Andy Donaldson, an ex-professional pool swimmer, made the swap to open-water swimming later in his career and after catching the ultra-marathon swimming bug, he is intent on conquering the Oceans Seven* in one year.
Having completed some of Australia’s most illustrious marathon swims; the Derwent River Big Swim, Palm to Shelly and the Rottnest Channel, Mr Donaldson is aiming high, with the goal of breaking the current world record for the fastest cumulative time of all Oceans Seven swims, while raising awareness and funds for mental health charity Black Dog Institute.
Suzie Ryan caught up with Mr Donaldson to talk about his transition from sprinter in the pool to an open-water swimmer, his ultra-marathon swimming journey so far and how he is planning on tackling his Oceans Seven.
From sprinter to open water swimmer
Growing up in Scotland Mr Donaldson was a pool swimmer from a young age but when he moved to Australia in 2013, he discovered the beauty of open-water swimming.
“200m freestyle was my bread and butter. I could swim it over and over again and was quite good at it, winning multiple national titles,” said Mr Donaldson.
“After moving to Australia, one of my goals was to make the 2014 Commonwealth Games Team as it was in my home city of Glasgow, but unfortunately I injured my shoulder in the lead-up to the trials dolphin diving in the ocean and that hampered my preparation, so I didn’t quite make the team.
“It was a tough time and I was at the stage in my career where I had been a pool swimmer my whole life and I was starting to consider other options as I wanted a fresh new challenge.
“So, I sat down with my coach, Matt Magee, at Perth City Swimming Club and talked about my options and one that came up with making the switch to open water swimming.”
After talking with Mr Magee, one of Australia’s top open-water swimming coaches at the time, Mr Donaldson was tempted to give open water a try.
“I was very fortunate that my club had a lot of open-water swimmers in the group that I was training with and Perth has a big open-water scene,” said Mr Donaldson.
“So, you could say I got tempted to give the open water scene a go.
“Plus, I was training with some of the top open water swimmers, like Simon Huitenga and Heidi Gan, who were already on the international circuit, so they were the perfect people to train with and learn from as an open water novice.
“I started training towards the 10-kilometre open water, and while it was a huge jump from the 200-metre freestyle, I was ready to give it a crack.
“I really loved racing and I was consistently placing in the top ten at events here in Australia which was great.
“In the second half of 2014, I started exploring options to race for Indonesia on the international stage as I am half Indonesian and set my sights on trying to make the 2016 Rio Olympic Team.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t come together and while I came into great shape leading into 2016, I didn’t get the opportunity to put it to use on the International circuit.
“After this, I decided to step away from the sport and start focusing on my career as a chartered accountant.”
The comeback to swimming
In 2018, Mr Donaldson decided to make a comeback to swimming, stepping up in distance again to swim in the famous Rottnest Channel Swim.
“It started as a bit of fun, but the organisers of the Rottnest Channel Swim reached out to me and asked if I would like to do the swim, as they were looking for some elite guys to participate in the ‘Champions of the Channel’ race,” said Mr Donaldson.
“They hit me up five weeks out from the race and I stupidly said yes. At that point, I wasn’t training very often as I had hung my togs up.
“One thing I can tell you is that five weeks is not enough training for the Channel!
“But nevertheless I managed to come away with a third place, in 4 hours 10 minutes, it certainly hurt but it was all worth it.”
After Mr Donaldson’s impressive Rottnest Channel performance, he decided to once again step away from the sport until the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
“After another few years off from swimming, it was the Covid-19 pandemic that got me back into swimming,” said Mr Donaldson.
“I found myself down at the beach swimming along the coast with friends and realised how much I actually missed the sport.
“I also didn’t realise how much of an impact swimming has on my mental health and the fact that I had access to my friends and community during the tough time of the pandemic was a huge bonus.”
During this time, Mr Donaldson also started a swimming group with a friend and mentor Martin Smoothy to help people transition from pool swimming to open-water swimming.
“It was almost by chance that I found myself taking swimming seriously again,” said Mr Donaldson.
“Martin and I were bringing quite a few people together and he said to me why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and get back into swimming and start ticking off some unfulfilled goals of your own?
“So, I did just that and decided that I wanted to give the Rottnest Channel a crack again. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and it was going to be a hard slog, but I was willing to give it a go again as I decided to raise money for a local mental health charity along the way.
“10 months out I got to training and started focusing on high-quality swimming and trying to train at a pace faster than everyone else in the field.
“I managed to get down to holding a 1-minute 10-second pace very comfortably and could almost do it with my eyes closed.”
Back to the Channel
Fast forward to February 2021 and once again Mr Donaldson was putting his foot on the line for the Rottnest Channel Swim.
“I knew going into the race there were a lot of guys that were in the top five in Australia for the 10 kilometres, such as Kyle Lee, Byron Kimber and Will Rollo, who I would have to race against,” said Mr Donaldson.
“I was by no means the favourite going into it, but rather an underdog. Everyone thought I was just a has-been swimmer and no threat at all but I loved that as it drove me harder.
“On the day I had an absolute blinder of a swim and came out of the blocks gunning it and pretty much led from start to finish. I ended up winning and coming in seven minutes ahead of the next swimmer. So it was a really great swim.
“Overall, the swim was a real eye-opener and made me think that maybe I still had some more in the tank and I could use my swimming to help on a bigger scale.
“Ultimately this was the catalyst for getting me into ultra-marathon swimming and the start of the ‘Oceans Seven Challenge’.
An introduction to ultra-marathon swimming and the Australian Triple Crown
After winning the Rottnest Channel by seven minutes, Mr Donaldson set his sights on conquering some of the toughest swims in the world by completing the Oceans Seven, but first, he wanted to tick off something closer to home – The Australian Triple Crown.
“After Rottnest, I told my coach I wanted to do the Oceans Seven, but I didn’t want to jump straight into it, I wanted to get some experience in ultra-marathon swimming under my belt first,” said Mr Donaldson.
“So, I decided to start doing some local channel swims first here in Australia and that’s where the idea to do the Australian Triple Crown came to me.
“I decided to try them all in the same season, to see how my body would react and handle backing up after each swim. If I pulled up well then I knew I had a chance at finishing the Oceans Seven.”
Unfortunately, Mr Donaldson’s first swim on the list, The Port to Pub got cancelled in early 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic but that didn’t stop him from diving right into the Derwent River Big Swim.
“The Derwent River was my first exposure to swimming at night and in cold water, as well as a distance over 30 kilometres,” said Mr Donaldson.
“I wasn’t exactly prepared for the cold water as I had done zero cold water training and we started at 2:30 am, with clear blue skies, so it was quite a cold night.
“I really struggled at the start gasping for air, but after two hours, Val my skipper shouted out ‘you’ve covered 11.9km in two hours, keep up the good work,’ it was at this point a switch flicked in my head, as I just went for it.
“I ended up finishing the whole 35 kilometres in 5 hours 35 minutes and knocked a good hour off the existing record.
“After, the swim I worked out that I was averaging 57 seconds per 100 metres which is just ridiculous, but that was with the help of the tide too. From that point, I knew I could tackle challenging swims after making it through the cold.”
Next on Mr Donaldson’s list was the Palm to Shelly Swim, and well, you could say that wasn’t without its challenges too.
“The Palm to Shelly Swim was one month after the Derwent River, so I was going into the event in good form,” said Mr Donaldson.
“I was nine kilometres in and tracking to break the Palm to Shelly record when the wind changed and started to blow us out to see, but that was the least of my problems.
“I was three kilometres off Mona Vale Beach when my boat took off into the distance before returning and then proceeded to start circling around me. My first thought was ‘oh no, there’s a shark’, but as it turns out the boat was actually sinking.
“The bilge pump was not working, so the boat was filling with water, leaving my support crew bucketing out water, while I was left there to tread water for 30 minutes.
“After the 30 minutes, I started swimming again and was just powering as I was the angriest I had ever been during a swim, not at the crew but just at the whole situation and how it unfolded.
“When I finally got to the finish line, Tim Garrett goes ‘well-done mate, you were only 10 minutes outside the record which is incredible in those conditions.’
“I thought, my god after all that, I was so close.
But it was at that point it confirmed to me that I could do these marathon and channel swims and be able to handle adversity like that.
The Ocean’s Seven Challenge for a good cause
After getting the bug for ultra-marathon swimming and gaining the confidence he needed during the adversities of his Derwent River and Palm to Shelly Swim, Mr Donaldson decided to start his journey of tackling the Oceans Seven Challenge, but not without a twist.
“Instead of just trying to do all of the Oceans Seven, I decided to try and do them all in one year (not a calendar year, but within 365 days) and break the existing world record of the fastest cumulative time of 64 hours 35 minutes. I am aiming to do it in 45 hours,” said Mr Donaldson.
“After raising funds for my local mental health charity in Rottnest, I wanted to use this massive feat as a vehicle to benefit others, so I have partnered with Black Dog Institute to raise awareness and funds for them.
“They do a lot of great research into not only how to treat mental illness but also into how to prevent it as well.
“I also thought doing these marathon swims while raising awareness for such a great mental health charity was quite fitting as there are a few parallels to life in these swims. My favourite would be when things go unexpectedly, which happens in life and in some of my swims so far, you just need to keep pushing on.
“So far it is going great and I couldn’t have started without the support of all my friends and family and also Speedo, they have been very supportive towards me throughout this Oceans Seven journey, supplying me with gear when I need it.”
Swim One: The English Channel
On August 8, 2022, Mr Donaldson completed the first of his seven channel crossings, The English Channel, a 33km stretch from England and France – in a new British Record.
“I completed the English Channel in a time of eight hours which is the fastest time in ten years and also a new British record for the fastest male crossing which hadn’t been broken in 34 years,” said Mr Donaldson.
“I was a bit nervous heading into the swim, as the channel is known for its unpredictable weather and incredibly strong tides which can change rapidly.
“I did manage to complete it in almost a straight line from Shakespeare Beach, England, over to Cap Gris Nez, France.
“I was lucky enough to have a fairly good swim with minimal currents. I managed to do the first 10 kilometres in two hours, but then when I got to the French side I got caught out by the strong currents, which slowed me down and I ended up having to swim an extra 3 kilometres into shore.”
Swim Two: The North Channel
On September 19, 2022, Mr Donaldson conquered the treacherous 34km of the North Channel from Northern Ireland to Scotland in 9 hours and 13 minutes, the fastest crossing of 2022 and only 4 minutes shy of the channel record.
Mr Donaldson was also the first Scottish man to successfully complete the crossing, all while ticking off swim number two in his Oceans Seven challenge.
“It was really special to swim in the waters where I grew up and I was simply delighted to come through some of the really dark patches and successfully make it across,” said Mr Donaldson.
“I was lucky enough to come away pretty unscathed from this swim and dodged most of the lion’s mane jellyfish that live in the channel.
“The most challenging part for me was the bitterly cold water. My muscles were ceasing up at the three-hour mark and I wouldn’t have gotten through without my support crew.
“So, you could say I was ecstatic when I finished it and became the first Scottish male to do so.”
There’s no stopping Mr Donaldson from trying to complete the Oceans Seven of marathon swimming in one year.
Next on his list of ultra-marathon swims to conquer is the Cook Strait in New Zealand, followed by the Kaiwi Channel, a forty-two-kilometre swim between the islands of Molokai and Oahu in Hawaii.
“I really want to get over to New Zealand and tick the Cook Strait off my list in the next few months. Given the time of year it is, it won’t be too bitterly cold,” said Mr Donaldson.
“Then, I am booked in to do the Molokai swim in April, which I am really excited about because it is the longest of the seven-channel swims and there is truly some big swell out there in the Pacific ocean. The island also looks like something out of Jurassic Park, I’m keen to get out there and explore and take in the sights while swimming and then also have some fun post-swim.
“After that, I am booked in to do the Catalina Channel off Southern California in July.
“I am still working on the Tsugaru Channel in Japan and the Strait of Gibraltar. They are probably the two toughest, not in terms of swimming but logistics-wise.
“I am finding that my body can certainly manage to do all seven channel crossings in a year, but the logistics, organising and getting slots with organisers is the hardest part but I am going to give it my best to get them all in.”
*What is the Oceans Seven?
The Oceans Seven consists of a solo unassisted crossing of the following waterways around the world:
North Channel 35 km between Northern Ireland and Scotland
Cook Strait 23 km between the North Island and South Island of New Zealand
Molokai Channel 42 km between Oahu and Molokai Islands in the State of Hawaii
English Channel 33.5 km between England and France
Catalina Channel 32.3 km between Catalina Island and the Southern California mainland
Tsugaru Channel 19.5 km between the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido in northern Japan
Strait of Gibraltar 14.4 km between Europe (Spain) and Africa (Morocco)
Each swim presents its own set of challenges including venomous jellyfish, extremely cold water, rough swells and sharks.
To follow Andy’s journey follow his fundraising page or Instagram.
If you need help in a crisis or support with your mental health, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.
For further information about mental illness check out the Black Dog Institute.