In 2017, Craig Judge was involved in an unfortunate motorbike accident that resulted in him having to have his right leg amputated above the knee.
In a journey to find an exercise that he could do to help his recovery, he found swimming.
“I had done a little bit of swimming before my accident but nothing major,” said Mr Judge.
“When I got released from the hospital I had a lot of phantom pain and I found that the only exercise I could do was swimming.
“So, that’s what I did, I started swimming at the local pool. At this stage I couldn’t really bear weight because I was on crutches, so swimming was the perfect exercise for me to start the recovery process.”
In a bid to get back to work, Mr Judge found that swimming aided in his recovery more than anything else.
“After I started swimming, I found that it was the only thing that was assisting me in any regard apart from the medicine I was on,” said Mr Judge.
“I couldn’t drive for a while, but there was a twenty-five-metre pool up the road from me, so I would get on my crutches and hop with the hill to the pool a few times a week.”
After swimming by himself for a while, Mr Judge found a swim buddy, an old work colleague who would help progress his recovery even faster.
“I found out that an old work colleague of mine was doing a bit of swimming at this time, so we got together and started swimming together,” said Mr Judge.
“I found that this was helping me physically but more so in the mental space.
“We started swimming ten kilometres a week and then we worked our way up to 15 and 20 kilometres a week.
“Eventually we were at Christmas time and she went away on holidays so I was left to my own devices and I ended up swimming one hundred kilometres in that month, which I thought was incredible.”
Breaking the beach barrier
Mr Judge had grown up in the ocean; scuba diving, surfing, body boarding and swimming, but it wasn’t until his accident that he realised how much he wanted to get back in the ocean.
“I loved the ocean growing up and it came to a point after my accident that I really wanted to get back into the ocean, but there was just a bit of a mental barrier I couldn’t get over,” said Mr Judge.
“I knew that I would be fine once I was in the water but I think it was just the thought of how would I get down there and get in.”
It wasn’t until one drunken night with friends that Mr Judge came up with the idea of doing the Shark Island Ocean Swim to get him back in the ocean.
“At the time, I was dating a girl on the Central Coast and she was into triathlons, so we did a bit of swimming together,” said Mr Judge.
“I was drunk one night, and I said to her, ‘do you want to do the Shark Island Swim with me because it’s coming up in a few months.’
“She replied ‘sure, but I’m scared of the open water’, I said ‘that’s fine, I’m not so we’ll be fine.’
“We signed up for the event because it would give me a bit of a goal at the end of the tunnel and I am a very goal-oriented person.”
After signing up for the Shark Island Ocean Swim Mr Judge continued to train in the pool but it wasn’t until the date started getting closer that he started to wonder how he was going to get down the beach.
“As the date got closer, I started to think ‘how I am going to do this’, in terms of getting down to the beach, because I knew I would be fine in terms of the swim and achieving the distance,” said Mr Judge.
“I ended up getting in contact with Scott Williams, the event organiser and I flicked him an email just explaining my circumstances.
“He came back and was more than accommodating, he gave me his contact details and told me to ask for him when I picked up my kit at registration on the day.
“We also discussed how I would get down to the beach. He asked if I needed the wheelchair and beach matting but I said no because I felt that I hop around good enough at home by myself and I like the independence of being able to do things myself.
“So we decided that I would crutch down to the beach with some help and then hand my crutches over at the start.”
Fast forward to the Shark Island Swim event day and Mr Judge finally met Scott and was surprised by how understanding and helpful he was.
“Scott really went above and beyond for me, he helped me out on the day and made sure that I had everything I needed,” said Mr Judge.
“He made the whole process really easy, I just crutched down into the water and gave my crutches to a guy and Scott started me in the water.
“Then on the way out and back up to shore, the same guys came and gave me my crutches and helped me out of the water and I then crutched my way up to the finish line.
“Not only Scott, but everyone involved in the Shark Island Swim was extremely helpful on the day and the whole swim was very inclusive. I was actually blown away by the amount of effort and the degree of planning that went into helping facilitate me in doing the ocean swim.”
Becoming a Psycho Swimmer
Following the Shark Island Swim, Scott invited Mr Judge to join the local ocean swimming group called SIPS (Shark Island Psycho Swimmers).
“Scott said ‘mate, that is a pretty big effort that you did the 1km and 2.3km in one day, why don’t you come join our local swim group. We swim around Shark Island three or four times a week,” said Mr Judge.
“I um’d and ahh’d for the next year and kept in touch with Scott and then he messaged me asking if I was going to do the Shark Island Ocean Swim event again, I said of course.
“The event came and it was pretty much the same as the year before and he really encouraged me again to come down and join the ocean swim group.”
It took Mr Judge two years and a global pandemic after his first Shark Island Ocean Swim to come down and join in with SIPS after Scott’s initial offer.
“I guess the catalyst for me joining SIPS was the first time we went through the COVID-19 lockdown and all the pools were shut,” said Mr Judge.
“I couldn’t swim and I didn’t have anything else to do, so the pain in my leg came back,” said Mr Judge.
“Swimming is what makes the pain more manageable and when I didn’t have that I really suffered, my leg blew up and I couldn’t wear my prosthetic because the pain was so painful and caused swelling.
“It was at this point that I knew I had to get into ocean swimming to help future proof my exercise routine if a lockdown ever did happen again and thank God I did because we’ve had a few now.”
Mr Judge joined the SIPS ocean swimming group with the idea to swim a couple of times a week in the ocean and a couple of times in the pool but that changed very quickly.
“I originally thought I’d do a few sessions in the pool and then do an ocean swim or two on the weekend,” said Mr Judge.
“That idea changed very quickly because I discovered how great of a group SIPS is and how much I loved swimming in the ocean. It was much more fun than swimming in the pool and following the black line.”
The Shire community of ocean swimming
After joining SIPS Mr Judge found out it was much more than just an ocean swimming group but rather a community.
“When I first joined SIPS everyone was so welcoming and genuine, they’d all have a good chat with you and didn’t care what your swimming ability was,” said Mr Judge.
“Becoming a part of the SIPS group and ocean swimming community really helped me find my love of the water again.
“I fell in love with just being in the water and I got that feeling of being in the ocean that I had when I was a little kid.
“It was like I had the feeling of freedom again. I mean being out past the break and looking back at the beach with a group of people that have become your friends is something pretty special.”
Scott literally saved me by encouraging me… I’ve come to find that there is a Scott in most local ocean swimming groupsCraig Judge
Mr Judge says he owes Mr Williams for getting him into the ocean swimming community and giving him the opportunity to meet new people.
“Scott made it really easy for me to come down and join in with SIPS, I mean I had been diagnosed with PTSD not long before I joined and ocean swimming gave me an outlet,” said Mr Judge.
“Ocean swimming has become a big outlet in my life and I say to Scott all the time, that he literally saved me by encouraging me to be a part of the SIPS community.
“I mean if Scott didn’t keep chasing and encouraging me to join the group I probably wouldn’t have and I’ve come to find that there is a Scott in most local ocean swimming groups.
“The person that is the leader of the group and supports everyone, reaching out and helping whenever they need.”
Being an amputee, Mr Judge couldn’t speak more highly enough of how he had felt included not only as a member of SIPS but also the wider ocean swimming community.
“The inclusivity of not only my local ocean swimming group SIPS but also the general ocean swimming community has been nothing but positive,” said Mr Judge.
“From day one I have had a really positive experience of being included in the sport of ocean swimming and I know as an amputee that is really hard to find.
“As an amputee, you are reluctant to join things and get back to exercising because you can feel left out sometimes and there is no real roadmap of how to recover after you become an amputee, you just have to find it yourself.
“For me, ocean swimming and being a part of the SIPS community has played a huge role in my recovery not only physically but also mentally. Being a part of the group has given me a better quality of life.”
The Shark Island Swim
When Mr Judge first registered for the Shark Island Swim it was because he knew his entry fee would be going to a good cause – the surf lifesaving club.
“The Shark Island Swim is where it all started for me. I entered because I wanted to do an ocean swim but also because the money raised goes to the surf lifesaving club,” said Mr Judge.
“The money helps them to buy equipment, run the club and maintain the clubhouse.”
Mr Judge’s favourite part of the Shark Island Swim is simple “the beauty of the ocean and its marine life”.
“Swimming around Shark Island is amazing, it is a beautiful swim, you see all types of marine life,” said Mr Judge.
“When swimming around the island you will see an array of fish, blue groupers, stingrays, eagle rays, turtles and dolphins.
“For me, my favourite part of the swim is on the south side of the island between the island of Cronulla Point it is like a little underwater grass garden and it’s just filled with marine life.
“The Shark Island Swim is one of the most beautiful swims there is. I think we would be hard-pressed to find a better swim around Sydney and everyone should do it at least once in their life.”
The Rottnest Channel Dream
Not only has joining SIPS and being a part of the ocean swimming community helped Mr Judge in his recovery and find his love of the ocean again but it has also encouraged him to pursue what he calls “outrageous goals” like swimming the Rottnest Channel one day.
“Once I started ocean swimming and talking to other members of our community, I came up with the goal to swim the Rottnest Channel at some point,” said Mr Judge.
“I mean I initially thought it was a pretty outrageous goal and there was no way I would do it, but after talking to a few people in the group who have done it, I think it’s possible.
“It is still going to be a pretty extreme thing but I love that stuff.”
Mr Judge’s goal is to swim a ten-kilometre qualifier swim this year and then take a step back to attempt the Rottnest Channel either next year or the year after.
“I know how big of a step that would be to me eventually swimming the Rottnest Channel,” said Mr Judge.
“I’ve never swum ten kilometres before, I actually haven’t swum any further than six kilometres.”
Q&A with Mr Judge
What does ocean swimming mean to you?
Ocean swimming to me means freedom and the ability to explore nature. No swim is ever the same. It is my happy place and I often find myself in almost a meditative state. I always feel a calmness even if it is looking back towards the coastline and the awe of achievement of the distance that I have covered.
For me it is an imperative routine in my rehabilitation from my leg amputation as it assists in controlling my leg phantom pain – the colder the better!
What challenges have you encountered while ocean swimming?
My biggest challenge has been to actually cross that line and take that first step into the water with my amputation. It was certainly a barrier because I had other considerations about how to get in and how I would be perceived.
After the initial help and after I felt comfortable about getting in and out into the water – I haven’t had too many – maybe the low tide has its issues lol. There is always the unknown of what is out there, but that excites me and gets me up to go time and time again. I think it is the sense of adventure and I suppose you cannot keep that boyhood nature of adventure.
Any funny / interesting stories from ocean swimming?
No, just the constant well-intentioned banter – better not share too much here!
What is my favourite thing about the Shark Island Swim?
Without a doubt the vast array of marine life and marine ecosystems that we see on the swim. We get to see marine life up close, just how nature intended it to be. I regularly see rays (Manta, sand and fiddle rays), wobbegong and other harmless sharks and just sometimes we get to see a turtle or dolphin.
The smile and the reaction are always as priceless as any other. The rocky and underwater grasslands that we get to explore is just amazing.
Why should people participate in the Shark Island Swim?
Obviously, it is a great cause with many people donating their time and services to raise money for the SLSC. But above and beyond that it is a great first timer swim as well as being challenging enough for more seasoned ocean swimmers.
For me, I remember doing my first Shark Island and being completely hooked on the sport of ocean swimming. You walk away being inspired, whether it may be watching a “CanToo” group raising money for cancer, or seeing the speed demons fly around the course.
For me I always love that competitive spirit, seeing if you can catch that person in front, or beating your time from the previous year. This year I look forward to hearing more stories and the smiles of others of achieving something that seemed impossible to them before….. yet they did it.
What is your favorite thing about ocean swimming?
Being out in nature and always challenging yourself against nature whilst at the same time being immersed in it. Love the days that are calm and beautiful but enjoy it just as much if not more when the conditions are not perfect, and/or you are not feeling at your best so you need to reach deep to get the job done.
I love battling, the swell, tides and constant change in conditions. I love that ocean swimming makes you want to be better and stronger. For me, I love the fact that it is something you can do anywhere in the world in amazing locations.
The best part of it is the ability of ocean swimming to drag you in and want to do more and more. For me, it is to gradually increase my distances and go into the marathon swimming space with my eyes firmly set on the Rottnest Channel Swim in 2024, and this year successfully meeting the qualifying time for 10km.
I am hoping that this journey can inspire other amputees and members of the community – It’s what we dream of, that is more important than what we don’t have that is important.
To borrow a line from Damien Thomilson (Bi leg amputee and ex Commando) “I am not disabled, I just don’t have legs” – in my case I only have one.
This is what amazes me about ocean swimming in a nutshell. I never would have even contemplated that three years ago when I embarked on my first ocean swim, with my first Shark Island swim.
What does your local swimming group mean to me? And what does it mean to the community?
My local swim group is a wonderful support network – a great bunch of guys and gals – and we all support each other on our own swimming journeys, whatever they may be. We always have a great time together and share a lot of laughs and also some good old fashioned banter.
We always enjoy each others’ company both in and out of the ocean and also have social occasions. I have developed some very close friendships in the group, that have been there for me as true friends when needed. We genuinely care for each other.
I think local swimming adds so much to the community. Without local sporting groups, events like the Shark Island Swim and its fundraising would not happen. It brings like-minded people together whilst promoting a healthy lifestyle.
It fosters greater friendships and connections that wouldn’t have ever have happened but not for the sporting groups. This has some wonderful outcomes both personally and professionally.
Personally, our little group raises money for different causes through swimming and I know that is the same for so many groups in our community. Above all, it allows for greater physical and emotional outcomes for so many people in our community, and that is one of the most important things for our community.