British-born Gold Coast resident, Jen Hamer, knew ocean swimming would be tough from the moment she saw a group of ocean swimmers entering their weekly swim at Kurrawa Beach on a morning walk. 

But she knew it was something she wanted to conquer.

Having beaten anorexia and mental health issues that spanned most of her life, Hamer was no stranger to overcoming challenges and facing demons.  

In this feature, Suzie Ryan talks to Ms Hamer about her first time facing the waves, her persistence with the challenging sport and the demons she is keeping at bay through her newfound love of ocean swimming.

Jen Hamer

The start of a new obsession

Growing up, Ms Hamer always had a connection with the water, but living in the United Kingdom she didn’t get to experience living by the coast and being involved in ocean swimming. 

“I have always had a passion for the ocean,” said Ms Hamer. 

“I remember as a kid we used to go to Portugal every year for summer holidays and my parents would always struggle to get me out of the water. I would scream and throw a tantrum because all I wanted to do was stay in the ocean.

“This was probably from the age of two or three, so I have always loved the water.” 

However, it wasn’t until Ms Hamer moved to Australia in 2020, just before the global pandemic hit, that she found her passion for open water swimming. 

“I moved to Australia at the start of 2020, I got a scholarship to do my PhD,” said Ms Hamer.

“I’m studying eating disorders in female athletes and the culture that influences body image, a well as the mental health issues experienced in these sporting environments.

The first few experiences were challenging, to say the least.

Jen Hamer

“When I moved, I didn’t know anybody, but one Saturday morning I was walking along the beach and I saw this group of people going out into the ocean. I just stood there and watched them as they swam out into the ocean, and I thought ‘Wow’, that looks super fun.”

Having briefly experienced some open water swimming after her running career and Olympic dreams were cut short due to Osteoporosis as a result of her eating disorder, Ms Hamer thought this might be the time to give ocean swimming a red hot go.

“After seeing this group go for their ocean swim, I thought, you know what, I’m just going to go and get involved and see what happens,” Ms Hamer recalls.

“I remember I went and joined them not long after and the first few experiences were challenging, to say the least. 

“Anyone that lives on the Gold Coast knows that the surf conditions can be very erratic here, plus I started at the back end of summer when we had big swells and strong currents and rips so it was quite the introduction.”

Despite the tough conditions, Ms Hamer persisted and continued with her ocean swimming development, until it eventually become a very important part of her life and something she can’t live without now. 

“I remember trying to get out a few times at the start and I couldn’t get out,” said Ms Hamer. 

“I was crying and the coach just said, ‘you’ll be fine, just keep coming back and trying, you’ll get used to it.’

“So, that’s what I did, I kept going back, and it was truly incredible how being in the ocean just gave me this sense of calm I had been missing.”

For the love of swimming

Ms Hamer has gone from struggling to get out the back, to absolutely in love with the sport of ocean swimming.

She now swims four times a week with the Gold Coast Open Water Swimming Club, including some from that first group that inspired her to join.

“I love ocean swimming now and the ocean has almost become an obsession for me,” said Ms Hamer.

“It’s got to the point where I have to be in it every day, even if it’s just for a splash rather than a proper ocean swim.”

Getting ready for her morning ocean swim with the Gold Coast Open Water Swimming Club, Jen grabs a selfie.

And what’s her favourite thing about ocean swimming?

“What I love the most about ocean swimming is every day is different,” said Ms Hamer.

“Whatever the ocean brings; big, small, rough, calm, you just have to go with the flow.” 

And going with the flow is something Ms Hamer has brought back to her life out of the water.

“The ocean dictates how I will swim, and how I am going to breathe,” said Ms Hamer, “I don’t get to choose that.”

“As I look out to sea, and the surf’s up, it also decides how I am going to get out the back.” 

“So this just teaches me to go with the flow and to constantly adapt my swim every day,” 

“Similar to what we have to do in life.”  

Like many ocean swimmers, ocean swimming and being immersed in the saltwater brings Ms Hamer a sense of peace. 

“I marvel at being immersed in the sea of blue, away from the noise on land,” said Ms Hamer.

“I always find moments of peace when swimming. The movement of the ocean also brings me peace, even on smaller days, there are always sweeps, rips and tides. It’s also peaceful admiring the beauty of the ripples on the sand bed at the bottom of the ocean floor.

“I also love watching the occasional fish swim by, and if I’m lucky, listening to the whale’s song as they pass by.”

The cheapest form of therapy

For Ms Hamer, ocean swimming is about much more than physical fitness, it’s the mental health benefits she seeks. 

“Swimming in the ocean just calms my mind and keeps me centred,” said Ms Hamer. 

“Of course, there are the physical benefits too, but they are an added bonus. Really, for me, ocean swimming is about the freedom of both my mind and body.” 

Growing up with anorexia from an earlier age, Ms Hamer knows all about overcoming demons and the mental health issues that come with it, but ocean swimming is a way to escape it all. 

“With so many mental health issues growing up, ocean swimming was like a place where my mind just honestly stopped,” said Ms Hamer. 

“It was like there was no one to answer to and I was so present being immersed in the water.

“From that moment I was like WOW this is the cheapest therapy you’ve ever had in your life, Jen!

“Ocean swimming has had incredible effects on my mental health.” 

Now that her confidence has increased in the ocean, it has also given Ms Hamer the opportunity to work on mindfulness.

“Ocean swimming has this mindfulness element to it that I love,” said Ms Hamer. 

“When I’m swimming I count my strokes, in my head and I’m always saying ‘1, 2, 3 breathe, 1, 2, 3 breathe’.

“Doing this allows the chaos of my mind to be silenced for a brief while, allowing my thoughts to come and go while I swim and almost putting me into a meditative state.”

WOW this is the cheapest therapy you’ve ever had in your life, Jen!

Jen Hamer
Ms Hamer practising her mindfulness through breathing while ocean swimming

Life lessons from the deep

While ocean swimming has helped Ms Hamer with her mental health, it has also taught her some valuable lessons about life in a very short period of time. 

“The ocean constantly moves in ways we have to adapt to,” said Ms Hamer.

“And every day when I swim I have to adapt to the ocean and what it brings me.

“When I swim I have to start by showing up. And some days I look out and think ‘holy crap’ those waves are big! 

“But then I try to let myself be excited and curious of what the ocean has to offer, rather than fearful, and in that sense, it’s like a metaphor for life. 

We have to leave fear behind for curiosity and excitement and see what will come next.

Jen Hamer

“You know, in life, time is passing and there is movement every day that we have to adapt to. 

“We have got to show up every day and face our fears. We have to leave fear behind for curiosity and excitement and see what will come next.

“And we have to choose to be curious to explore those deeper darker layers, just like those we find on the ocean floor.

“We have to use our curiosity and excitement of what’s ahead to motivate us, rather than allowing it to make us fearful, especially in the world we live in today.”

Sharing her experience for good

Having had her dreams of becoming an Olympic runner taken away from her because of her anorexia, osteoporosis and chronic pain syndrome diagnosis, Ms Hamer now chooses to not wallow in pity about the things she can’t change but to do something good with it instead.

“Being diagnosed with osteoporosis and chronic pain syndrome really took my identity away, and I didn’t know who I was, so, I decided I wanted to go into the research area of eating disorders,” said Ms Hamer.

“I got my sports science degree and then my Masters in eating disorders and clinical nutrition and now I’m doing my PhD to try and help other young athletes not get to into the same place I did.” 

Ms Hamer’s advice to those who might be struggling with body image is to remember that your body is an incredible vehicle that keeps you alive. 

“Your body is not an ornament or merely a shell to be admired or judged,” said Ms Hamer. 

“Quite honestly those people who love and care about you in this world do not care about what shape, size or weight you are.

“So you shouldn’t let your fears about your body hold you back from embracing all the incredible things on offer to us in this short life, ocean swimming being one of them.” 

“So, go out there and try it, or the next amazing challenge in your life, you never know, you might find you love it, just like I did with ocean swimming.”

If you are struggling with body image or an eating disorder you can find support here: The Butterfly Foundation, EndED and National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC).

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  • Graeme Condie
    2 Nov 2021 at 11:59am

    I take my hat of to Jen Hamer what a courageous young women, her story is so inspiring to all of us, I never take it for granted how lucky I am to be able to swim in the ocean and salt water river systems we have on the east coast .
    I also love reading all of the articles as well.
    Cheers from Graeme

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