Four swimmers, four different swims, all for one cause.
Rebecca Hollingsworth, Corrina Connor, Adriana Milne and Mike Howard, four Wellington swimmers, were all training for marathon swims when Cyclone Gabrielle hit New Zealand in February of 2023 and devastated parts of the country.
Upon seeing the devastation they decided to do something to help those affected, by using their swims to raise funds for the Red Cross New Zealand Disaster Fund.
After completing their swims and raising $15,000, we caught up with each of them to see how they went and to hear their stories.
REBECCA HOLLINGSWORTH grew up swimming but decided to give it up when she was only a teenager, it wasn’t until later in life that she discovered a newfound passion for swimming.
“I loved swimming growing up but then gave it up when I was 15,” said Ms Hollingsworth.
“It wasn’t until I left university and started working that a friend and colleague got me back into swimming.
“I started doing the New Zealand Ocean Swim Series in a wetsuit and then tried a triathlon before deciding to get into marathon swimming.
“I did some triathlons but it confirmed to me that I had no passion for cycling or running but loved swimming and wanted another challenge and that’s when I started to pursue marathon swimming.”
Since finding marathon swimming Ms Hollingsworth has found herself hooked on long distance, completing the challenging Cook Strait and a double crossing of Lake Taupo just to name a few before her recent Lake Wanaka swim.
“I like to set challenges to push myself and see what I can achieve, marathon swims are also kind of addictive,” said Ms Hollingsworth.
“I find that swimming with the fantastic open water swimming community in Wellington helps me really enjoy the lead-up to my swims.
“So far, my favourite marathon swim has been my two-way Lake Taupo swim which was 80.4km and took me just under 28 hours.
“While I didn’t enjoy all of it, it was such a big swim and real journey for both me and my crew which gave me such a high after completing it, even though I was a bit sore.”
Ms Hollingsworth was only the second official swimmer to swim the 43.9km across Lake Wanaka in a time of 14 hours and 18 minutes.
“I really enjoyed my swim even though it was a long one,” said Ms Hollingsworth.
“It was a very scenic swim and I had a fantastic support crew which helped me swim really well.
“I was happy with my time since it was only the second ever official swim, so it was great to do the time I did and also set the record for others to challenge in the future.
“The start of the swim was also very beautiful when the sun started to pop up above the mountains, it looked just magical. It was also my first marathon sunrise as my previous swims have been overcast mornings, so that was special.”
Despite the beautiful scenery for Ms Hollingsworth to enjoy on her swim, she did encounter some challenges along the way.
“Heading into the swim, my body was up for the challenge, it was more so making sure my mind behaved,” said Ms Hollingsworth.
“With about 15 kilometres to go, I was told to lift my stroke rate, as I had slowed down and this really challenged me.
“At this one point, I had to really focus on getting my mind in the right place and keeping my pace up for the remainder of the swim.
‘I will say though, the water was much warmer than I had been planning on swimming in, which was a pleasant surprise as I had expected the water to be 13 degrees but the coolest we recorded it during the swim was only 15.9 degrees at the start of the swim before getting up to 19 degrees near the end of the swim which was very pleasant.”
MIKE HOWARD was an avid cyclist before a series of bad concussions led him to walk away from the sport and pursue open-water swimming.
“I was training for ultra cycling events when I suffered from four bad concussions within three years,” said Mr Howard.
“Two of those concussions were quite serious and in one I had to learn how to walk and talk properly again. Given this, I decided to get into open water swimming after a 25-year break from swimming as part of my recovery.
“I started to swim in the Wellington Harbour where it gets down to eight degrees during winter. Swimming in there without a wetsuit was magic for my recovery and sense of well-being.
“I then started to enter a few 3km open water swims and then worked my way up to 5km and 10km events.
“Fast forward three years and here we are, with me having just completed my first ultra-marathon swim across Taupo thanks to me having met someone who had done the swim causing me to set the goal to complete Taupo within 12 months.”
Mr Howard’s 40km swim across Lake Taupo wasn’t all smooth sailing, with a few hiccups along the way. But nevertheless, he forged on and successfully completed the crossing.
“Overall, the swim went really well, but I had a bit of a struggle early on where in the first two hours my head was giving me some unhelpful self-talk,” said Mr Howard.
“My coach gave me some strategies and told me to find something calming to think about and I did just that and it worked a treat for the rest of the swim.
“Then at 17 km, I had a sore neck which thankfully went away with some mild pain relief, but then at 24km, I had quite bad shoulder and upper arm pain for the remainder of the swim. I thought I’ve swum through pain before, I can do it again here.
“Even though I was in pain, I would think about my fellow Kiwis who have been devastated by the cyclone and that helped give me a renewed focus because while I was in pain, it’s only small compared to what some of them have been going through.”
Mr Howard’s first ultra-marathon swim was everything he imagined it to be and an experience he will never forget.
“Leading into the swim I anticipated what the swim would be like and tried to visualise the swim,” said Mr Howard.
“But doing something instead of thinking about something is always a bit different, but the experience was truly amazing and something that will stay with me forever.
“Standing up at the end of the swim was an incredible experience and my favourite part of the swim as I was amazed that about 50 people had gathered on the beach to welcome me in.
“When I lifted my head out of the water, all I could hear was cheering and clapping which was a pretty surreal moment and extremely special. Then to have some pretty magical sunrises and sunsets during the swim just topped it off.”
To hear more of Mr Howard’s story check out his personal blog.
ADRIANA MILNE rediscovered her love of swimming when she started swimming by herself in 2019 to cope with the grief of losing her dad, fast forward three years and she has successfully completed her first ultra-marathon swim – 40.2km across Lake Taupo.
“I started swimming at the local pool as a way to express the grief I felt after losing my dad and it was also a way to connect with him,” said Ms Milne.
“Not long after I started swimming in the pool, I stumbled across a video of someone who swam in the ocean most days and it blew my mind that it was possible to swim in the seas and not just splash about on a hot day which I liked.
“I then went on to find the Wellington Ocean Swimmers Facebook Group and met with one of the groups on the page, the Washing Machines and became hooked on my first swim and became a regular of sea swims.
“After a few months, I thought it would be cool to one-day swim across the Cook Strait (Te Moana-o-Raukawa), but I was wisely advised to try a 10km swim first and then go from there.
“I successfully completed the Epic 10km swim in Lake Taupo and that was when I decided I wanted to start pursuing my long-distance dreams and eventually swim across Lake Taupo.”
Ms Milne went into her Lake Taupo swim with no expectations and left with some magical moments she won’t forget.
“Going into the swim I didn’t have a lot of expectations about how the swim would go or how I may feel, as I had never done a swim of this distance before,” said Ms Milne.
“I did visualise the finish a lot prior to the swim through and I felt much more elated than I ever could have imagined when I reached the finish for real.
“I also had a pretty magical moment during the swim thanks to my boat pilot, Phil Rush. He uses two boats when he takes people on ultra-marathon swims; an inflatable rescue boat (IRB) that stays with the swimmers and then a proper boat a bit further away.
“In the late morning, the IRB trailed off towards the main boat to swap out crew members and while they weren’t very far away from me at all, they were out of my view enough that it made me like the only person in the middle of this huge lake.
“That feeling of being the only person in the lake was just magnificent and it was a really powerful feeling to be surrounded by the blue water, blue hills and a spectacular blue sky.”
While Ms Milne had a successful first ultra-marathon swim she had some setbacks that challenged her throughout the swim.
“I did have a few adjustments I had to make during the swim, like getting cold and ditching the feeding plan,” said Ms Milne.
“About three to four hours into my swim I started to get cold after the air temperature dipped before sunrise. At this point I had conversations with myself about getting out and if I would be ok with disappointing my crew who had dedicated their whole day to supporting me and if I would be ok with disappointing myself.
“In the end, I kept swimming and pushed through to successfully complete it. And in hindsight, these things were to be expected when you are pushing your body and mind further than you have before and I am really proud of what I achieved.
“I hope I encourage people to own their dreams and do things that get them closer to those dreams. Also, if you are thinking of swimming for a long time, just start and you can do it.”
To hear more of Ms Milne’s story check out her personal blog.
CORRINA CONNER was a pool swimmer growing up but after 14 years away from the sport she came back to the water and got pulled into the marathon swimming vortex.
“I was a pool swimmer until my late teens and then I hardly swam for 14 years before I started to swim a little bit in 2014 with a triathlon club in 2014,” said Ms Connor.
“In 2016, I moved back to Wellington from the UK and joined a pool and open water swimming group and started to swim regularly with them.
“A lot of the people I was swimming with were training for or had already completed marathon swims such as the Cook Strait, Lake Taupo and Apolima Strait just to name a few. They were all super encouraging, unpretentious, sea-loving people and it was impossible to not be pulled into the vortex and start swimming longer distances with them.
“The Chopper Challenge, a 20km swim from Waiheke Island to Auckland was my first marathon swim and then in March 2021 I did the Cook Strait in a Tandem swim with Rebecca Hollingsworth. Unfortunately, we had an unusual day tide wise and after a lot of swimming I became very hypothermic and had to stop. I actually lost a few hours of memory along the way but thankfully Rebecca was able to finish her swim.
“Then in December 2021, I tried the Cook Strait again and successfully completed it with a different feeding plan.”
Ms Connor’s most recent marathon swim, the Foveaux Strait, is a notoriously rough and often treacherous stretch of water and saw her swim from New Zealand’s South Island to Stewart Island.
“I am only the fifteenth person to have crossed the Foveaux Strait under marathon swimming regulations,” said Ms Foveaux.
“I was also the first swimmer to have swum from the mainland (New Zealand’s South Island) to Stewart Island since 1989 as the most recent swims have all been in the opposite direction.
“Overall, the swim was very uneventful which is the best way for a marathon swim to go. I was very lucky and enjoyed a favourable wind direction and helpful swell, which meant that I could use the water to help me across.”
Heading into the swim Ms Connor didn’t know what to expect as the Foveaux Strait is one of the ‘Toughest Thirteen’ marathon swims in the world, but she was pleasantly surprised.
“I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect going into the swim except that it could be a hard day,” said Ms Connor.
“I knew from the times and experiences of previous swimmers that the conditions could be highly variable.
“Once I was in the water and felt the swell and got my arms moving, I was pleasantly surprised and all expectations were put aside and I just worked with the good fortune that nature supplied me with.
“Honestly at the end of the swim, I can say that the experience surpassed everything that I had worried about or expected and it was a really positive experience.”
While Ms Connor had some magical moments during her swim, she also had some challenges she had to overcome.
“Getting into the water felt challenging for me, as all my inner doubts filled my mind on the boat ride to the start,” said Ms Connor.
“Once it was time to climb off the big boat and get into the IRB, I felt a bit paralysed by the scale of the task ahead, but once I slithered into the water, most of those feelings immediately abated.
“I did have thoughts wondering how I would handle the temperature and distance but they were outweighed by some magical moments during the swim.
“I got to see an enormous albatross swoop down and away again during one of my feeds which felt magical and then swimming through the huge clouds of brightly coloured bioluminescence also was a wondrous moment.
“There are all indescribable moments and then touching the rock on Stewart Island at the finish was an incredible moment.”
To hear more of Ms Connor’s story check out her personal blog.
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