Can’t Be Yellow When Crossing This River

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Ireland’s Pádraig Mallon was initially skeptical about the invitation to participate in the International Limit Challenging Race of Crossing Yellow River Qinghai China that he received from the Chinese Swimming Association. “But after some investigation, I decided to give it a go. I booked for my uncle Milo [McCourt] and I to travel to China for the short swim. It was not going to be the hardest swim I had ever taken part in, but I’m sure it was going to be an interesting adventure.

And it was a long way to get there. After a journey of 7,810 km, Mallon and McCourt made in up to an altitude of 2,200 meters on the Tibetan Plateau in northwest China together with 300 swimmers representing 18 nations.

After we arrived at Xunhga, I took a short swim in the Yellow River with Milo and Wyatt Song. The water quality was great and the temperature was around 11°C which was nice. The [downstream] water did flow past very fast, but it didn’t look too bad [during] the test swim.”

But the principle of Expect the Unexpected always rules in the open water.

The next morning we saw the river flowing a lot faster and about 1.2 meters higher that the day before. We were later told that the dam had been opened just for the race. We took part in the first heat and there was so much learned. It was a sprint to get into the middle or far side of the river, to get lined up with the finish line.”

But that was not all.

I didn’t expect to be hit with instant exhaustion purely due to the [high] altitude. I could just about get a breath as I swam. I knew I couldn’t stop or I would be swept passed the finish line and disqualified from the race. [The finish] took me by surprise how hard it was. Milo and Wyatt came in around the same time. We pulled ourselves together and had a chat about it all. We all got our xxx kicked. We were offered oxygen which we declined.”

That sense of machismo turned out to be a mistake.

We coughed and spluttered most of the day. The next swim was at 2:30 pm [so] we all went for a siesta. Later, we woke up feeling as if I had just swam 10 km.

The next heat was a bit more serious as the competition was getting tougher. With 12 in my heat and 170 in my group, I know it was going to be hard to make it into the final. But I had learned a lot from the previous swim. You could feel the tension in the changing room waiting on your number to be called. After 20 minutes we were called and went down to the start line. The starting gun went with thousands of locals looking on from every vantage point.

Right away, I felt the current sweeping me down the river. My goal was to swim across the river at a right angle and fight against the natural instinct to head directly for the finish line. The currents and waves turned me every way possible as my lungs screamed out for oxygen.

All I could do was swim hard and keep calm. Before I knew it, I was drifting for the finish line as I was headed right for it
.”

Then he passed the finish line. He started to swim back upstream, but that did not appear to be a possible solution even though he was within 3 meters of the finish. So he ran the last 3 meters in the water and another 4 meters on land to cross the finish line. He was followed by Alexander Brylin from Russia. They were the only two swimmers who made it from their heat.

There was no machismo this time. “I took the oxygen and sat down and took it all in. Milo was over the moon. I was happy with the swim, but I knew I could do better in the next one.”

Mellon finished in 16th place with only 8 seconds between him and 12th place. Most of the international swimmers competed in the finals. “The atmosphere was electrifying with thousands of local people, officials, police, government officials, and competitors. It was an event with a whole different set of challenges not often seen in a swim. What an adventure.”

Copyright © 2015 by World Open Water Swimming Association