I actually had to sprint the last five kilometres to make the cut-off, so that was tough in itself, and then I was seasick as well and I hadn’t eaten much, only two energy bars in the whole ten hours.
“So, it was quite a slog, but I made it.”
Not only was the swim physically punishing but the conditions and an upcoming anniversary in his life made it mentally punishing as well.
“The swim really was a beast, I couldn’t have been physically or mentally punished any more than I was,” said Richards.
“It was also close to the anniversary of my suicide attempt, so there were a lot of things happening for me.”
After a long and grueling 10 hours and 21 minutes, Richards crossed the finishing line to ‘We are the Champions’ playing with thousands cheering.
“It was an incredible experience to cross that finish line,” said Richards.
“I was the last swimmer across the line and my face was filled with anguish and amazement when I got out of the water.
“They were actually playing Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’ as I crossed and there were a couple of thousand people there just cheering and going absolutely bonkers.
“You honestly would have thought I was the first person crossing the line with the reaction I got, but I wasn’t, so that was special.
“It wasn’t the best day in the office but crossing that line the way I did and knowing I made it through without buckling was amazing.”
Swim #2: The Derwent River Big Swim
Mr Richards completed his second and favourite swim of the Triple Crown on the 20th of March, 2021. It was the 34km Derwent River Big Swim in Tasmania and it took 9 hours and 37 minutes.
Not content with taking on the 34km swim, Richards choose to do this swim at night, becoming the first person in fifty years to swim the course in full darkness for 90 percent of the distance.
“Swimming at night was honestly like swimming through space if I could imagine what swimming through space would be like,” said Richards.
“It was such a pleasurable swim once I let my brain catch up to me and the reality of what I was doing – swimming the Derwent River at night in full darkness!”
Mr Richards recalls many funny moments along the Derwent River, including being attacked by mullets.
“At one point I was swimming along and something slimy hit me and I thought what the heck, and then next minute ‘bang’ something hit me in the head,” said Richards.
At that point, I screamed and I don’t have the most masculine scream, so everyone on the boat pissed themselves laughing.Luke Richards
“They all said to me “you’ve got a party of mullets attacking the light on the back of your head and my watch.”
“The mullets were just coming at me and jumping over me, just doing all sorts of thing.
“Everyone on the boat thought it was hilarious because I couldn’t see anything, I could just feel them.”
Richards also reminisced on how dark and peaceful it was during the swim.
“I had a jetski right next to me ushering me the whole swim, kind of guiding me, like a Kelpie because it was so dark,” said Mr Richards.
“You don’t really sight in these sort of swims but I did lift my head up a couple of times to have a look and take in the surroundings but it was so dark, there was just nothing there.
“It was just an incredibly peaceful place to swim and just focus on what you were doing at each moment.”
Swim #3: Palm Beach to Shelley Beach Marathon Swim
Mr Richards completed his third and final swim of the Triple Crown on the 17th of April, 2021 – the 27km Palm Beach to Shelley Beach Marathon Swim along Sydney’s northern beaches coastline.
According to Richards, this was the most beautiful swim of them all, although it was filled with unwelcomed marine life.
“The first hour and a half of the swim we were just swimming through jellyfish, which was not fun,” said Richards.
“I got stung by a bluebottle a couple of times and that hurt quite a bit, but I just kept swimming, and you kind of forget about it.
“There were also sharks on the swim, but I didn’t see them.
“The crew on our boat saw them and they were actually doing doughnuts around us at one stage to keep us safe.”
This swim was made extra special for Richards, with his friend Steve swimming alongside him on his journey to complete the Australian Triple Crown.
“It was Steve’s first open water ultra-marathon swim and his first swim of doing the Australian Triple Crown,” said Richards.
“It was special because your first swim is always the toughest both physically and mentally.
“So being able to sit there and share that experience with him at the end, was incredible. It really made the swim extra beautiful.
“It also made the time pass by really quickly, we did it in eight hours and twelve minutes and it didn’t feel like that at all.”
Training for the Australian Triple Crown
If you’re wondering what training looks like in order to take on such long swims as those in the Australian Triple Crown, Richards says his training differed for each of the three swims.
“I trained the hardest for the Port to Pub because it was my first ultra-marathon and I was terrified I wasn’t going to make it,” said Richards.
“I did six squad sessions a week in the pool and then on the weekend I swam ten kilometres twice, every weekend in the months leading up to it.
“For the Derwent River swim, I had done seven kilometres every day for Movember in the year before, so I was pretty strong and fit at that point in time. So, I just started my normal squad sessions back up again and tried to do a long swim over the weekend.”
“The Palm to Shelley swim was only a couple of weeks after the Derwent River swim, so I hadn’t done much swimming, just resting, but I managed to have enough in the tank to make it.”
Mr Richards also focused on working on a different skill for each swim as well as practicing visualization.
“For my first swim, I worked on getting more and more kilometres under my arms,” said Richards.
“For my second and third swim I worked on being able to stroke at a higher rate than I ever have before, so I was doing a lot of 400’s as fast as I could.
“These really helped me during my swim because I could focus on the skill to help me get through the kilometres.
“During my training, I also practiced visualization, where I would make an image of the finish line in my mind of me crossing the line and that would help me during the swim if I got a bit wobbly, to keep going.”
Lessons from the water
Mr Richards has found that open water swimming is much more than an escape, but also an analogy for recovery and life.
“Open water swimming is the perfect analogy for the whole process of recovery,” said Richards.
“For these long swims that I do, I have a lot of people on the boat who manage my health, my food, and someone who guides me the whole time.
“I’m in the water throwing my arms over and I don’t do it by myself and that is like my journey of getting well after my battle with addiction, anxiety, and depression.
“I had doctors, phycologists, friends, and family who helped me, I was never doing it alone and that really does epitomize everything for me and exactly what recovery is.”
Mr Richards also reflected on why he believes he’s succeeded at the Australian Triple Crown and marathon swimming.
“I often think that part of the reason why I have had success is that A; I’m not scared of failure because I’ve been there before in my recovery from addiction, and B; my mental strength from the willpower it took to keep myself alive despite the situations I’ve been through, is tremendous.
“I also think that just showing myself how different my life has been from the past also makes me want to succeed and show others that they can change their lives if they are battling addiction, or depression or anxiety, or any other mental health illnesses.
It doesn’t matter how far you fall you can always come back as anything you like.Luke Richards
What’s next for Mr Richards?
Now that Richards has completed the Australian Triple Crown Marathon Swimming Challenge he plans on conquering another few ultra-marathon swims including the Cook Straight.
“The Cook Stright is something I would love to do, but it is an incredibly hard swim to get on the dance floor for.”
“I would also love to do the English Channel eventually and the Manhattan Swim in New York is a must-do on my swimming bucket list, circumnavigating Manhatten is just a dream of mine.
“I would also like to give the Ice Mile a crack, I was actually meant to do it just before our last 7-day lockdown here in Melbourne that turned into two hundred and sixty days, so hopefully I can tick that off the list in the next year.”
Mr Richards next ultra-marathon swim is the Port to Pub in March next year. To follow his journey follow him on his Facebook Page: Luke Richards – Swim4Recovery.