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Kerry-Lee Gockel: The Wingless Warrior showing swimmers anything is possible

Australia’s open water swimming ‘Wingless Warrior’, Kerry-Lee Gockel, talks about her inspirational swimming journey and her nomination in the 2023 WOWSA Awards.

Each year the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) Awards celebrate the incredible achievements of those who have done amazing things in the open water swimming space.

This year, Australia has a number of nominees across multiple categories including the newly-named category of Adaptive Performance of the Year.

VOTE HERE (Voting closes 31 Jan)

One of the nominees in this category is avid open water swimmer, Kerry-Lee Gockel, also known as the ‘Wingless Warrior’, who was born with congenital amelia, in her case missing both her arms.

Ms Gockel hasn’t let her disability stop her from enjoying the water, however, having developed her own swimming style using freestyle kicks with the help of a pair of swim fins to get her through the water.

Growing up in South Africa before moving to Australia when she was nine years old, Ms Gockel started swimming from a young age because it was something easy she could do, and she instantly loved the water. It wasn’t until later in her life that she decided to give open water swimming a go and she has never looked back.

“In 2004, I had been competing in pool swimming for quite a few years and decided that I don’t want to pursue it at a representative level anymore,” said Ms Gockel.

“It was here that my coach suggested that I give open water swimming a go as a fresh challenge.

“I took the challenge up and swam my first open water event in June of 2005. It was a 1km swim and I had my dad swim next to me.

“Back then, I was younger and my knees still tolerated breaststroke, so I did some breaststroke kick in there and finished the 1km in 37 minutes. It was from this event that I was hooked on open water swimming and haven’t looked back since.”

Kerry-Lee and her husband Paul Gockel

Since Ms Gockel’s first open water swim in 2005, she has participated in a wide range of events and ocean swimming holidays working her way up from the 1km swims to 10km swims.

“I have completed many of the ocean swim events across Noosa and Mooloolaba since 2006,” said Ms Gockel.

“It wasn’t until 2018, that I started to get involved in the longer distances events and since then I have completed quite a few of them, especially over the last two years.

“In 2018 I did the 3km swim on Mana Island in Fiji, then in 2021 I stepped up again and did the 5km Malabar Magic Swim.

“In 2022, I did the 5km Swim Noosa event, the 5km Mooloolaba Mile and then the 10km Island Charity Swim from Mudjimba to Mooloolaba.

“In 2023 I did the most distance events I have in a year with the 5km Mooloolaba Mile, 10km Island Charity Swim, 6km Middle Island Swim (Great Keppel Island) and a 5km leg of the Swim Around Keppel event.

“I have also done several swim holiday tours with my husband Paul, which has taken us to some incredible places such as Fiji, which was our first ever swim tour and we ended up swimming from one island to another, which was very special.”

With so many incredible swims in the bank, Ms Gockel’s response to the question of what her favourite swim has been, was, “Oh, that’s a tough one” and that is understandable given her event resume.

“In terms of events, the Island Charity Swim in 2022 and also last year in 2023 have been stand-out events for me,” said Ms Gockel.

“The swim is a real challenge so it’s very satisfying to complete it.

“It’s also such a great experience to swim around Old Women Island.”

A supportive community

Ms Gockel keeps coming back for open water swimming not only because of the swims it involves but also because of the amazing open water swimming community she is a part of.

“I love that in open water swimming no two swims are ever the same because the ocean is constantly changing and mother nature decides on the conditions on the day,” said Ms Gockel.

“It takes you out of your comfort zone but also calms the mind and forces you to be present. It’s relaxing, invigorating and exhilarating all at the same time.

“I also love open water swimming for the community that comes with it because the open water swimming community is really something special.

“I have been very lucky to have some legendary humans put their hands up and swim beside me as a companion swimmer, paddle next to me at events and be my crew on the support boat.

“It’s because of people like those in my open water swimming community that allows me to do all these epic swims that I do.

“I’m also very blessed to share my love of ocean swimming with my husband, Paul, who is a former Australian Paralympic swimmer and is also my number one training partner and I couldn’t do this without his support.”

What the future holds

Over the next year, Ms Gockel has some exciting swims she is looking to take on, including some she has previously conquered.

“I’m excited to be tackling the Island Charity Swim again this year,” said Ms Gockel.

“I will be doing that with my mate, Joep Buijis, swimming beside me and we will be raising funds for the three special schools on the Sunshine Coast. This year we are hoping to exceed our fundraising efforts of $13,400 from last year and I would also like to complete the course in under 5 hours.

“Later in the year, I will also be doing the Swim Around Keppel (20km) with Paul as a duo, with two friends accompanying me as companion swimmers.

“During this swim, I am aiming to swim at least 14 km out of 20km, which will be a personal best distance for me.

“So, it’s easy to say that I have lots to look forward to this year and a big year of swimming coming up.”

The WOWSA Award nomination

So, how does it feel to be nominated for the 2023 WOWSA Award in the category of Adaptive Performance of the Year?

“The nomination was a complete surprise to me and I initially had no idea who had put me forward,” said Ms Gockel.

“I am very humbled to be amongst some truly extraordinary athletes. There are open water swimmers worldwide, with and without a disability, doing some remarkable things in the water.

“While recognition and awards are never my motivation, I am just a little bit proud that my achievements in open water swimming got me shortlisted for this award.

“I am also very grateful that these awards are not confined to “unassisted” swims – I always wear fins and have a companion swimmer with me every time I do a swim – and it feels great that I am still recognised as an athlete.”

Australian 2023 WOWSA Award nominations

Man of the Year, Performance of the Year
Andrew Donaldson

Man of the Year
Stephen Junk

Adaptive Performance of the Year
Kerry-Lee Gockel, Gerrard Gosens

Event of the Year
Rottnest Channel Swim

Product/Service of the Year
Jay Prchal

You can vote via the WOWSA Awards website with voting closing 31st January.

  • Written by Suzie Ryan on 30 January 2024
  • (Updated on 30 January 2024)

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