Endurance – Oxford Languages defines it as the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way. I think of it as that moment when I reach my limit but then choose to keep going anyway. I wanted to stretch that moment this year through sport and see how far I could take it. And I wanted to do that somewhere beautiful.
That goal brought me to sitting alone at Brisbane airport on a chilly August Winter morning, holding a single boarding pass. In a quest to build my physical endurance, I signed up for an open-water swimming competition 2687 kilometres from my family and friends in a country I had never visited.
I was going to Fiji.
My story might relate to yours if you are still at beginner level in open water swimming and looking to compete for the first time. It’s a different world to the pool but the experience you carry from swimming the lanes does carry over.
With a local Masters Swimming group, I swim regularly and I truly love swimming in pools, lakes and rivers. My favourite aquatic love though is and will always be the ocean. I have enjoyed the thrill of white-water rafting, abseiling into water, snorkelling, reef-diving and waterskiing in four different states of Australia.
Over the years, though, I have also broken my spine twice. I have torn core muscles and dislocated multiple joints – at least once. I learned the endurance steps to rise back up and regain flexibility, mobility and ease of movement. But could I build up my cardiovascular and muscular endurance for a consecutive open-water races event? This was the perfect moment to dive into some research.
A quick Google search showed how many swim tourism tours are operating globally and the many destinations on offer. There are European, Australian and American trips for all different competitor levels. Many have group clinics and masterclasses built into the itinerary to sharpen your skills and improve your technique.
After a few weeks of research, I picked the one that resonated: Ocean Swim Fiji. From the course maps, itinerary and videos, this looked ideal for me. The program included three open water races of 1 or 3 kilometres and an optional group masterclass with Australian Olympic Gold Medallist, Shane Gould. The style of the trip would provide the physical endurance challenge I was looking for, and the destination of beautiful Fiji was a brilliant bonus.
The Countdown Begins
I took a deep breath, paid the deposit and made a deal with myself to commit to a weekly two to three-kilometre practice schedule.
In the master squad sessions, I practised stroke technique and coordination improvements; in the open-water sessions, I practised for endurance. The 25m 20-lap warm-up for a regular 40-lap set became my new normal, and then I stretched to 50 and 60 laps as my limit. There were a few 80-lap sessions and a crazy 112-lap session where it hurt to walk the next day. I didn’t try that again.
In the open water, I focused on close to shore 1k – 1.5k open water swims at Mooloolaba Beach and King’s Beach on the Sunshine Coast. I learned about sighting and the changing effects of weather conditions on the water. There is a lot to learn about reading surf conditions and how the winds and currents impact the swim, so I spoke with local swimmers and asked a lot of questions about safety and choosing the best conditions.
My friend and squad sessions coach, Kylie, cheered me on each session at the 25m and 50m pools with encouraging words and a coach’s mindset. She is a qualified swim coach who teaches children and adults and, to me, is a superstar! Kylie taught me how to control my breathing, use my core muscles better, and improve my stroke techniques.
With her and the Masters’ squad team, I continued to practise flip turns, race starts & race finishes. It didn’t always end well; there were many scrapes and bruises as I misjudged lane rope distances and the depth of the pool. Work, health and family commitments meant I missed more than a few sessions, and the Winter months were a tough call for early morning swims.
The practice was worth it, though, as I could swim longer. My endurance limit was stretching, and I could see the results.
Three Months to Race Day
It was now three months before race day and I booked my medical reviews to ensure I was on track. My GP was impressed with my progress and signed off on me competing. The physiotherapist, Tim, said the same and agreed that I was now well-prepared with the training work I had continuously put in.
This was a good moment with each; the time in the water had paid off.
Two Weeks to Race Day
The departure date for Fiji steadily shrunk to just two weeks away. The pool practice sessions were solid, and I felt strong in the distance in the pool. I knew though how different the ocean can feel, battling swells, waves, and currents while maintaining direction without lane ropes and lines. It was about to become the real deal. I swam another extended 1.5k ocean swim with friends, and it felt doable and comfortable.
Seven Days to Race Day
As the date drew to just seven days away, I explored the photographs and videos of the hotel where I would stay for the week. The Fiji Sofitel Resort and Spa has beautiful ocean views and swimming pools that cascade into each other for acres.
I read the itinerary throughout to know which towns and villages we would visit, which islands we would swim around, and how we would get there. I was pleased to read that we could pack books, clothes and school supplies to donate to families in a local village. I wanted to learn more about how we could contribute in Fiji. My husband, son and I made a buying trip to collect school supplies to donate, and my boy sifted through his Lego collections to see what might he could share with another child who loves building.
Three Days to Race Day
The final three days ticked away, and a sneaky bout of bronchitis took hold of me. My stamina dropped, and my breathing felt tight and hard. This was the worst time to get sick. I packed the super-strength chest medicine in my backpack and steeled myself to continue. I’d put in so much work for this, and I didn’t want to turn back now.
Race Day Eve
Flying out of Brisbane on departure day, the Fiji Airways flight to Nadi was smooth and comfortable. I noticed a wide range of travellers, what looked like a mix of business people, honeymooners, families and Fijian locals. It got me thinking about who travels to Fiji and why so I made a note to find out and follow up later. But arriving at the bustling Nadi airport, any work thoughts were swept away as a representative from Tourism Fiji greeted me and placed a shell garland around my neck. Then it was time to go as a mini-coach awaited the Brisbane flight group to whisk us away for a welcome banquet, opening speeches and a kava ceremony on the lush Sofitel Fiji Meke Lawn.
I walked in to the bustling welcome dinner that night, and felt daunted, but not for long. I was greeted with friendly smiles from the Ocean Swim Fiji team and shouts of Bula. I learned that Bula is an often-used phrase in Fiji: hi, hello and welcome. It’s warm, friendly and often said enthusiastically at high volume! I found a large table with one empty seat and asked if I could join. I didn’t realise then what a pivotal point that would be. At that table, I made new swim friends from Australia and America who would become my tight-knit friend group throughout the trip and beyond.
In chatting with these new friends over the holiday, I learned I am one of many who came to competitive swimming later in life. I met with swimmers of all ages from Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane, as well as the USA and New Zealand, and our reasons for being drawn to open-water swimming were as varied as our nationalities. Still, there was a common thread woven through many of the stories.
Kathy from Georgia, USA, and I chatted on the coach and boat trips as she shared her swimming story with me.
“I swam competitively from about 8 or 9 until my freshman year in college. After college, work and family commitments took me away from swimming for many years. About ten years ago, in a very short time, I divorced, lost my parents and my only sister and my daughters married and moved away.”
“I ‘accidentally’ started going for walks, which helped me process the huge life changes. The more I walked, the longer I walked, and I began running. From 2014-2016, I completed six half marathons and one full marathon. I was a horrible runner, but the time spent walking and running was good for me mentally. Around this time, I found a local pool and started to swim again. I had forgotten how much I loved it.”
“I’m a much better swimmer than runner! In 2021, I started swimming again for longer distances. A friend from high school I hadn’t seen in years posted on Facebook about an open water swim she had completed in St Croix, Virgin Islands. I don’t think I had ever heard of open water swimming outside Ironman’s, but that sparked my interest in trying it. Not knowing what to expect, I signed up for a race and went for it.”
I also shared a few relaxed breakfast conversations over the trip with Dory from Canberra, who started as a champion swimmer and stopped after getting married.
“I married someone who disapproved of me swimming, and I didn’t swim again for over 40 years” Dory said.
“With my 60th birthday on the horizon, I shared with an old friend how I was sick and tired of being fat, unfit, a heavy smoker – and, worst of all, dreadfully unhappy. He told me I was to start swimming again. So, on 17 September 2012, my old friend picked me up and drove me to the pool. He did this every Monday, Wednesday and Friday without fail. He asked me each time on the drive to the pool what my goal was in the pool for that day. I would say, “I’ll try to … “. He would tell me, “You’re not to say ‘try’; you are going to do!”
“After that, I decided to drive to Qld to have a holiday and learn to ride a surfboard, something I’d always wanted to try.”
Dory didn’t stop there. In 2015, she swam across the Dardanelles in honour of her great uncle, who died in Gallipoli in 1915. In 2016, she swam in a 4-person relay across the English Channel. “I can’t say I “enjoyed” these swims as I was full of self-doubt. But it was the start of a love of open-water swimming. Of learning about myself and respecting Mother Nature,” said Dory.
A bright spark of energy is Jo from Perth, who was on holiday in Fiji at the same time the race was on and chose to sign on for the challenge. “I am relatively new to ocean swimming. I have been in several local ocean swims in Perth and choose to do small distances.”
“Having the three swims in Fiji was fantastic because I could set my own goal, and see my improvement as I was being timed, which is awesome. Swimming is a healthy all-round sport. Although it is a solo sport and you are head down in the water, the people you connect with through swimming are all part of the journey.”
The first night for me in Fiji was long as my mind turned over through the hours about the race, the ocean conditions, the people I’d met and what the day would bring. It took a while to get to sleep, and when the alarm went off and the Fijian sun shined in, I knew it was all about to begin.
Early on Tuesday morning, we met for the coach trip to Port Denarau, where our boat awaited. It was then a short boat trip to South Sea Island, where we boarded smaller boats to take us to the island.
We listened to the safety discussions, reviewed the course map, and then it was time to line up at the finish line. The excitement was palpable; we had all come here for this. I looked at the ocean waters I was about to dive into and felt a sense of awe. The waters in Fiji are stunning – there is no other word for it. Picture the loveliest bright blue you can, and then take that up two notches into an even more bright, vivid colour. Yes, this was going to be something special.
The race starter sounded, and we all launched into the water in a massive froth of feet, arms and caps. My breathing was tight, but it was hard to tell if it was the bronchitis, nerves, or pure excitement. I decided to think of it as ‘nervous fuel’ as my friend Kylie had taught me. I came here for this, trained, and wanted to give it my all.
The waves were choppy that day, and it took extra work on the way out to reach the first buoy. Coming around the second and third buoys was easy; the focus was all on that next goal floating brightly in front, and the choppy water had settled a little on that side of the island. The water was clear as I passed over various corals, bright blue starfish and tiny fish travelling gracefully between the rocks.
The last 250m section to the finish line was when I could feel my breath growing heavier and energy drop. I looked up to see the finish line off in the distance. After rounding the final buoy, I would need to swim in to shore and then run up the beach to cross under the finish line arch.
The waves on that side of the island were choppy once again, and on the low point of a wave, I got too close to the coral and grazed my ankle. The pain was sharp, and as I tried to assess the damage, another wave hit me and I swallowed a few mouthfuls of seawater. My lungs were burning, my legs were tired, and I saw three other swimmers pass me by as I waited to catch my breath. It was a good time to remind myself of the many months of training, early morning starts, and practice sessions in cold seawater and winter pools.
I had come a long way but now had to decide whether to push through this challenge or just give it up and swim into shore from there.
Taking a deep breath, I looked to the finish line in the distance. It was still a fairly long stretch to swim, but it was time to rely on those powered-up endurance skills. I dived back under and pushed my way into the last stretch of choppy waves. After the final buoy turn, I swam directly in to shore, using the waves for extra momentum, and ran under the finish line arch with a massive smile.
The first race was now officially over and done.
After a cool drink, I stood in the Fijian sunshine with everyone and cheered each of the group on; this was a great way to holiday. Half of our mini group swam the 1k, and half swam the 3k distance. I looked on in awe at the 3k’ers still doing two more laps of the island. Future goals, right there!
South Sea Island is a peaceful, secluded paradise and we spent the rest of the day there snorkelling, watching a traditional Fijian dance performance, and basking in the warm sun. The connection between swimmers and the stunning natural scenery of Fiji made for an unforgettable experience on that first race day.
There were two more races over the following days, lunchtime feasts on the beach, exotic cocktails savoured in white linen cabanas and many laughs. Fiji time kicks in and you stop looking at your watch and phone so much. It’s refreshing.
The group masterclass with Shane Gould was gold; we learned specific breathing techniques to improve our stamina, and she introduced us to different perspectives on swimming as a sport.
The bronchitis continued for the trip. I strategically withdrew from the second race at Waitui Beach Club to rest my body and take the time I needed to go hard on the third race at Malamala Beach Club. I swam that final race faster and easier, and walked away with a personal best time.
It was time to relax completely.
Without hesitation, I slipped into ‘Fiji time’ during the week and comfortably fell asleep on two boat trips and three coach rides. The sun, swimming and good food made for a potent relaxation tonic. I squeezed in an afternoon tour trip to the Sabeto Thermal Mud Pools, which involves plunging into a warm mud pool and then into a piping-hot natural thermal spa. It was messy, fun and a must-do adventure!
I’ll book a manta-ray experience at the Yasawa Islands on my next visit. I want to check out the Navua River tubing experience and snorkel with reef sharks at the Barefoot Kuata Resort. I ran out of time to get into everything Fiji offers, and next time, I’ll know to stay longer.
Why Open-Water Swimming?
Looking back on what I learned from joining an open-water swim competition, I recognised how we can challenge and stretch our physical limits. Sure, our injuries, ages and sicknesses can feel like obstacles, but we can also work with them through swimming to build our strength, fitness and endurance. Open-water swimming is an exciting blend of competitiveness and camaraderie; you spend a lot of time face down in the water alone, but you still hold a sense of belonging as part of a group swimming for the same goals.
Kathy from Georgia shared, “I absolutely love swimming. Open-water swimming gives me a sense of accomplishment, freedom and a great excuse to visit breathtaking locations. Meeting kindred spirits is the BEST part!”
Dory from Canberra also summed it up: “The only person I compete with in ocean swimming is myself. Each swim offers a new challenge, and I love the feeling of freedom and weightlessness.”
The common thread I spotted in the conversations with many open-water swimmers is that they had always loved the water. Many had stopped swimming though because of time restrictions, locations, life commitments or injuries. When they returned, they related to it with a new sense of agency and purpose.
As I listened, I realised I was another who had regained a sense of curiosity and purpose from the sport of swimming. It’s a compelling and addictive sport to enjoy and comes with the bonus of a wealth of physical and mental health benefits. You’ll find swimmers in all kinds of weather in pools, oceans, lakes and rivers, all with a taste for early mornings, cold water and challenging limits. We have a drawer at home of our favourite swimming caps and goggles, and often succumb to that one more swimsuit purchase that we just absolutely have to have as a reward.
On the flight home, I began planning my next open water race, the Noosa Swim Series, in early 2024. For a whole family trip, Fiji is on my list again for mid-2024 and this time, it will be longer. There is so much to see in Fiji, and we want to explore its natural environment and experience its culture together.
The Magic of Fiji
Kathy enjoyed the beauty of the people and the surroundings. “Everyone I met was so friendly and happy, and they made me feel so welcome. There was also an overwhelming feeling of peacefulness; I felt more at ease than I do in my normal day-to-day – less stressed!”
Dory thought the people were a huge highlight. “It was like being let inside a big cushion of relaxation. Fiji time is a very real thing!”
Jo said, “I was lucky to stay with a friend in Fiji for four weeks. We visited a few islands, and they would have to be my favourite part of Fiji. The water quality is exceptional. The Fijians are doing a great job rehabilitating the coral; the underwater nature is abundant and glorious. I definitely will be back.”
From my observations when flying in, I wanted to learn more about who visits Fiji and what they do while holidaying in Fiji. Is it primarily tourists in family groups, couples or business travellers? I contacted Tourism Fiji and connected with Brent Hill, Tourism Fiji’s CEO.
Brent said, “Tourists visiting Fiji have diverse interests. While many still enjoy the luxurious resorts and beautiful beaches, there is a growing segment of adventure seekers. These travellers are keen to explore Fiji’s natural beauty, engage in water sports, and immerse themselves in open-water swimming experiences, hiking, village stays and adrenalin-pumping activities such as quad bike tours and ziplining. There’s an increased demand for responsible tourism, with visitors looking to contribute positively to the local communities they visit.”
This makes sense to me as an Australian traveller visiting Fiji. When travelling, many people want to positively impact the local communities by providing tangible assistance. After the pandemic, travellers worldwide have become even more mindful of how fortunate we are to travel and discover new communities.
Brent says that Tourism Fiji is focusing on meeting this need. “Many local Fijian businesses and communities recognise the opportunity to engage with tourists and provide them with authentic experiences. Visitors are increasingly interested in experiencing local culture and nature, which has led to an upsurge in activities such as village visits, cultural performances, and eco-tours. Moreover, there’s a growing trend of tourists wanting to give back to the community they visit, and local initiatives are emerging to accommodate these desires.”
So, what’s next for Fiji? Brent said, “Fiji has exciting events on the horizon, including the Spartan Race, the World Surfing League Fiji Pro, and various other sports and adventure offerings, in line with increasing visitor demands. Fiji was recently the first destination to sign up for EarthCheck’s Leading Destinations Program’ – a global network that unites destinations to benchmark and certify their environmental, cultural, social, and economic performance. Sustainability is increasingly important, not just for visitors, but for local communities, to ensure we preserve our environment and culture for generations to come.”
The future looks bright for Fiji. They are showing that a balance between nature, culture and commerce is achievable and essential for a brighter future.
For me, it’s back to the pool and the local ocean swims for Summer. A huge thank you to everyone who helped me build and test my physical endurance levels in 2023; I appreciate all of you. Your encouragement, support and teachings ran through my mind, heart and veins in that first race as I looked to the distant finish line on that day.
I’ve started training again for the Noosa Swim Series, Masters Swimming short course comps, and maybe another 2024 trip with the Ocean Swim Fiji.
In the meantime, I’ll keep swimming and practising to prepare for the next adventure.
Angela owns Whipbird Creative, providing content marketing services in Queensland, Australia. With over 18 years of professional writing experience, Angela has created various marketing and media content types, including feature articles, media releases and company blogs. Her passions are in writing about community and business development, sustainability and personal growth. Angela holds a degree in Communications, with a major in Journalism and Public Relations and loves to swim, travel and eat great food with friends and family.