James Pittar: Conquering the marathon world blind

In 1985, at just 16 years of age, James Pittar contracted an eye disease known as Retinitis Pigmentosa, a disease that destroys the retina at the back part of the eye. 

By the time he was 21 he was legally blind, and in his early thirties, he was completely blind. 

But this didn’t stop Mr Pittar from pursuing a sport he loves – swimming. Mr Pittar has represented Australia on multiple occasions in pool swimming competitions before changing lanes to marathon open water swimming. 

In this feature, Suzie Ryan talks to Mr Pittar about his decision to switch to marathon swimming, swimming on six continents of the world and the challenges he has encountered.

Inspired by a marathon swimming legend 

James Pittar

Mr Pittar had been pool swimming for a few years, representing Australia in multiple World and national championships around the world as a blind swimmer, however, it wasn’t until he met a marathon swimming legend that he set his sights on open water swimming. 

“I had done a lot of pool swimming in the blind swimming competitions before I decided to give open water swimming a go,” said Mr Pittar. 

“While pool swimming I quickly realised that I wasn’t going to be very quick, I think the longest distance was 400 metres and there was a lot of sprinting in there and I am not a sprinter.

“I then met Des Renford at a charity swimming event one night and we were chatting and it sort of went from there. 

“I left and started to think maybe I should give open water swimming and the longer distances a try.

After that chance meeting with Des Renford, Mr Pittar started thinking more and more that he was more suited to open water swimming and decided to give a few open water swims a go. 

“I started doing a couple of little swims such as the Palm Beach to Whale Beach, Narrabeen Lakes and the Bridge to Bridge which used to be out at Penrith,” said Mr Pittar. 

“Then once I had completed a few and got involved in the open water swims I realised that I was a one pace swimmer.

“I figured being a one pace swimmer was a huge advantage in open water swims, especially when it came to marathon swims and so I just kept doing them.” 

Swimming on six of the seven continents 

In 2003, Mr Pittar had just come back from six weeks of open water swimming in the Northern Hemisphere when he decided his next challenge was to swim in every continent of the world excluding Antarctica.* 

“I had just done the summer in the Northern Hemisphere, I had swum two or three big marathon swims in that time and when I came back, I thought about what should I do next,” said Mr Pittar. 

“So, I thought, let’s try and swim in every continent of the world – apart from Antarctica.

“I pretty much set the goal and did it in just under three years. I honestly didn’t think that I would ever be able to do it but I was lucky and it was a great time.

“I swam in some incredible places including Argentina, South Africa, Turkey and Thailand.” 

Mr Pittar’s six swims on six different continents all bought different conditions and challenges but that was the fun of it, Mr Pittar explains. 

“In Argentina, I was swimming down a river called the Paraná River, like the fish,” said Mr Pittar. 

“That was a bit concerning even though it wasn’t spelt like the fish, but still, and in South Africa, we had a few moments where it was touch and go in the swim.

“But we got there and looking back now, the challenges that we encountered on those swims was what made it. 

A map of Mr Pittar’s multi-continent swims

Mr Pittar’s favourite part of swimming on six different continents was the beautiful mix of people he encountered along the way. 

“I was very fortunate to meet lots of different people and other marathon swimmers along the way of completing these six swims,” said Mr Pittar. 

“I would meet people in different countries and then we would talk about the upcoming swims I wanted to tackle and they would offer for us to stay at friends’ places or friends of friends’ places. This was great because being overseas you do miss home a bit and it was just nice to be able to get out of a swim sometimes at eight or nine at night and you are freezing and go back to someone’s house and have a home-cooked meal and just chat.” 

Along the way to completing his six swims, Mr Pittar encountered some eye-opening experiences including visiting Thailand after the disastrous Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. 

“My Asia swim was in Thailand and I finished at Patong Beach which was where the Tsunami hit,” said Mr Pittar. 

“I was swimming there only 15 months after it hit and they were still rebuilding.

“I really got a sense of where they were and what it must have been like when it happened.

“It is pretty much this beach, then 20 metres from the beach is a busy four-lane road and businesses behind it. So, it made me think, hmmm, this would have been an interesting and scary situation for those that were here when it hit and without any warning really.

“It gave me a good understanding of what would have happened that day and I wouldn’t have gotten that if I didn’t do that swim.” 

Mr Pittar, an Australian history lover, was lucky enough to be able to swim into Anzac Cove which once again bought a change of perspective for him. 

“The Anzac Cove swim was just outstanding and just being allowed to do the swim on its own was magnificent,” said Mr Pittar. 

“This swim took a lot of work through Australian, New Zealand and Turkey governments as well as DEFAT to organise because I wanted to be respectful to all parties but it was well worth it.

“My original swim course didn’t pan out because the conditions were deemed too dangerous with the winds and currents but I ended up swimming into both the Anzac Memorial and Anzac Cove which was incredible and such a thrilling experience.

“Doing the swim and going around to the sights beforehand, personally gave me a different perspective to what you read about in the history books or are taught at school and it gave me a huge sense of what it would of being like fighting there.

“This swim was definitely my favourite out of all six across the different continents.” 

A swim like no other: The Bering Strait

Mr Pittar has always been an individual marathon swimmer but it wasn’t until he completed the Bering Strait relay in 2013 that he realised how much he loved relay swimming. 

“I’ve always been an individual swimmer but if I had to say what my favourite swim out of all of them would be it would definitely be the Bering Strait relay,” said Mr Pittar. 

“I just loved this swim because it was such an adventure and I was called up in the eleventh hour, six weeks out and was just a lucky person to be able to do it.

“There were 66 swimmers from 16 different countries and 6 continents and we swam the entire length of the Bering Strait from Providencia, Russia to Cape Wales in Alaska, America. 

“It really was a worldwide swim and was just incredible to be a part of.” 

Another part of doing the Bering Strait that Mr Pittar enjoyed was the different people and communities he met. 

“The swim really did combine a lot of communities, which meant you met people from Italy, England, Russia and South Africa,” said Mr Pittar. 

“We all came from different countries and had different cultures and backgrounds but we all had one thing in common – that we loved swimming.

“There was also a wide range of swimmers there too, some who had done the English Channel, or this one bloke who had done six of the seven Ocean’s Seven, or those that just loved swimming in the cold which was a big advantage.

“I think in the 12 days that I was aboard the boat I spoke to my wife for two minutes once because we didn’t really have reception which was great.

“This was because it allowed us to come together and build great camaraderie and friendships. We would all just sit around talking to each other and sharing our stories as people did in the olden days before mobile phones which was great to just sit there and understand people.” 

Conquering the challenges of swimming blind 

As you could imagine, being a blind swimmer can come with its challenges, however, Mr Pittar has always overcome them with the support of his team and the marathon swimming community. 

“I have always found people to be really supportive of me in the open water and marathon swimming world,” said Mr Pittar. 

“Yes, I have encountered some challenges being blind but you find a solution and get on with it.

“When I first arrived in the marathon swimming community, there was the question about how I was going to do it, but I just used different techniques from other swimmers and that worked for me.

“When I did the English Channel there were only a very small amount of people that did marathon swimming but we all had the same goal, so we were all supportive of each other.

Over the years Mr Pittar has had to adapt to some challenges but they have always worked out. 

“I had to go out and use a loud hailer and different sound for my guides to be able to direct me, and I got someone to invent a long swimming pool pole to attach to the bottom for my feeds,” said Mr Pittar. 

“It’s funny because when I did the English Channel and used my pole there were a lot of questions as to whether it would work and if it was a bit of a gimmick but when they saw me use it and that my worst feed time was a minute and eight seconds they all wanted to measure it and get their own.

“For my long swims I have gotten down-pat the commands with the loud hailer and whistles and for my short swims, I don’t use those because it can be quite mentally draining.

“I usually get someone to swim with me for those short swims and they can tap my legs and other commands for me to know to turn the buoy or go through waves etc. which can be much nicer than listening to a whistle.” 

*Mr Pittar’s Six Continent Swims 

Mr Pittar has completed a marathon distance swim in every continent, excluding Antarctica, in 925 days. 

  • Cook Strait, New Zealand (23km)
  • Parana River, Argentina, South America (60km) 
  • Vaal River, Johannesburg, South Africa (26km) 
  • Anzac Cove, Turkey (12km) 
  • Mao Khao Beach to Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand (22km) 
  • Catalina Channel (32km) 

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