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Teen raring to tackle treacherous Foveaux Strait

Neither great white sharks nor choppy, chilly waters will deter 16-year-old Caitlin O'Reilly as she prepares to become the youngest swimmer to complete New Zealand's 'triple crown' by crossing Foveaux Strait. 

It’s 4:30am.

Most 16-year-olds are still deeply asleep, at least a couple of hours from waking up. Who knows, they may be pulling an all-nighter in an attempt to finish that English essay.

Not Caitlin O’Reilly though.

Her alarm’s just woken her from another sleep dreaming of the water. She drags herself out of bed and quietly, albeit groggily, tip-toes around the house.

“It’s a struggle,” she says, with laughter amidst the unfiltered honesty.

“Sometimes in the afternoons at school I’ll nod off; it’s pretty bad.”

It’s just another day in the Carmel College student’s pursuit of success. Eight swimming sessions a week, twice a day some days.

But through the frustration, the desire to stay in bed and the mental melee she has to grapple with, O’Reilly’s on a mission.

She will next year look to to swim across Foveaux Strait. If she achieves it, it’ll add to her already impressive resume of age-defying feats and she'll become the youngest swimmer to complete the New Zealand triple crown (with Cook Strait and Lake Taupo).

In 2017, at the age of 12, she became the youngest female and youngest New Zealander to swim across Cook Strait, doing it in 7h 19m. Last February, she ticked off Lake Taupo (completing the 40.2km in 13h 26m). Coincidentally, that was on Valentine’s Day.

“Swimming makes me feel amazing. I love it. I don’t know if I could live without it. It’s a part of me and always will be a part of me,” she says.

You can currently count on two hands how many people have swum across Foveaux - Te Ara a Kiwa - a 30km stretch of bitter, choppy, unpredictable conditions. Oh, and sharks, there are great white sharks. A bit different from a warm bed.

 
 

Foveaux wasn’t even supposed to be in O’Reilly’s calendar, for now at least. She was targeting the Oceans Seven - a marathon swimming challenge of seven channel swims around the globe. But, like a lot of sport around the world, her attempts were called off due to Covid-19.

“That hurt,” O’Reilly concedes. “We were planning on going to Japan [Tsugaru Strait] and California [Catalina Channel] but I guess, what can you do? It’s not in my control, and they’ll always be there. I’ve got more opportunities to do that," she says.

“To be honest, I was a little relieved that they were postponed because I felt like I hadn’t done the training for it. I’d done heaps of training, but I didn’t feel ready. I moved clubs only four months before and was still adjusting to that, I hadn’t done many longer, four or five-hour swims. Just two-hour squad trainings.”

That resulted in a switch in focus to Foveaux, and a change in mindset.

Caitlin O'Reilly isn't fazed by pre-dawn swims in her preparation to cross Foveaux Strait. Photo: Gareth Cooke/SubZero Images 

“I knew I had to up my training. So I’ve done a lot more open water training and prepped myself for the cold," O'Reilly says. "I did a three-hour swim last weekend and that was the longest I’ve done. The 12.8 degrees was a good test to see where I’m at and what I need to do to train more.

“For Cook Strait, I didn’t do much open water training at all; I did maybe three swims. And I’ve really learnt from that and know I need to spend more time in the ocean.

“I learnt it’s going to be cold. It’s going to be uncomfortable. But I’ll be all right as long as I keep a positive mindset.”

Bearing in mind, she will be doing this without a wetsuit.

That will mean adapting to the cold, though. Perhaps a trip to the supermarket walk-in chiller?

“It’s all about just getting in the cold water and swimming. I know some people have done the cold shower thing but I really didn’t want to do that,” O’Reilly says.

The direction she will swim will be tide and weather dependent. That means she could be starting on either the South or Stewart Island. The timing of it is also bound by the uncontrollable factors of wind and swell, meaning if it’s not right on her first attempt in February, she’ll likely have to wait another month. It makes the planning for it a bit of a challenge.

It’s hardly surprising though. After all, it’s a feat that when brought up with people, they’d probably question one’s sanity.

Comments like: “I’ve gone across there by boat - no way would I ever consider swimming it” are often the result of an explanation.

O’Reilly is blunt in her answer when asked if her friends think she’s mad. “Yes,” she says. “I don’t talk about swimming much with my friends. I just don’t.”

Caitlin O'Reilly training in the cold waters off Manly Beach, Whangaparaoa. Photo: Gareth Cooke/SubZero Images 

She clearly loves the grind. She thrives in the discipline required to succeed. It’s evident in her choice of hobbies of mountain biking and rowing.

Rowing: a sport that physically and mentally tests you; which requires you to go to dark places and forces you to fight a battle with yourself, never mind the water. Sound familiar?

“When I try and remember Cook Strait and Taupo, it’s all a blur. It’s just about getting one arm in front of the other and trying to keep a positive mindset. My mind definitely wanders, though,” she says, almost as if admitting a mistake.

“During Taupo, man, my mind went to some weird places! There were times when I’d be like ‘What am I even thinking about?’ Just the most random things. What am I going to have for dinner? What am I going to do tomorrow?' 

“Sometimes I think about sharks and what else could be in the water, but I just have to block those thoughts out. Kim Chambers, who’s a Kiwi ocean swimmer, one of her quotes is a favourite of mine: ‘If it scares you, that’s exactly why you should do it’.

“She’s emailed me a couple of times after swims, just saying if you need anything then to get in touch. That’s pretty amazing I have her support.”

But for now, it’s back to sleep. Back to dreaming of the dark unknown and feasting on dinosaur lollies. Just don’t tell her maths teacher.

* Meda McKenzie was the first, and is still the youngest, woman to swim across Foveaux Strait in March 1979, aged 16. Chloe Harris is the fastest swimmer - male or female - across the treacherous strait, doing it in 8h 30m in February 2016. 

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