Defying The Odds
“I knew it would be tough: sharks, wind, currents, swell.” In her own words, Lauren Tischendorf explains the inspiration behind her history-making swim
By Lauren Tischendorf
Photography by Bradley Farley
Swimming has always been a passion of mine. I often used to swim mid-winter as a little girl, playing in dams and rivers or diving into swimming pools late at night, mesmerised by the lights catching the water. Growing up, everyone in my neighbourhood had a pool, so we were always jumping fences to swim. My grandfather was an olympic and Springbok water polo player and later a lawn bowls player. As a child I also took part in diving, synchronised swimming and water polo. During my teenage years, when my family emigrated to Australia from South Africa, I did a lot of squad swimming as a way to make friends. For as long as I can remember I have played sport, trying my hand at most, but my first loves have always been swimming and tennis.
After moving to Sydney almost eleven years ago and spending time on the Eastern beaches, I’ve explored ocean swimming much more deeply. There is nothing better than a sunrise swim at Bondi to start your week off, it’s meditative bliss! I now swim daily, if not twice a day. Group swims are best, but there is such joy in doing a Bondi lap to clear the cobwebs with a body surf in between (the big swell keeps you grounded).
It was my love of water and the flow and tranquillity of the ocean that led to this epic challenge in April 2021. I’m 39 and the reigning female New South Wales 5km 35-40 ocean swim champion. I often got heckled with people shouting that I could not swim as well, as far out, nor as fast as my fellow male counterparts. Then a flippant comment early on in the pandemic made me determined to prove them wrong. As I was preparing for a 6km swim, a gentleman commented that he didn’t believe I should swim “with my gal pals,” but instead with a group that was leaving later and swimming slower. How could someone, let alone a guy without knowledge of my skill and speed, tell me when and whom I should swim with in open, free water?
Stubbornness will only get a person so far. As an adventurer at heart, I looked within my home state of New South Wales to set my new challenge. The ecological wonders of Lord Howe Island (a UNESCO, World Heritage Listed island) could not have been a more perfect spot for the circumnavigation. The foundation of the challenge – to become the first woman to swim 35 kms around Lord Howe Island in a solo, single session – was to emphasise that women, like men, can achieve beyond the realm of what may seem possible. Along with this, it was non-negotiable that the trip had to be self-sufficient and eco-friendly to ensure that we did not interfere with the ecology. Due to its unique biodiversity, Lord Howe Island did present some difficulties. As such, nutrition was limited in packaging, and carry-on waste was stored for disposal back on the island. Swimwear, multi-use equipment and food storage devices were used to reduce plastic. I also connected with the organisation Pledge for the Planet to encourage supporters to effect and adjust their daily habits to promote greater awareness of their environmental impact. The number of residents and visitors to the island is limited to 350-400 people. As the swim was planned during the Easter school holidays, finding a bed for myself and the crew during high season was fraught with challenges, to the point where the need to find beds trumped the conditions of the water.
I had an amazing crew. My parents joined me, as well as my fellow swimmer friend, Bel, and a photographer friend, Bradley Farley. Bradley’s dedication was incredible as he had only ever paddled once in his life prior to the swim. He ended up paddling eight hours in the rough surf. My coach, Vlad Mravec, is a renowned long distance swimmer himself who has coached a number of people and backed me from the start. For many months he was the only person who knew about my challenge. Ocean swimming is welcoming and community driven, but it is quite competitive, especially if you want to be the first person. The support and cheer I had from my coach, friends and family far and wide was incredible and I am so grateful that they truly all had my back.
The swim itself was incredible. The weather forecast predicted up to 2m waves and over 12 knot winds. Mother Nature certainly delivered that and more, but I was well prepared. I love swimming in 8ft swell and had recently taken part in a six-hour swim in 8.5ft along Bondi Bay as part of my training, feeling seasick and without food for three hours. As I set out from the island boat ramp, towards the cliffs, I was in awe of the coral and fish, as not many places for ocean swimming have amazing natural forest. As I headed around the first cliff, waves and swell increased, as did the deep blueness of the water. A young booby swooped and followed me for about 5k. I had a ball watching her, although my crew later told me that they were concerned his beak was going to pierce my skull. At about 9k, I had my first experience of ‘game’ wildlife: two enormous kingfish darted towards me, their silvery bodies magnificent.
For the first three hours, the swim had a festive vibe, my stroke was strong, the scenery incredible and my team jolly. We turned at the top point of the island, Malabar Heads, and I was cruising at a comfortable pace, passing Neds Beach to Blinkys Beach. From there I knew it would be tough: sharks, wind, currents, swell. It was an instinct I knew but was ready for it. Bradley and I had made a visual marker on one of Gower Island’s points, a place where we were going to rest and refuel. What we thought would be an easy ten minute glide, turned into two hours slogging, pushing through the water in the same spot. I troubleshot every strategy in ocean swimming to get through that current.
This might sound like a horror story: these unfolding events were happening in the local shark breeding area. Galapagos and Tiger sharks had been trailing and circling just a metre below, behind and in front of me. I accepted it, knowing that I needed to be ‘at one’ with them – fear would only bring them closer. I had one close encounter with a Tiger shark where he came in towards my chest, so I made an awkward hug position and had to stop. My crew were given strict instructions prior to the swim that at no point should they take me out of the water, only unless I was bitten by a shark. Luckily for them, and my parents, the swell and currents were so wild they couldn’t see what was following me.
At this point I became frustrated with the 30 minute feed breaks as the sharks kept coming closer, so for the rest of the eight-hour swim, I didn’t eat or drink any more. As I rounded Gower Island, I was on the homestretch of approximately 12k. Again, faced with strong currents, I battled through, but I loved every minute. As I headed towards the sunset with the boat ramp and cliffs in the distance, I gauged I had three hours of sun left to make the final kilometres. The sun went down in 30 minutes and I have never been more disappointed. Turning into the reef, a spotlight showed me the way, as well as reef sharks and flying fish guiding me. As I headed towards the boat ramp I heard shouting, car horns and people clapping. Many of the island folk had come out to welcome me. After 13 hours and 50 minutes, at 20:37, I landed, wobbly legged, back on the boat ramp. The little rock that I had picked up for luck at the start of the swim was still safe in my cozzie.
I had the best time on the water that day. At no point did I want to get out. It was the most incredible feeling of self-confidence and belief with an acceptance of what was in front of me and continually moving through it. Following the swim, I made an award-winning short film called I Just Went For A Swim, which includes part of the swim and the build up to it and captures the many layers that make me: somewhat tenacious with an off-beat sense of humour. The film essentially highlights a woman’s potential and her endeavour in the face of the male naysayers. She proves that strength doesn’t need to be showy or Machiavellian. It has been so rewarding to hear the stories of women and girls of all ages telling me how they have overcome their fears of the ocean after thinking about my swim or having watched the film.
My feat in these treacherous waters has proved that, just as men can charter and push the boundaries of their bodies for personal growth, women have similar – yet different – abilities and strengths. These characteristics should not be questioned nor undermined. Women’s ability to endure and succeed is unique, profound and to be emulated – not competed against.
When is your next swim? This is the question that I’m perpetually asked, as everyone is curious to know about it. I serenely share, ‘it’s sometime’, and like all open water events, it’s awaiting the best window where currents, storms and sharks are not as prolific (I give a nervous laugh) before adding, ‘I don’t fancy swimming against the currents for 2 hours again’.