Exclusive Interview: Andy Donaldson’s Record-Breaking Journey Through the Oceans Seven
We caught up with the phenomenal Andy Donaldson. His name has been echoing throughout the swimming community and beyond, as he not only took on the Oceans Seven challenge but completed it in a year and obliterated records along the way.
The open water marathon swimming community watched in awe as he conquered each of the Oceans Seven challenges, one after another, smashing four British records and setting a new world record in the Cook Strait.
All the way he championed mental health and raised funds for the Black Dog Institute.
Join us into an enlightening conversation with this remarkable swimmer as we explore his journey through the Oceans Seven challenge.
Beyond the Physical
While the physical demands of the Oceans Seven are evident, can you describe a moment during your swims where the mental and emotional challenges overshadowed the physical ones?
Andy Donaldson: As many know, swimmers undertaking the Oceans Seven face a multitude of physical challenges. These include enduring marathon distances, tackling extreme temperatures, navigating rough conditions, contending with unpredictable weather, and even swimming through the night. Each swim presented it’s own unique challenges, though fortunately, I found that most of these could be prepared for. For my team and I, we always “hoped for the best, but prepared for the worst”.
Though it became quickly evident that it was mental aspect of these swims that posed the most formidable tests. And that these were challenges that you couldn’t prepare for, you had to live and experience them to know how you’d truly respond in those moments. These were instances where you experienced adversity, when things weren’t going to plan, or you were placed in a position you’d never experienced before, pushing you well outside your comfort zone. They were certainly tough and I found myself in these position a lot.
My first encounter with true adversity was in the North Channel. The water temperature was 14 degrees, I was 3 hours in, and my body felt like lead. I was freezing cold, my stroke rate was plummeting, and the negative thoughts were starting to creep in. “I’m only a third of the way through and I’m really struggling. I don’t think I can keep going for a further 5 minutes, never mind another 5 hours”! In those moments, I tried my usual go-to tools for tough situations, things like positive self-talk, visualisation, and slow breathing, but they were all failing to work. All I could think about was the cold and I couldn’t see a way forward and how I’d be able to come through.
Though as I swam along, I looked up to the boat and remembered that my crew were there for me and to support. Realising this, I shouted up to let them know how I felt “arms heavy, feeling cold… but energy is good”!! My Mum, ice-swimmer Ger Kennedy, and my handler Jay Prchal all laughed and smiled. They acknowledged the message and wrote a simple reply on the whiteboard “we hear you, warmer feeds coming”. Within an instant, I felt relief. The weight came off my shoulders and I remembered that I wasn’t facing this challenge all on my own. Springing into action, the team went off and heated my drinks so they were piping hot, and they increased the frequency of feeds to every 15 minutes to help warm me up. And it worked! Over time, my stroke and pace picked back up, and we began charging home over the water to Scotland. We’d made significant ground on the World Record pace, and in the end finished only 4 minutes off it. It was unreal! From a position where everything seemed doom and gloom, to finishing this swim, I was simply delighted, and it was a great reminder that these swims can’t be done alone and it’s ok to stick up your hand for help.
Were there any unexpected, perhaps even humorous, moments during your swims that caught you off guard and lightened the mood?
Andy Donaldson: There have been a number of unexpected and funny moments through this last year. In the North Channel, I experienced butt-cramp for the first time in my swim career. I recall shouting up to Ger Kennedy on the boat to tell him (it was my left butt-cheek!!), and he was just laughing away. It was funny and embarrassing!!
I suppose for me, I find laughter to be a great go-to when you’re experiencing tough times, and in the Oceans Seven my team often did funny things to help lighten the mood. For my Catalina Channel, it was a tough lead up as I was recovering from illness and feeling about 60% coming into the swim. Fortunately, I had a wonderful team out there on the boat who were constantly laughing, smiling, and singing away. I remember just after dusk feeling simply terrible in the water, and mentally shattered, only to look up and see legendary swimmer and coach Shelley Taylor-Smith on the boat dancing and smiling away. I just burst out laughing! The atmosphere out there was just incredible and the infectious spirit from her and the team really flowed on and helped me through. Like in all my swims, the crew are constantly showing me messages on the whiteboard being sent in from all around the world, and for me, they’re invaluable. They really do help to lift you up and the support truly makes a difference.
Swimming in open waters exposes one to the beauty of marine life. Did you have any memorable encounters with marine animals during your swims?
Andy Donaldson: Haha yes, I did see a few things! Some of the marine life encounters were pretty incredible. And others were outright terrifying! Other than seeing Lionsmane Jellyfish in Scotland, my first memorable experience with sea-life was in the Kaiwi Channel. We had not long left the shores of Molokai, when I was joined in the water by a pod of dolphins. It was twilight and visibility wasn’t great, so my heart was pounding, but I could see them playing underneath and screeching away which was truly surreal. They then disappeared off, and off we kept swimming. A few hours later after the sun had truly gone down, I was again joined by something in the water. This time, it was on it’s own. It was grey, and lurking below the water. More dolphins I thought to myself initially, as I waited for the screeches. However when those didn’t come, my heart sank. It was a shark! Heart racing, I fought all the urges in my body to panic because I felt that they would pick up on that. I did everything I could to calmly swim over to the kayaker who had two Ocean Guardian shark shields hanging off the side of his kayak, and hold my position close to him. Thankfully with time, the grey shape disappeared off. Phew! The only other major encounter with marine life occurred in the Strait of Gibraltar. It was a slightly nerve-wracking lead up to the swim as the strait was making international headlines due to killer whales ramming yachts in the area. Luckily, we didn’t encounter any Orcas out there, though the crew did see other types of whales out in those waters. I could see the crew looking off to the other side of their boat during the swim, and Jay Prchal asked me a few times via whiteboard whether I could hear them.
Andy Donaldson: During the most challenging parts of your swims, where did your mind wander? Were there specific memories or visualizations that kept you going?
For most of my swims, I tried to not think and get myself into a state of flow. I wanted things to be automatic and as effortless as possible, and thinking takes up energy (for example, worrying about what’s beneath you during a night swim burns a lot of energy)! That was the goal and in most cases, I was able to do this. Though in some swims, it wasn’t possible and we were forced to respond to unforeseen challenges and adversity. When those arose and when times became tough, there were several places my mind would go to.
I’d firstly remind myself why I am doing this. I had my own personal reasons for taking on the Oceans Seven and for challenging myself, but a major part of the purpose was to raise funds and awareness for Mental Health. It often served as a great galvaniser to push through the pain as I was doing this challenge for something bigger than myself. Elsewhere when either my Mum or Dad were on the boat, I would think of them taking me to swimming as a child growing up, scraping ice off the car in the mornings to drive to training, using their annual leave to take me to competitions etc. They’d invested so much time and belief into me growing up, and I wanted to push on in the hope I could repay their faith in me. In the Molokai Channel which, alongside the Tsugaru Strait, was perhaps my most challenging swim, a great driver during the toughest moments was the thought of my Grandpa. He was a large source of inspiration for me growing up and has always been one of my biggest idols in life. I thought of him a lot and what he might say in those moments. To Grandpa, he was someone who never focused too much on the result. It was always about how you conducted yourself and whether you gave it your best. If you’d done that, you could never lost and so that’s always been a mindset that I’ve tried to carry in my life.
Time Capsule Thought
If you could send a message to yourself at the start of your Oceans Seven journey, knowing what you know now, what would you say?
Andy Donaldson: This is an interesting question, and for me, it’s a bit of a rabbit hole because there will always be things that you could look back at and think to yourself you could have done better. For example, if I had pushed harder to get sponsors at the start, or approached different people, things over this last year would likely have been a lot easier. Though we can’t change the past and I wouldn’t be here and the person I am now if I did. So what I would say to myself this time last year starting out, is to remember to soak up in every moment of this upcoming year – it’s going to challenging that’s for sure, but it will also be one of the most incredible and rewarding years of your life, and you are about to meet some truly amazing people along the way.
Behind the Scenes
Can you share a behind-the-scenes moment, perhaps involving your support team, that was pivotal to your success but might not make the headlines?
Andy Donaldson: I think a lesser known aspect about my challenge was that it was mostly self-funded. Going into it, I wasn’t financially backed, I didn’t have sponsors, and I didn’t have the money to pay for all of the swims. I did however have some savings I’d put aside that were supposed to be used for a house deposit. And for me, I saw an opportunity with the Oceans Seven to maybe do something that had never been done before (to try complete it within a year) to raise money and awareness for a good cause whilst also fulfilling some of my personal swimming goals. So I thought I’d try get started and see how far I could go, rather than wait for the stars to align. It was a risk, but a calculated one, and I felt that maybe with some swims and good results under my belt, I might be able to attract some sponsors.
Unfortunately, sponsors and financial support didn’t come and I had to be measured with my finances to make sure I could get as far along in the challenge as possible. I don’t think many people would know that before my World Record crossing in the Cook Strait, I stayed in a 16 man dorm at the local backpackers in Picton.
In June, things came to a head when I was unable to free up some cash, and I was left with less than $700 in my bank. There were pressures at work and I still had two swims still to pay for – the Catalina Channel, and the Tsugaru Strait. It was an incredibly stressful time. Not knowing where else to go, I phoned up my older sister Hannah and in tears, asked her for a loan. It was a humbling moment. For me, I had chosen to go down this path with the Oceans Seven and one thing I never wanted to do was ask my friends and family for money. I was supposed to be doing this challenge to raise funds for charity. But Hannah was kind and incredibly understanding, and helped me a lot in that time. She also helped me to set up a GoFundMe page seeking support to get me across the line with these last two swims, and I was truly blown away by the generosity of those who donated there. I wouldn’t have been able to finish this challenge had it not been for these incredible people and I’ll always be grateful for their support.
Andy Donaldson: Swimming across different parts of the world exposes one to diverse cultures. Was there a cultural practice or local tradition you encountered during your travels that left a lasting impression?
I was really impressed with all of the parts of the world we travelled to in the Oceans Seven. It was surreal to visit Dover Beach in the lead up to my first swim. It was like a Mecca of the sport, and a real melting point of swimmers from all around the world visiting and there preparing for the same thing – to cross the English Channel. The culture in Japan was quite incredible to experience, and I was amazed by how clean and organised the place was, particularly in Tokyo city. The food was tremendous and the people we met were truly kind and honourable. When we first met Mr Ishii, the organiser of our Tsugaru Strait swim, he almost brought me to tears when he arrived with a bunch of flowers to give to my Mother. He is a true gentleman. Though I think a real highlight for me was the time spent in New Zealand. The landscapes there are wonderful, and the people are so kind, genuine, and down to earth. I was there for almost a month, and the swimming group there (the Wellington Washing Machines) really looked after me and made me feel at home (almost to the extent that I was even reported as being a Kiwi in one of their local newspapers after my Cook Strait record). I’d return to all of these places in a heartbeat, but I suppose with New Zealand being the closest to where I live now in Western Australia, it’ll probably be one of the first that I’m back to.
Andy Donaldson: After hours in the water, what was the most unexpected food craving you had once you reached the shore?
In most of my swims, I’ve felt pretty ill after them due to the high sugar levels from my feeds!! Though I suppose a running joke through the Oceans Seven has been that we’d go to the chippy (fish and chips shop) after a swim. Growing up in the west of Scotland, I love a good fish and chips. And I recall in the English Channel my Dad shouting down to me to hurry up because “the chippy would be closing soon”! The other food craving I had would have been in the Tsugaru Strait when I was dreaming of a Japanese Wagyu Steak. After all, the steaks there are world renowned. Unfortunately I spent the evening after the swim in hospital, so we had to wait just a little bit longer before experiencing that!
Significance of the Seven
Of all the swims in the Oceans Seven challenge, which one held the most personal significance for you, and can you share the story or reason behind its importance?
Andy Donaldson: The swim with the most personal significance for me was either the Molokai Channel or the Tsugaru Strait. Both swims presented challenges that really pushed me well outside of my comfort zone (incredibly tough conditions, and at many points we were making very little to zero forward progress). In both of them, I really had to dig in deep and face levels of adversity and uncertainty I hadn’t experienced before. I was throwing up, tossed around in each, and there were plenty of times we didn’t know if it was going to be possible to finish. Though fortunately in each, as a team we never gave in and we were able to get across unscathed. Both swims have been reminders that calm seas don’t make good sailors, and that we need to be tested in life as that’s how we grow. Yes, they were tough and they were the lowest lows, but they also became the highest highs.
Now that you’ve conquered the Oceans Seven, what’s a non-swimming challenge or dream you’d like to pursue next?
To try build up my coffers again after spending all my savings haha! I think for me outside of the water, I’d love to try share some of the lessons learned from this last year and my experiences in life so far. Whether that’s in a book, a documentary or both, I’m not sure. Though I feel like I’ve received so much help from the people around me through this journey, and I’d love to share those lessons and the things I’ve learned with others in the hope that I can make a difference or inspire in some small way.
Beyond the Finish Line
After completing such a monumental challenge, how do you envision your relationship with open water swimming evolving? Will it remain a competitive pursuit, become more recreational, or perhaps take on a mentorship role as well?
Andy Donaldson: I’d love to continue doing challenges to help raise awareness and funds for worthwhile causes. I’m still figuring out how those might look as I also have other aspirations in life such as finding a partner, settling down, building a life together, and one day having a family. But for me, swimming is a large part of who I am and so I will continue to swim in some capacity, even if it is less competitive in the future. I am also exploring ideas with mentorship as I feel I have a lot of experience and knowledge to share, and I really enjoy helping others. It’s one thing to achieve your goals, but I think it’s even more rewarding when you help others towards theirs. My sister is considering taking on the Rottnest Channel Swim as a solo, so maybe she could be a test dummy!
Sponsors or Charity
If you have sponsors or a charity you want to give a shout to.
Andy Donaldson: There are many sponsors and supporters who have helped me along greatly in this journey. Though I suppose a few keys ones have been: Langer Chiropractic Soft Tissues Therapy for helping to keep me in one piece, Swimming Strong for keeping me in top shape in the gym, the MindBody Lounge for helping with my recovery, Aqualyte, Pillar Performance, Ocean Grease, Bruce Apparel, and Speedo for keeping me supplied with the best gear to tackle this challenge. And my swimming coach Eoin Carroll from City of Perth Swimming Club and gym coach Ryan Evernden.
Given the varying conditions of the Oceans Seven, did you have a specific type or brand of swimwear or goggles that you found particularly reliable or comfortable?
Andy Donaldson: For me, I choose what I find to be comfiest. Ever since I was a child, I’ve used Speedo. They’ve always been reliable and fit well for me, and I’ve never had any issues with them.
Your swims have also been a beacon for mental health awareness. Can you share a personal story or moment that solidified your decision to represent the Black Dog Institute and raise funds for them? How has the cause influenced your journey through the Oceans Seven?
Andy Donaldson: For the Oceans Seven challenge, I was raising money for Australian mental health research charity the Black Dog Institute. As someone who has experienced depression and burnout, mental health has always been an issue close to my heart. And it’s something that I’ve seen affect my friends and loved ones. My Grandfather in particular was someone who suffered deeply from depression. Seeing how it affected him and that always had a profound impact on me. With mental illness, it’s one of the most prominent issues around the world today and it’s something that doesn’t discriminate. Anybody can be impacted by it.
For me, I wanted to support mental health research as I feel that the issue is something that we as society need to better understand. There’s a great quote from Desmond Tutu that reflects this well “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river, and we go upstream to find out why they’re falling in”. And so with more knowledge around it, we might be able to both better treat and prevent issues in the future.
In terms of my own relationship with mental health, I’m much better now and swimming has played a major role in that. If I ever feel sluggish or down, exercise is one of the things that helps me most, and swimming provides a great opportunity to do that and be alone with your own thoughts. It’s almost like my meditation. Moreover, I think having the structure of sport, goals to work towards, and access to an incredible community always helps too. We’re fortunate with the community we have in our sport and hopefully over the coming years, I can help to inspire or encourage people to try swimming as it might be able to help their lives too.
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