Transplant recipient credits ocean swimming for saving his life

Western Australian swimmer, Michael Mackinnon, has endured more life-altering challenges than most throughout his 43 years. He was born profoundly deaf and has survived two kidney transplants, but that hasn’t stopped him from making the most of life and enjoying every bit of his ocean swimming. 

We recently caught up with Mr Mackinnon to talk about swimming as a transplant recipient, conquering marathon swims and being named as swim captain for the upcoming World Transplant Games.   

Ocean swimming a saving grace after transplant 

Mr Mackinnon credits ocean swimming for helping save his life after his two transplants by keeping him healthy.  

“I started ocean swimming in 2016 as part of my recovery after my second kidney transplant,” said Mr Mackinnon. 

“My core strength was shot to pieces from being confined to a chair after doing dialysis for 18 months before I received ‘the call’ for the transplant.

“I was asked to be a swimmer in a team of four for the Port to Pub and didn’t want to let the team down, so I jumped at the chance and completed the event three months post-transplant, which I was pretty proud of.

“From there I haven’t looked back and swimming has really helped save my life. It has helped keep me in excellent health post-transplant and kept me mentally strong.”

Since Mr Mackinnon’s first ocean – the Port to Pub – his swimming journey has been incredible, tackling multiple ocean swims and the Australian Transplant Games. 

“My journey since starting ocean swimming in 2016 has just been amazing,” said Mr Mackinnon. 

“After I did my first Port to Pub, I was only swimming two or three times a week to help with my health.

“Then fast forward another year and I was asked to do the Rottnest Channel Swim in a team which I loved.

“Since then I have represented Western Australia at the Australian Transplant Games, completed the Rottnest Channel three more times in a duo and then solo, and represented Australia at the World Transplant Games where I won bronze in the 50-metre freestyle and 200-metre freestyle.” 

Mr Mackinnon during a swim session

Tackling the Rottnest Channel Solo

In February of 2021, Mr Mackinnon completed his first successful solo Rottnest Channel crossing. 

“I was working towards my solo Rottnest Channel crossing for four years,” said Mr Mackinnon. 

“It was a culmination of having done two crossings in a team of four and two duo crossings over four years.

“Before my Rottnest solo crossing, I was meant to do a solo crossing for the Port to Pub, but that got cancelled due to Covid-19.

“It meant that I had to do another 12 months of training to make sure I was primed for the start line of my solo Rottnest Channel Swim.” 

Mr Mackinnon got the idea to do a solo Rottnest Channel crossing after meeting some swimmers who were preparing for the event. 

“I saw some swimmers training for it one morning at the pool a few years before I did my solo crossing and said to myself I would love to be able to get myself in a position where I could attempt Rottnest,” said Mr Mackinnon. 

“I really wanted to prove to myself despite all my health issues with two kidney transplants and being profoundly deaf, anything was possible if I put my mind to it.

“I then started training six times a week, with four pool sessions and two open water swims, trying to average 25 kilometres a week with two hell weeks where I swam 38 kilometres.

“When having my doubts during training, I do swim visualisation where I would visualise crossing the Channel, imagining reaching the sand at the finish line and crossing it.” 

Battling the challenges of ocean swimming 

Being born profoundly deaf and having undergone two kidney transplants, Mr Mackinnon has encountered his fair share of challenges but that hasn’t stopped him from finding ways to lessen their impact. 

“Due to my deafness, I can’t hear a thing, so I have to rely on visual signals,” said Mr Mackinnon. 

“I am an excellent lip reader which helps me at times, though when I did my solo Rottnest crossing my communication was via a whiteboard.

“It showed me how I was tracking in my swim and the best use of it was reading the messages from my loved ones, to keep motivating me.” 

Due to Mr Mackinnon’s two kidney transplants, he has to be on top of his nutrition and fluid intake to ensure he can stay fit and healthy and keep enjoying ocean swimming. 

“With my kidney transplants, I have to keep my fluid intake up during my day to day life and watch what I eat,” said Mr Mackinnon. 

“I can’t eat too much protein as it’s bad for my kidney and I can’t eat too many sweet foods because I am at an increased risk of diabetes.

“I also need to make sure I apply sunscreen before all my swims two hours earlier and then again just before I start the swim because of the medications I take for my transplant put me at a higher risk of skin cancer.

“I can get the shakes from another of my medications I take so I find if I can calm my breathing then it helps keep the shakes at bay.” 

Preparing for the World Transplant Games

Mr Mackinnon has recently been appointed captain of the Australian swim team for the World Transplant Games in Perth, Western Australia (15-23 April 2023). 

“I was approached by Transplant Australia for the esteemed role and I was incredibly humbled I was even considered,” said Mr Mackinnon. 

“It is an unbelievable honour to be captain. I’m looking forward to being a positive influence on those who are living with and/or unsure about life with a transplant.

“I want to show the Australian team, transplant athletes around the world, and my family and friends that anything is possible.

“Most of all with my role as captain, I want to make both my donors proud. My beautiful mother and a deceased 31-year-old male donor and his family from Melbourne because I thank them both every day that I have this incredible opportunity in life.”  

As Mr Mackinnon prepares for the World Transplant Games, he is increasing his training to ensure he performs his best. 

“I’ve been swimming four times a week at the pool, then one open water swim and two gym sessions,” he said.

“I want to get the absolute best out of myself hence the training load.

“I’ve also changed my training up to be more suited to my pool events which are the 50, 100, 200 and 400-metre freestyle, which means I am doing more speed work, tumble turns and dive practice.

“I have also undergone stroke correction to make some little tweaks to help me swim better through the water.”

To follow Mr Mackinnon’s journey to the World Transplant Games you can follow him on his Instagram

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