SYDNEY, Australia – The spring sun may have been warm, but the Pacific Ocean felt like an ice tray from the shores of Sydney. I kept my head down and tried to breathe in a steady rhythm as I swam faster than usual to warm up, keeping tabs on some of the swimmers heading in my direction along the rocky shore.
When the distance between us reduced, both of them stopped and were seen pointing. I raised my head.
“Bull Ray,” said one of them, a woman my age wearing an orange swim cap. I peaked under the water. It was mid tide, the water was clear, but I could see rocks and sand about 10 feet below.
“where?” I screamed as I reappeared.
“right there!” He pointed straight at me. “Right under you!” I pushed deeper on my next dive, and then I saw this: a black blanket of a stingray that I’m taller, its wings flapping at the edges as if getting ready for takeoff.
My heart raced, what – fear, wonder, admiration? Maybe all three. Bull rays are mostly docile creatures, but their stinging spines are venomous. I was pretty sure that one of them was responsible for the death of Australia’s nature superstar Steve Irwin.
I am no Steve Irwin. Before moving from Brooklyn to Sydney in 2017 to open the Australia bureau of the New York Times, I was a dutiful landlord. Several times a year I would go for a dip in the ocean, splash around, and then sit on a beach chair. My version of the exercise involved jogging four miles three times a week.
But something changed in Australia. I went from ignoring swimming to hating it, longing for the feeling of drowning, dragging my body and mind along with the creatures and currents of the ocean. Two years ago, I worked my way up to become a volunteer lifeboat at one of Australia’s most dangerous beaches. These days, I surf or swim in the Pacific Ocean four or five times a week.
I’ve gotten to that point because people around me, from neighbors to my kids, insisted that I participate. “Try it,” he said. Let go of your individualism and reportorial distance, succumb to Australian peer pressure and embrace something that American life rarely celebrates: proficiency.
The word simply means “skilled to do.” Not exceptional, not great. Absolutely efficient. In Australia, this is the qualification level required for all 181,000 volunteers patrolling the country’s beaches along with a small crew of professional lifeguards. Grandmothers, triathletes, politicians and immigrants, we all became proficient at rip currents and rescue after six to eight weeks of group training, CPR, shark bites, jellyfish stings and resuscitation.
Here are more fascinating tales you can’t help but read till the end.
Ocean swimming was a prerequisite—and an entry point—to something deeper. Proficiency in the waters, for me, has become a source of indignation on land and a source of liberation from the cults of adaptation. In the seas above and below, I can be imperfect, fickle, political, and happy as long as I am on the move. As a father and citizen, I often wonder: what the world might look like if we all found a place of risk and reward that demands humility, where we can’t talk or tweet. Where do we just have to do better?
Risk and the ocean through time
The communal, sea-loving culture that I fell into Australia began 50,000 to 65,000 years ago when some of the first inhabitants of the continent made their way across land bridges and seas to the northern tip of the land.
Australian surf lifesaving began in Sydney with men such as John Bond, a soldier and physician, who gathered and trained some local swimmers around 1894. Commanding in photographs and a mustache, he is a respected figure where he landed, and where I did, too—in Bronte, a coastal suburb of Sydney, encircling a small beach where the southern swell often generates 12-foot waves. and where rip currents can move at the speed of an Olympian.
I ended up in Bronte because the public school taught Spanish – which my kids, who were 8 and 6, had mastered in Mexico and at their bilingual school in Brooklyn. In our new home, he had a second language to learn. about nature. About a world where the sublime and the scary flow together.
The anthem of Australia describes the country as a “strip of the sea”. Worldwide, about 40 percent of the population lives within 100 kilometers, about 62 miles of an ocean; In Australia, 85 percent of the country’s 25 million people live within half that distance. Speedo started here in 1914, and even inland – the color of dust in arid cities – public pools are as common as playgrounds. Somehow, swimming seems to be everywhere, and is expected of everyone. In Bronte, most people know someone who has tried to swim the English Channel.
For my son, Balthazar, better known as Baz, and his younger sister, Amelia, the integration process began with a junior lifesaving program called Nippers. This has been a Sunday ritual for generations. Thousands of nippers, aged 5 to 14, invade Australia’s beaches from October to March to practice running on sand, swimming deep in the ocean and using rescue boards. The cute name doesn’t begin to capture what the action looks like – each age group has its own colorful swim cap; Each baby has a name on it and a neon pink rash guard, known in Australia as Rash. Parents trained as lifeguards are their guides in the water, who wear orange rosaries to further brighten the scene.
The first time I saw it, I was tempted to laugh. It gave me “Strictly Ballroom” and “Moulin Rouge!” Reminds me of Australian director Baz Luhrmann of such great films.
But the longer I stayed, the more I made it to summer camp (or boot camp?) for courage and community. The kids pushed each other to finish everything. Together they faced the punishing surf. Fear and tears were simply ignored, not codified, not denied.
One day, my son found himself at the center of it all. He was riding a board, bouncing on waves twice his height until he reached the brake zone. A wave lifted him up and – with the force of a freight train – toppled him over the shore, plunging the boy through the sand and into the surf.
I ran up to him, trying to calm my racing heart as a group of teenage girls had gathered around him earlier. “Best wave of the day,” said one. The eagle could hardly breathe, its face covered with snow, tears and sand. After a few minutes, he was smiling proudly and ready for another trip.
My daughter proved to be even braver – she was the one who persuaded her skeet friends to jump off cliffs or go for long swims or another ride on rescue boards.
And then it was my turn. The eagle challenged me. Amelia agreed: Dad needed to get his bronze medal, a life-saving qualification that would amount to an orange.
The time had come to become efficient.
a personal struggle
Many people who have swam for sport or exercise since childhood write and talk about it with a love usually reserved for romantic poetry.
My approach favored four-letter words.
In my first attempt to qualify for bronze medal training, I was unsuccessful. I couldn’t swim 400 meters as required in less than nine minutes. I finished in 10 minutes 17 seconds, gasping for air.
It took me swimming lessons in my mid-40s from the same enthusiastic young woman who had taught Falcon and Amelia when we first arrived in Australia.
Offensive? Yes. But the worst part of swimming was the actual swimming. Ocean Pool, carved into the sandstone cliffs on the southern shore of Bronte, at the Bronte Baths, 1880s Every 30 meter lap felt like climbing Mount Everest.
Eventually, I started to improvise. At some stage, I changed my freestyle technique, breathing every third stroke instead of every two, which allowed me to see and see the position of my left and right—which became even more important when I went to sea. dug the pool. Bondi Beach was where I learned to surf, so I started swimming there. With no lanes and no one to swim beside me, I enjoyed practicing and exploring. I marveled at the pattern of the silver fish and underwater sand. One day, I even wandered into a pod of dolphins and dived, watching in amazement until I could hold my breath.
When it came time for me to do the life-saving test again, after a few months, I finished the 400 meters with more than a minute to spare.
New conflicts followed. 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 quest for proficiency also involved group CPR and rescue simulations, which meant that chest contractions stopped close enough to smell each other’s breath. We were a group of strangers, men and women, about 15 to 50 years old, with different backgrounds, jobs, and political views. None of which mattered. We are bound to build our skills. We passed not because we were great, but because we were good enough – collectively, even after a wave hit our swimmer with a yellow spine board.
Proficiency, I realized, is not like victory, success, or anything else that dominates America’s hierarchy of goals. If we make it a priority, it is more forgiving, more inclusive, more transcendent. And what about us? How often do any of us seek risk or a physical and mental challenge unrelated to work or achievement, with allowance for error, interdependence, and grace?
Researching a book about all of this – Australia, the risks, the community – I discovered the broad benefits of becoming skilled. Martin Seligman, an American psychologist known for having two different lines of inquiry (learned helplessness and positive psychology), told me that the pursuit of merit can offset what he called the worrying tendency of American fragility. Said. He said, for decades, our culture has sought protection for emotions, believing that self-esteem is the spark of achievement. But he is backward, he explained. People do not do well because they feel good; They feel good because they do well, often after failing and improving.
Maybe kids are imitators. Here in Sydney, the new Nippers season has just begun. While my son has persuaded me to enjoy the aquatic life with just water polo and surfing, my daughter is gaining strength from a Sunday morning ritual in Australia.
Amelia is 11 years old now, and we go swimming together sometimes where I saw that bull ray. Recently, when the surf was uncharacteristically calm, we jumped off the cliffs by the Bronte Baths and made our way south where we’d never been because the normal waves would break us into a pulp. We could still feel the strong currents and we knew there might be sharks nearby, so we stayed side by side. Neither panicked nor reckless, we swam a few hundred meters until I saw another wonder of the deep – a blue grouper, a giant fish the color of the afternoon sky so slow that it could be speared. is safe.
“Over here,” I shouted. “Blue Grouper!”
Amelia was next to me in a flash, then downstairs. I followed right behind, silent and calm in a foreign field, pulling myself towards the beautiful fish and the brave little girl.