Embracing the Swimming Culture After a Move to Australia
SYDNEY, Australia – The spring sun may have been warm, but the Pacific Ocean felt like a tray of ice off the coast of Sydney. I kept my head down, watching the two swimmers heading towards me from the rocky shore, and tried to breathe in a steady rhythm while swimming faster than usual to warm up.
As the distance between us narrowed, they both stopped and appeared to be gesturing. I raised my head.
“Bull Ray,” said one of the women my age, wearing an orange swim cap. I peeked under the water. It was medium, the water was clear, but I could only see rocks and sand 10 feet below.
“Where?” I screamed when I came forward again.
“Right there!” She pointed her finger at me directly. “Below you!” I pushed deeper into my next dive and then I saw it: a black blanket, wider than my height, its wings fluttering on the edge as if ready for takeoff.
What made my heart beat faster – fear, surprise, appreciation? Most likely all three. Bull rays are mostly humble animals, but their stinging vertebrae are poisonous. I was convinced that one of them was the death of Australian superstar Steve Irwin.
I’m not Steve Irwin. Before moving from Brooklyn to Sydney in 2017 to open the New York Times’ Australia bureau, I was a conscientious Landluber. I would dive into the ocean a few times a year, splash around, and then retire to a chair on the beach. My exercise version includes four miles of jogging three times a week.
But something changed in Australia. From neglecting swimming to hating it to the feeling of drowning, my body and mind are stretched by the creatures and currents of the sea. Two years ago, I broke my path to becoming a volunteer lifeguard on one of Australia’s most dangerous beaches. Nowadays, I surf or swim in the Pacific four or five times a week.
I have come this far because of the people around me, from my neighbors to my children, insisting that I take part in it. He said. Leave your individualism and reporterial distance, succumb to the pressure of Australian peers, and accept what American life rarely celebrates: proficiency.
The word simply means “skillful to do.” Not exceptional, not superior. Net expert. In Australia, this is the level of capacity of all 181,000 volunteers patrolling the country’s beaches, including small cruises of professional lifeguards. Grandmothers, triathletes, politicians and immigrants, we all became proficient after six to eight weeks of rip currents and rescue group training, CPR, shark bites, jellyfish stings and resuscitation.
Ocean swimming was a prerequisite – and an entry point for something more profound. For me, water proficiency has become a source of liberation from cults of land aggression and adaptation. Up and down the ocean, I can be imperfect, playful, chaotic and happy as long as I walk. As a parent and citizen, I often ask myself: What if we all had a place of risk and reward that demands humility, where you can’t talk or tweet, where you want to do good?
Ocean by risk and time
The communal, ocean-knowing culture I fell into in Australia began 50,000 to 65,000 years ago when some of the first inhabitants of the continent crossed the land bridge and the sea to the northern tip of the Landmas.
Australian Surf Lifesaving began in Sydney with men like John Bond, a soldier and doctor who gathered and trained some local swimmers around 1894. Commanding and mustacheed in the photos, he is a respectable man where he landed and where I did. , Also – in Bronte, on Sydney’s coastal suburbs, winding a small beach where southerly winds often create 12-foot waves and where rip currents can flow at Olympian speeds.
I ended up in Bronte because Spanish was being taught in public school – which my children, who were 8 and 6 when we arrived, had mastered in Mexico and at their bilingual school in Brooklyn. They wanted to learn another language in our new home. About nature. About a world where nobility and fear flow together.
The national anthem of Australia describes the country as “Garva by sea”. Worldwide, about 40 percent of the population lives within 100 kilometers, about 62 miles, of the ocean; In Australia, 85 per cent of the country’s 25 million people live that half distance. Speedo was started here in 1914 and even inland – dusty color in arid cities – public lakes are as common as playgrounds. Somehow, swimming is seen everywhere and is expected from everyone. In Bronte, most people know someone who has tried swimming in the English Channel.
For my son, known as the falcon, Balthazar and his younger sister, Amelia, the reunion process began with a junior lifeguard program called Nippers. This is a Sunday ritual for generations. Thousands of nippers between the ages of 5 and 14 attack Australia’s beaches between October and March to race on the sand, swim deep in the ocean, and practice using rescue boards. The cute name doesn’t start capturing what the action looks like – each age group has its own colorful swim cap; Each child has his name and a neon pink rash guard, known in Australia as a rash. Parents trained as lifeguards are their guides in the water, wearing orange acne to brighten the scene even more.
I was tempted to laugh at first sight. This led me to “Strictly Ballroom” and “Moulin Rouge!” Australian director Baz Luhrmann was remembered for such brilliant films.
But the longer I stayed, the more I came to understand summer camp (or boot camp?) For patience and community. The children pushed each other to complete each task. Together they faced a punitive surf. Fear and tears were ignored, not condoned, not denied.
One day, my son found himself at the center of it all. He was driving the board, bobbing on its double-height waves until he reached the break zone. A wave lifted him up and – with the force of a freight train – hit him on the shore and suffocated the boy in the sand and surf.
I ran to him, a group of teenage girls first gathered around him, trying to calm my running heart. “The best wave of the day,” said one. Baz could not breathe, his face was covered with snot, tears and sand. After a few minutes, he smiled proudly and was ready to go again.
My daughter proved to be even more daring – she was the one who encouraged her shiny girlfriends to jump off rocks or swim long distances or take another ride on the rescue board.
And then it was my turn. The eagle challenged me. Amelia agrees: Dad needs to get his bronze medal, a life-saving qualification that would get him an orange.
It was time to become proficient.
A personal struggle
Many people who swim for sports or exercise since childhood usually write and speak with a love reserved for romantic poetry.
My approach favored four-letter words.
My first attempt to qualify for a bronze medal training failed. I could not swim 400 meters in less than nine minutes as required. I finished in 10 minutes 17 seconds, sighing for air.
So in the 40’s I was taught swimming lessons by the same enthusiastic young woman who taught hawk and Amelia when we first arrived in Australia.
Insulting? Yes. But the worst part of swimming was real swimming. In the Bronte Baths, a marine lake carved out of sandstone on the south bank of the Bronte in the 1880s. Every 30 meters lap felt like climbing Everest.
Eventually, I began to improve. At some point, I changed my freestyle technique, breathing every third stroke instead of every two, which helped me see the situation to my left and right – which became more important when I dug a pool for the sea. Bondi Beach was where I learned to surf, so I started swimming there. Since there were no streets next to me and no one was swimming, I started having fun practicing and exploring. I was surprised to see samples of silver fish and underwater sand. One day, I wandered into a dolphin’s pod, darting and diving, and watched in horror until I could catch my breath.
A few months later, when it was time for me to try the life test again, I completed the distance of 400 meters in more than a minute.
Then new struggles began. As part of the training, we were expected to swim together at 6 a.m. It was spring: the water temperature was below 65 degrees. The search for proficiency also includes group CPR and rescue simulations, meaning that the chest pressure is close enough to smell each other’s breath. We were strangers, men and women, aged 15 to 50, with different backgrounds, jobs and political views. None of this mattered. We built to build our skills. Not because we were great but because we were good enough – together, even after our swimmer fell off the yellow spinal board.
I realized that proficiency is not like victory, success, or anything else that dominates the hierarchy of American goals. It’s more forgiving, more inclusive, more noble – if you prefer it. And we do? How often do any of us look for risks or physical and mental challenges that are not related to work or success, by paying allowances for error, interdependence and grace?
While researching the book about Australia, the risks, the community – I discovered the vast benefits of being proficient. Martin Seligman, an American psychologist known for two very different lines of inquiry (learned helplessness and positive psychology), told me that the search for competence is known as a worrying trend of American fragility. For decades, he said, our culture has sought to protect emotions, believing that self-esteem is the key to success. But it is backward, he explained. People don’t do well because they feel good; They feel good because they do well, often after failing and improving.
Maybe children should imitate. Here in Sydney, the new Nippers season has just begun. While my son has only encouraged me to enjoy aquatic life with water polo and surfing, my daughter is getting strength from Sunday morning rituals in Australia.
Amelia is now 11 years old and we swim together where I saw that bull ray. Recently, when the surf was involuntarily quiet, we jumped off the cliffs of the Bronte Baths and made our way south to where we had never been before because the usual waves would blow us to the pulp. We were still feeling the strong current and we knew there might be sharks nearby, so we stayed together. Fearless or careless, we swam a few hundred meters without noticing the distance until I saw another deep surprise – a blue gropper, a giant fish, the color of the midday sky that is so dim that it is protected from spear fishing.
“Here,” I shouted. “Blue Gropper!”
Amelia was next to me in a jiffy, then down. Right behind me, in a quiet and peaceful foreign land, I was pulling myself towards the beautiful fish and the brave girl.
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