Would you go swimming in the ocean with a blindfold on?
Perhaps someone blacked out the inside of your goggles so that you couldn’t see anything.
Would you head out to depths where your feet no longer touched the sand?
Maybe you would if you knew the water would be calm and flat. But what if it was an open beach with surf? A beach where relentless waves stand up and break on sandbanks, one with rips, sweeps, gullies, tides and wind all moving and changing directions. Would you swim out to deep water through the surf?
This week Rosie Ning caught up with the very talented and incredibly driven Gerrard Gosens, who takes on the surf and open water swimming without vision.
Gerrard is a regular on the public speaking tour, invited nationally and internationally to talk about his achievements so far, and there’s bound to be more on the horizon. Numerous articles have featured him, including this one for ABC News written in July 2022 in the lead-up to the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Since his retirement from representing Australia in triathlons, Gerrard has been spending more time swimming in the open water. He took time out of his training schedule to provide some insight on what it’s like for him to ocean swim without vision.
Rosie: What’s the first memory you have of swimming in the ocean?
Gerrard: I am a totally blind Para triathlete, and I was very new to the sport. The Gold Coast Triathlon gave me my first memory of swimming in the open ocean. It was an incredible challenge trying to make sense of this unfamiliar race environment. For one, it was a windy, rough day which creates difficulties navigating my surrounding already. Then, the ocean was so unpredictable with choppy waves which would hit my face consistently and inconsistently. For some reason, I would choose the time to take a huge refreshing breath as a wave splashed roughly and powerfully into my face. It was a distressing and choking experience and I instantly realised that I needed to do more open ocean swim sessions to begin to understand how to navigate these kinds of conditions in open waters!
How long have you been ocean swimming?
I began ocean swimming in 2016 when I started training and competing in triathlons. I have had to swim in very challenging conditions and continue to develop strategies to contend with not being able to see the swells or the waves in the open water. Just when I thought that I had worked the ocean out, a new experience would appear for me to problem solve, like how do I stay in a straight line when the currents are moving me in a totally different direction? And how do I work with the ocean to get back to the land rather than against it?
What do I do with the fear I feel when something moves across my underbody, and I can’t make sense of whether it’s a safe or potentially unsafe sea creature?
Is there a difference for you between swimming in the pool and swimming in the ocean?
For a totally blind athlete, there are many differences between swimming in an open ocean and swimming in a pool. To start with, the controlled atmosphere makes pool swimming easier. I don’t have to contend with changing and unstable conditions, and I don’t need to be attached to another athlete to be able to train in a pool. I can train on my own in a swimming pool by using the lane ropes as my guide as this technique allows me to train effectively in a lane without slamming into other lane swimmers– It hurts a lot because I scrape my arm along the jagged edge of the lane rope. The disadvantage of the pool training is that I must stop at each end to turn around (otherwise I hit my head at the ends of the pool) so it’s not a “continuous” training session like I can experience in the open water sessions.
The water at the shallow and deep ends of a swimming pool sounds very different, I avoid swimming at swimming pools like Chandler swimming pool, because it is the same depth for the length of the pool and is disorientating.
For ocean swims, I absolutely need help from a “buddy swimmer” who is connected to me. We are joined by a short elastic tether at the hip and thigh. While swimming in the ocean, it is nearly impossible to know how far I have swum. For example, you may feel like you have swum 1km, but because of the current, you have only gone 700m. I envy sighted swimmers who can see a buoy or landmark to receive feedback on their progress. It must be an amazing feeling to be able to just throw your togs on, dive in and swim independently, freely and with purpose in the ocean water. Unfortunately, I will always require assistance with this activity in the same way that I cannot just put my runners on and go for a jog around the block. I need a running guide for this activity too. A running guide can help me navigate the environment by telling me when to step over obstacles, duck down to avoid low-lying branches or run around parked cars, poles etc.
A swimming buddy needs to be braver and more selfless than the average swimmer to allow me to be tethered to them while swimming in the open waters. They need to be able to communicate where possible about the progress being made, when to turn, and consider what else is impacting the swim during challenging times to keep us both safe.
What is the best way to give swim stroke advice?
The best way for a swim coach to give a person who is blind or has low vision advice is by both verbal and physical instructions. In fact, everyone is different. Explore the ways that suit you and build on it. It’s important that the instructor is patient but still has high expectations; never gives up; and continues to give layers of instructions over a longer-than-normal period. Delayed learning is often because we literally can’t see what it’s supposed to look like and therefore how it’s supposed to feel.
What advice would you give to people with a vision impairment who would like to start ocean swimming?
I believe that after gaining some experience and skills in a swimming pool, a person who is blind or has low vision should find an open water location in very calm waters first like a lake or reservoir. I suggest that they should swim in a wetsuit several times in different conditions. The wetsuit will provide them with some buoyancy assistance while they develop their confidence and skills in open water swimming while being tethered to someone they trust.
What’s next? Do you have any open water swimming goals?
I have a few open water swimming goals. The priority is to further develop my skills, experience, fitness, and physical and mental strength for distance swimming over the next couple of years.
I am recruiting several buddy swimmers to assist me with many more open water training sessions and events. I will be entering long-distance swimming events over the next couple of years, slowly increasing the distance of each swim as I build my skills and teams for these courses.
I eventually intend to swim the English Channel as a platform for raising money for a charity of my choice.