It was quite a swim around Manhattan Island when 43-year-old Julie Isbill of Perth Australia, 51-year-old Clair Harris of Berkshire, UK, and 52–year-old Boguslaw Ogrodnik of Poland competed in the 20 Bridges Manhattan Island Swim on July 23rd.
The trio also completed their quests to complete the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming.
In the case of Harris, her journey to become a Triple Crowner took 22 years. “It is fair to say it has been a lifetime ambition completed.”
With her 8 hour 11 minute circumnavigation swim of Manhattan Island, Harris added to her 1995 English Channel crossing in 15 hours 36 minutes and her 2015 Catalina Channel crossing in 12 hours 24 minutes 24 seconds.
Isbill finished her Manhattan Island circumnavigation in 7 hours 27 minutes. She had lots and lots of preparation for this Triple Crown climax. This year alone, she completed five successful solo Rottnest Channel Swim, bringing her career total to 15 crossings (5 hours 21 minutes on April 1st, 5 hours 54 minutes on April 25th, 5 hours 36 minutes on May 6th, 5 hours 37 minutes on May 27th, and 5 hours 19 minutes on June 17th before her July 11th 10 hour 42 minute crossing of the Catalina Channel.
Isbill, the founder of Bold & Beautiful (a large open water swimming club with over 15,000 swimmers in her native Australia), answered questions about her achievement.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: You have spent a majority of your ocean swimming career in your native Australia. Then over the last year, you went after and achieved the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. What was your motivation?
Julie Isbill: As I was entering the final year of my medical degree, one of my friends, and mentor from the year above said he wanted to swim the English Channel and would I consider doing it too. I have a few friends who have achieved it, but it wasn’t exactly at the forefront of my mind especially while studying medicine, but then how tempting, why not.
My partner, Michael Christie, said I should probably do it…so the decision was, should I do an honours project to graduate with honours, swim the English Channel or both. I discussed it with another friend and mentor, and he said definitely swim the English Channel, doing some crazy sporting fete was my winning formula and would be unique.
I had 16 weeks until my window, which I had managed to secure with Reg and Ray Brickell for the start of the English Channel season in June 2016 which coincided with my mid-semester break. It was the best decision I could have made. It gave me a reason to take a break in study and train most days. Kept me balanced, fit, feeling motivated and refreshed.
Whilst it meant lots of juggling, early starts and late nights, I still felt great for managing to squeeze it in and thankfully had a crazy friend, Dave, who was kind enough to accompany in the pool with his flipper and on long training swims by paddling along side me most weekends, making it much more like fun and much less like a chore.
The icing on the cake was I successfully completed the English Channel and graduated from medicine with distinction, so it was true, thank you Craig, it was my winning formula.
This year, as an intern, now working full-time, why not try to continue the theme? I applied for the 20 Bridges Manhattan Island Swim and was fortunate to get accepted. I contacted the skippers for the Catalina Channel and bingo, there was a gap 12 days prior to my date for Manhattan. In for a penny, in for a pound.
I pleaded hard with work and they very kindly gave me the two and a half weeks off work I needed to squeeze it in, arriving in Los Angeles the day before my Catalina Channel swim and flying out of New York the day after my Manhattan Island swim.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How did you train for each of the swims of your Triple Crown?
Julie Isbill: I contacted Vlad Mravec in Sydney [Australia], whom a few of my friends trained with and asked him to write a 16-week training program for me, which included joining him for his cold water swim camp in Melbourne, where I completed my 6-hour swim, but Vlad very sensibly made us swim 8 hours, a qualifying swim in sub-16°C water for the English Channel.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How do you balance your work with all this training?
Julie Isbill: With difficulty at times. Thankfully, it is made a LOT easier by having a couple of crazy friends who have been amazing.
This year, Maree and Sharon joined in, forming ‘The Manhattan Project’ as we used to call it. They would get up at a silly hour, meet me in the pitch black, don their fins, and swim alongside me in the ocean at 5 am so I could squeeze it in before work.
They would also meet me at the pool. On the longer swims, they would drive to wherever I needed to be in order to start the swim with me until it got light, or would walk up the beach to meet me on the return leg to finish off with me. This all made the world of difference, and made it all possible. Knowing I was meeting friends made it soooo much easier.
Dave, as he did the year before, also paddled alongside me for almost every long swim that I did each week, including 5 Rottnest Channel swims that I completed outside of the event, with thanks to my dedicated skippers Neil and Bob, to fit in with my training schedule.
The other helpful thing in the equation, is my partner, Michael, who when on occasion I felt soft, lazy or too tired, would encourage me to get up and go for a swim, reminding me how I would feel much better afterwards for having done it, not to mention I had damn well better as I had signed up for these swims so I had better train for them.
So…how do I do it? With a little help from my friends. I think there’s a song about that. As I always say, there is absolutely nothing solo about these solo marathon swims, they take an army of dedicated, wonderful friends to make them possible.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Were any of the the Triple Crown swims easier – or more enjoyable – than the others?
Julie Isbill: That should be an easy question, and one many people have asked, but actually I can’t seem to clearly answer.
They all hurt at certain points, at the time, but that immediately fades into insignificance as you reach the end and they all become fabulous.
Seriously though, the English Channel was the coldest, by far…15°C in the water and 14.6°C through the middle of the Channel which also coincided with the middle of the night for my crossing, but I knew it was going to be cold, so I had trained for that and it actually, well at least as I recall it, was actually fine. It was so exciting to be swimming between two countries, and actually being born in the UK (and my biological father who sadly died aged 35, when I was 6, who had, when he was a young man swam for England) and having my Mum and a few friends there from both the UK and Australia, was super sentimental so it was all very exciting and special.
Then to go to the USA and take on two swims over 12 days was exciting again at a whole different level.
The Catalina Channel crossing, being a night swim, I wasn’t intimidated as I had swum my English Channel crossing at night and had trained for countless hours in the ocean in the dark. I was excited, however, as I had heard about the illuminating bioluminescence and plethora of marine life that Catalina could turn on and I was definitely not disappointed. I had, what I can only imagine was a whale swim right under me and I mean right under me, in the middle of the night and I swam right through the centre of a feeding frenzy of bait fish, birds, dolphins and a sea lion who swam under me, rolled over, eyeballed me, then leaped right out of the water behind me, then…came back round to repeat the spectacle a second time. It was a sensational marine life experience and better than I could ever have dreamed of.
Manhattan Island. I had never been to New York before so didn’t really know what to expect, but once I arrived, I felt surprisingly emotional and excited. What an awesome thing to be doing, swimming around Manhattan Island. The reality of what an amazing opportunity this was suddenly dawned on me. We went round the Island a couple of days before which gave me a very real perspective and enabled me to familiarise myself with landmarks for each stroke of my swim. Then the day after we went to the ‘Top of the Rock’ to take Manhattan in, and the swim I had just accomplished from above. Swimming around Manhattan was honestly, such a wonderful buzz. So different to any other swim I have ever done, and uniquely emotional.
So, even after typing it out. Nope, it seems there is no clear swim that was more enjoyable, they were all wonderful in their own unique way.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Were any of the the Triple Crown swims harder than the others?
Julie Isbill: Easy to say now they are over of course, but none of them were ‘too’ hard. I trained, which made them possible of course, and I was successful in each of them, so easy to say they weren’t too hard. But, were any harder than the others. I don’t think so, they are each challenging in their own right too, for different reasons:
English Channel: it’s cold and you don’t really know how far you are going to have to swim as the currents take you on a lovely little diversion. But, both of those things you know going into it so you are prepared and have trained for exactly that.
The stop and start of the actual start of the English Channel was probably the biggest challenge and something unique to the English Channel, that is different from any other event I have ever participated in. Whilst something I knew, I didn’t fully appreciate the emotional challenge of this until I went through it myself. You speak with your skipper and get the potential green light, you might be going ‘tonight’, then you call again at the 2-hour window and bang, just like a candle being blown out, it’s off. Nope, the weather has changed and you are not going. It is not unusual for swimmers to experience this a number of times before they actually get their real, fair dinkum, start.
Some swimmers even get on their boat and start motoring to the start, before they get turned around, as a false start. You don’t fully appreciate the emotional challenge of this until you experience it.
Catalina Channel: A night swim, I wasn’t worried by this, but the reality was it was much darker than I imagined, the boat didn’t have floodlights on me like my boat for the English Channel did, and there is zero light pollution from Santa Catalina Island as no one lives on Catalina and you are 35 km from the mainland, so it is black, black, black. The biophosphorescence was out of this world and kept me entertained until dawn, as did, what I can only assume was a whale, that came right up underneath me and eventually freaked me out as I thought he was getting so close he was going to take me for a ride. If I had been on a training swim, I would have suddenly walked on water and leaped onto the back of the kayak, but I knew if I did this it would be all over and that was not going to happen, so I decided staying calm and enjoying the experience was the only option, until the whale got bored and we parted ways.
Manhattan Island: The thought of Hell’s Gate was petrifying, so much so I asked to go in the wave 10 minutes earlier than I was scheduled, as I was so worried about not being able to keep up the pace that my coach, Paul had suggested, and that I would miss the gentler windows Hell’s Gate had to offer.
As it was, I ended up arriving early to Hell’s Gate, so before it was due to be at its calmest, but it was, luckily, a non-event for my swim.
Manhattan was so unique, being entertained by the skyline of the evolving island for the whole duration, not to mention, being zoomed along in places by the currents, it was definitely a swim to remember.
If you asked my partner, Michael, who supported me on all three swims, you might get a different answer. Pretty sure he would say the English Channel was the hardest. The boat was a professional fishing boat – no creature comforts at all, no seat, no cover, freezing cold, ridiculously rough for 6-7 hours with sea water washing over the deck all night and big metal things that fishing boats have on their deck to fall into. The other two, he could sit, get shelter and in Catalina was even cooked a hot breakfast on board, so no comparison for the support crew.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Did you keep the same feeding pattern on all three swims?
Julie Isbill: Yes, I used the same feeding plan. Feed after one hour, then every half an hour after that. Rotating through 3 feeds, all liquid, with the odd flat Coca Cola thrown in for good measure to break it up and give me a treat every now and again after 4 hours.
The only difference was I didn’t have warm liquid feeds for Manhattan as we made them all up in advance and Alex, my wonderful paddler, carried them all, pre-made, for the duration.
For the English Channel and Catalina, Michael made each of my feeds up fresh, as we went along, with warm water. Actually in the English Channel, for a good few hours, it took 3 people to make up my feeds as Nicky, Dave and Michael all held onto each other in order to be able to get the powder and hot water successfully into the bottle without loosing the feed or Michael overboard, as the sea was so rough and the boat was rocking and rolling all over the place.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How did the Triple Crown swims compare with the Rottnest Channel Swim?
Julie Isbill: Rottnest Channel is now my home training ground, unlike the first time I ever did it, when I lived on the East Coast of Australia, in Manly, NSW and travelled over specially for it. Back then, in 2006, it was my Triple Crown of Ocean Swimming. Now it is a training swim. Funny how things change.
One thing about the Rottnest Channel Swim, is it is totally different every time I have done it, and that currently totals 15.
On occasions, if you are extraordinary lucky, it can be calm and you can see the bottom the whole way across, even through the shipping channel. Most of the time, however, the swell picks up, the currents kick in, making it a challenging day, and you can see the bottom from just after halfway if you’re lucky.
My times have varied from 5 hours 19 minutes to 8 hours 2 minutes, so as you can see, it really can be very different.
My first Rottnest Channel Swim in 2006, which coincidentally is my slowest, not primarily because it was my first, but because the conditions were tough, I also had a ~6-foot hammerhead shark swim right underneath me. It featured in the newspaper the next day, reassuringly that it didn’t get close to any swimmer, well that wasn’t true, it certainly swum under a few of us, but was only small and was 100% minding its own business.
In 2016, I completed a double Rottnest Channel Swim – there and back, ~40 km, as I was nearing Rottnest I had an adult Great White Shark swim perpendicular to me, thankfully I didn’t see it, or I might have changed the colour of the sea right there and then, but my support crew saw it, and were comforted that it just cruised past, not showing any interest and kept on swimming. Phew!
So, Rottnest Channel Swim certainly offers it all, and should definitely be on the radar of marathon swimmers. Not to mention, if you stay on Rottnest for a little holiday afterwards, it is truly beautiful, untouched and you feel a million miles away from anywhere.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: If an open water swimmer visited you for 3 days in Australia, what three beaches would you take them to?
Julie Isbill: Having lived in Manly for 15 years, founding Bold & Beautiful Swim Squad in Manly, which is still going, swimming out of Manly 365 days a year, 9 years later, and having scattered my second Dad’s ashes off Manly Beach, I would always take everyone to Manly.
It is a beautiful haven, has a special piece of my heart and coincidently is a no-take aquatic marine reserve, so is teaming with marine life in a beautiful picturesque part of the world. But don’t tell everyone how special it is, it’s our best kept secret.
So…#1 is Manly, NSW. #2 is Port Beach, Western Australia where I do most of my training swims currently. And #3 is Denmark, Western Australia, a stunning little treasure in the South West.
Photo shows Clair Harris and Julie Isbill celebrating their Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming in Manhattan Island last week.
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