Open Water Swimming: Wearing a Wetsuit for the First Time

Some months ago, I was fortunate to meet Risny at the Incitement 'Liter of Light' initiative where we spent two days building solar powered water bottle lights for a community in Cameron Highlands. After our short introduction, she mentioned that she had participated in the Raleigh Round Island Challenge (RIC) where teams would have to brave the raging sea for a 18km swim around Perhentian Island in the name of challenge and adventure for her first open water swim as a triathlete.

What she also told me was that she had zero swimming skills just two months back, and how she had decided to try open water swimming. I caught up with her recently and here's what she has to say about her experience. 

Risny ploughs through the deep waters in Perhentian Island, Malaysia. PC: Nik Rahusnaza

Risny ploughs through the deep waters in Perhentian Island, Malaysia. PC: Nik Rahusnaza

1. Hey Risny! So let's get this straight - you have never swam before, and two months later you are signing up yourself for an open water challenge. How did this crazy plan come about?

Thank you for featuring me! Yes, I was never a swimmer before participating in RIC. I knew how to float, but I did not know the proper stroke techniques for any of the swimming styles.

It all began back in 2015, I joined RIC as a volunteer. I was in charge of the food distribution at the checkpoint boat. Witnessing it last year, I had thoughts of joining this year’s RIC as I wanted to challenge myself. A year passed and registration for the event had finally opened. At that point, I did not want to sign up because I had some self-doubts; I could not even swim properly let alone swim 18km around the entire Perhentian Island. But along the way, I met a girl who became my best friend. She was an ex-synchronised swimmer. She pushed and motivated me. In the end, we signed up ourselves and along with two other girls as a team! 

2. What were you most apprehensive before setting off?

I think labelling my emotions with apprehension is an understatement! I was scared, terrified, anxious and basically undergoing all kinds of uncomfortable emotions. But what I was most apprehensive about was definitely the thoughts of drowning. Like I said earlier, this was my first open water swim which was on a rather large scale. I had never joined any swimathons and here I am, joining one of South East Asia’s longest swimathon. I had no clue how swimming in the open waters felt like. So definitely, I was really scared of the currents and the fact that I would drown due to exhaustion. 

3. What were some of the intense high and lows from swimming through the rough waters?

As RIC consists of swimming and kayaking, I was ignorant about the fact that I could get a severe bout of sea sickness and this could possibly hinder my performance while kayaking. To be honest, thinking about it now makes me feel anxious. I still remember when I got back to the safety grounds, my vision started jerking sideways, up and down, as if I was still witnessing the motion of the waves.

The absolute worst part was when I was at the third checkpoint out of the five checkpoints. We had lunch on a really shaky boat and right after that meal, it was my turn to swim and at that point, we were already in South China Sea. When I jumped in to swim, I had a pounding headache due to how rocky the checkpoint boat was but I ignored it. Take note, the currents in South China Sea was really bad too. So when I was swimming, I kept going back and forth. Adding all of that up, I lasted about 20 minutes before I stopped and discharged the contents of my entire lunch in the middle of the ocean. Within minutes, I was surrounded by a school of fishes who came to eat the mess I created. Haha! 

Gasping for air and hoping one will come out fine despite being sea sick was a tough mental battle for Risny.

Gasping for air and hoping one will come out fine despite being sea sick was a tough mental battle for Risny.

4. How did you keep your spirits high and overcome your fear (if any) from attempting this?

Once I started swimming in the ocean, the fear of drowning was gone but instead, I was worried that the fear of exhaustion would dawn upon me and the fact that I could possibly pull my whole team down.

I think my whole group played a huge part in it. There was constant encouragement among the team members and they were very patient with me. I mean comparing with everyone's fitness in my team, I appeared to be the weakest in swimming. But I was really glad that I had these three girls as my team mates because they really did motivate me to keep pushing through. 

5. Can you recall any memorable moments while swimming that seemed like the universe was conspiring to help you succeed?

To be honest with you, my head was just in the game. Swim and get it over with. I did not really notice things around me except for the extremely salty taste of the sea water at every single wave. 

But I think there was one particular incident where I was really exhausted; I could feel my back burning and witnessed a school of fishes. I knew I should stay away from them but I could not help but swim through the fishes. Being the usual "bully", I swam through the school of fishes deliberately and I felt tingles on my body. I have no idea why but that made me smile while swimming.

Further ahead, there were more. Again, I swam through the fishes breaking them apart. And soon, I forgot that I was tired as I was just trying to swim through the fishes! But yeah, I stopped after a while because I did not want to bully them anymore. Pretty random but it was a really cute mother nature moment. (No fishes were harm in the making of this paragraph). 

6. Do you think by attempting brave expeditions like these, it is an act of bravery or recklessness, because there is an inherent risk involved?

I personally think attempting brave expeditions like these could be a combination of both depending on the individual. If you can't swim one lap without taking a breath, then I think joining RIC is pure recklessness.

But let’s just say if you have been training for something and you want to challenge yourself, then yes it is an act of bravery. For me as much as I hate to admit it, I think it was a bit of both for me. I wanted to challenge myself but yet, I could not even swim well. Looking back, I think it was pretty reckless of me to sign up for it without proper training. It was only after signing up, my best friend started the training sessions with me in a span of two and half months. It was a huge risk to take but I decided to and I am glad I did! What’s life without risks anyway? 

7. Most importantly, how did you convince your parents?

Sigh. It was definitely a tough one convincing my parents. When I was buying my air tickets online, I told my mum that I was going for this. I guess she did not take me seriously as she did not say much about it. But a week before I was leaving, I told my mum I was leaving this Thursday.

My mum had a meltdown. She panicked and said “What can I do to convince you to not go?” We had a heated argument about it. My aunt was calling me up and begging me not to go. Every day till the day of my departure, my mum would always nag and scold me about being ignorant to sign up for expeditions like these. It was hell. I don’t think I did a good job at it as my mum cried when I left the door haha! 

My mum would give me a earful daily on the many instances of “death”. There were stories of how I might drown, get lost in the South China Sea, get swept through the currents or anything basically to show how big of a risk it was. But I told my parents this, every day in our lives there would always be risks. As I am writing this, I am on an airplane with my mum. How would I know if this plane does not crash? Should I not travel on airplanes then? Let’s not talk about airplanes, even just crossing a street could possibly be my last breath. I told her we should not let it stop us from doing what we want. I assured her by telling her I knew my limits. If I knew I was going die, I would immediately pull myself out of the swimathon. I know my parents love and care for me that is why they were being difficult. But sometimes, I guess we need to let our parents learn how to trust their children. Trust us, that we have the strength to go through this.

8. Do you need to be super fit to do this?

Among all the expeditions at RIC, this year’s swimathon was the hardest as it was our grit and bodies against the strong currents. There was a team who was stuck in South China Sea for 5 hours as the currents were unforgiving. In terms of fitness, I think it would be rather ignorant to join this if you are not physically fit for swimming. For example, my friend rarely exercises but she is physically fit when it comes to swimming. She hates running and hiking but put her in the water and she can swim laps for hours. It all depends on your body. For me personally, I don’t think I was really that physically fit for swimming but I would say being resilient and my mental fitness played a huge role in putting my skills to the test in these waters. 

6 months later and the sunburns are still visible

6 months later and the sunburns are still visible

9. What's our no.1 excuse that may stop us from taking part in something adventurous and how can we overcome that?

 I think one of the excuses that we often use to stop ourselves from taking part in something adventurous is the fear of getting out of your comfort zone. Every single time, when I undergo something as drastic as this, I would curse underneath my breath.

I mean waking up at 5.00am and returning to the shore only at 7.00pm and swimming under the hot sun, heck I could have slept in bed back in KL, watched television and just chilled. But would I do it again? Yes, definitely. Looking back at my training, it was hell but I have no regrets in joining this as I felt a sense of accomplishment and I could not help but feel so proud of myself.  Like what the Under Armour quote says “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light”. 

Resiliency, endurance and grit was all that was needed for Risny to participate in the swimathon. PC: Nik Fahusnaza

Resiliency, endurance and grit was all that was needed for Risny to participate in the swimathon. PC: Nik Fahusnaza