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Selective memory key to long distance swimmer’s feats

Bronwyn Copeland likens long distance swimming to childbirth.

“You forget about the pain and only remember the good stuff,” says the Tauranga doctor and mother of two girls.

The analogy came to mind after she’d won the Apolima Challenge - a 22km swim from Samoa’s main island, Upolu, across the Apolima Strait to Savai’i.

“During that swim I was thinking, ‘I’m never doing one of these again’. But then later, you forget about that,” Copeland says.

That selective memory will help Copeland, 41, take on her toughest challenge later this month when she attempts to swim the 40km length of Lake Taupo - from Turangi in the south, to the sandy beach at Taupo’s township.

“It’s 40.2km,” Copeland gently reminds me, and with good reason. That extra 200 metres will hurt.

It’s why staying on course is so vital.

In Samoa last year, tides, choppy seas and wind meant she swam about 24.5km - more than two kilometres further than she might have, in the longest swim she’d ever done.

Each extra stroke hurt, and the uncertainty of knowing when she would reach land in Savai’i played on her mind.

“I was fine for about five hours, which is about 18km. I thought then I had another 4km more to go, and that’s about another hour and a half. But then the current and the tides worked against me,” she says.

What Copeland learned from that experience was not to focus on time, but to lose herself in the swim.

To count strokes and focus only on her next stop to eat and drink. To forget about the bigger picture of how long the swim is, how long she’s been in the water, and how far off the finish line is.

It is, she says, the ultimate challenge of staying in the moment.

Swimming is a lonely sport. When Olympic champion Danyon Loader ended his competitive days, he said he'd grown tired of counting sticking plasters on the bottom of the pool.

There is no substitute for endurance training, and for Copeland that's meant long early morning sessions in the pool, before helping get her children, Dulcie, 10, and Sonja, 7, to school, then heading to work.

She’s a psychiatrist, specialising in geriatric care, and her training means she is acutely aware of the mental side of her sport.

Copeland hasn’t always swum. At Cape Town University, she was a runner until injury forced her to reconsider her options, and she was encouraged to take to the water.

It led to triathlons and now long distance swimming.

In Samoa, her husband, Justin, and their daughters were Copeland’s support crew. But acute seasickness in the rough conditions meant all three were rendered pretty much useless.

Once, as she came alongside for a break, a drink of water and something to eat, Justin could only vomit over the side of the boat, while the girls slept in the middle.

It all added to just how tough that swim was.

Yet Copeland won it, becoming the first woman to do so, and in the process ensured the long distance bug wasn’t about to disappear.

Copeland will be guided by distance swimming legend Philip Rush in her attempt to cross Lake Taupo. Photo: Afoa/Samoa Events.

Which brings us to Lake Taupo and another extremely tough swim.

“The good thing is there’s no current, no tide, and though there can be a bit of chop, you can drink the [fresh] water as you go, and it’s less harsh with chafing,” she says.

The down side, she says, is she won’t be as buoyant, because it’s not salt water.

Sunburn can also be an issue, but Copeland hopes that by starting at 3am, she will only be in the sun for only six or seven hours. 

She readily admits there is something slightly crazy about long distance swimming, but she’s clear why she’s taking on Taupo.

Firstly, she loves a challenge. And she will also be raising awareness and funds for the “P Not Once” campaign, which aims to educate teenagers about the perils and pitfalls of methamphetamine.

Copeland’s work at Tauranga Hospital has exposed her to the damage drugs can do and how it can become a generational problem.

“As a mother I want the best for my daughters and I know that no-one is immune,” she says.

Once she has conquered Lake Taupo, Copeland has her eye on another famous stretch of New Zealand water - Cook Strait.

The legendary Philip Rush will be guiding her across Lake Taupo from an IRB - with swimming mate Neil McClean replacing her seasick-prone family as the support crew. Rush will also help her across the Strait.

He knows that stretch of water like no-one else - having swum it eight times, including a double crossing in 1984, and he’s guided countless others across too.

Rush also completed a double crossing of Lake Taupo in 1985, and has swum the English Channel 10 times including a phenomenal triple crossing in 28 hours and 21 minutes.

But it was a woman who was first to swim the length of Lake Taupo. In 1955, Empire Games swimmer Margaret Sweeney crossed from south to north in 13 hours and 39 minutes. It would be another 22 years before anyone replicated her feat.

Kiwi women have a strong history in long distance swimming.

Fiona Fairbairn became the first person to complete a 45km solo swim across Lake Wanaka last month, finishing in 16 hours and 19 minutes.

In 2015, Kim Chambers swam 48.2km through shark-infested waters from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge – the first swimmer to cover the distance.

Then there’s the amazing Sandra Blewett, whose many feats included the Cook and Foveaux Straits, the English Channel and a double crossing of Lake Taupo.

Copeland isn’t sure why women are so good at swimming long distances. She notes they carry more fat than men, and jokes that it gets them out of the house and away from chores.

But she can’t pinpoint why she does it, let alone anyone else.

“I know I’ll be thinking I’m crazy again [swimming across Lake Taupo]. But it’s for a great cause and if my suffering helps people, then that’s good,” she says.

“And I do like a challenge.”

A little selective amnesia helps too.

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