Oly Rush: Championing Marine Conservation Through Marathon Swimming - An Inside Look

Oly Rush: Championing Marine Conservation Through Marathon Swimming – An Inside Look

Eco-activist Oly Rush from Poole, Dorset, England took on a massive challenge in August 2023, by swimming around Ithaca, a Greek island, in just under 20 hours. His almost 60km swim was a stand against ocean plastic pollution. With the support of GreenFolk Ltd and Project Planet Earth, he aimed to make a statement and raise funds for marine conservation. This swim was tough, but he kept going for a cause close to his heart.

Oly described the swim as “a relentless battle against nature’s elements with strong currents, sea sickness and jellyfish encounters.”

“I had a lot of seasickness so I had to dig deep. It was really tough but I was going to keep swimming whatever.”

After the swim, Oly spent a few days on the island carrying out beach cleans, visiting schools and a football club to raise awareness about plastic pollution.

The effort ties into broader initiatives to clean up our oceans, with funds going to groups like the Healthy Seas Foundation. They’re committed to getting rid of marine litter and have been doing great work around Ithaca, from clearing abandoned fish farms to educating the community. Oly’s swim is part of this bigger picture, encouraging everyone to take action for cleaner, healthier seas.

We had the chance to catch up with Oly. He shared insights from his swim, his motivations, and how he hopes to inspire others to join the fight against plastic pollution. Let’s discover his thoughts and experiences that shed light on the urgency of protecting our oceans.

Your swims are also a means to create a ripple effect for environmental awareness. How do you measure the impact of these ripples, and what’s the most profound feedback you’ve received that indicated your message is resonating?

Oly Rush: For me, that is the driving force behind the swims, the training and all that goes into it. I’ve no shame in admitting I’m obsessed with the ocean. I can stare out and often become overwhelmed with emotion. It’s a deep fascination and respect. With that comes a sense of responsibility to do more to protect it. The truth is, we are destroying nature, the ocean, this planet. It’s impossible to accurately measure the true impact of these swims, we will never truly know. But I can tell you when I visit schools and give talks on plastic pollution, retelling the stories from the swims and the reasons behind them. I know it will have an impact on their lives. That ripple effect is how change begins. The greatest feedback and joy I get from all of this is when I see how inspired the children are, seeing the art and work they are doing in schools and hearing the tales of beach cleans, and more, inspired by these swims. 

Reflecting on your childhood spent marveling at sea creatures and body-boarding in Cornwall, can you recall a specific instance or creature encounter that ignited your passion for marine conservation?

Oly Rush: I don’t think it was anything specific that’s fueled this passion, but I do fondly remember our camping trips to Cornwall. Clear as day I can remember laying in our little tent, wide awake (far earlier than I should have been) with my eyes closed listening the sound of the waves crashing on the rugged coastline. That for sure helped to manifest my love for the ocean. 

During the long, solitary hours of your swim around Ithaca, facing strong currents and jellyfish stings, what thoughts kept you pushing forward? Was there a particular moment of vulnerability that you overcame, and how?

Oly Rush: Ithaca, wow. That was way harder than it should have been for various reasons. I had to dig deep out there. Going into these swims I don’t give myself any “parking spaces” once I start, I’m committed. That said, there were lots of dark moments and it’s tough to ignore the voices telling you ‘you can make it all stop by giving up.’ What I remind myself is in the grand scheme of things 20/30 hours of discomfort and I can rest, the pain I would carry for quitting, I would carry forever. One thing I also do is remember and recite these 3 words: patience, purpose, and gratitude. 

In your quest to slow down amidst a busy life, have you discovered any practices or routines that help you reconnect with your core mission and the tranquility of the ocean, even when you’re on land?

Oly Rush: It’s super tough to slow down in the world we live in. It’s centered around growth and it’s something I struggle with. Swimming helps me to slow down, but even that can be tough when in my head there are a million things that I ‘should be doing.’ The charity work we do really helps me to reconnect to my values, mostly the school visits. The passion from the kids is infectious. I get nervous still, even though I’m quite well versed at it, but the sense of achievement and buzz I get after is a real gift. 

As someone setting up a charity and deeply involved in environmental campaigning, what innovative approaches or projects are you most excited about that could bridge the gap between awareness and action in marine conservation?

Oly Rush: With our newly registered charity ‘Project Planet Earth’ we are actively able to bridge the gap between awareness and action, hosting clean ups which are proving to be popular. It’s been a huge amount of work to build a charity and the trustees and ambassadors have been incredible. The passion and ideas discussed and built upon in our meet ups is what excites me the most! 

I would also like to mention my hope is, with all the technology out there, we are able to create a sustainable, safe alternative to single use plastic. Plastic is an incredible material, but the careless way we are using it is causing untold harm. Until we come up with an alternative, I’m celebrating the small wins, and that immeasurable, but incredibly powerful ‘ripple effect.’

Training for marathon swims is both physically and mentally demanding. How do you prepare for these challenges, and what role does mental strength play in your training?

Oly Rush: I would go back to the driving force behind these swims. Our mental strength is what will make or break a swim. Sure, you have to be fit, efficient and (ideally) injury free, but your mind will quit way before your body will. Having a solid purpose is essential in achieving the extraordinary. 

Green Folk owner Chris Payne, left, with eco swimmer Oly Rush

Can you share the reasons behind selecting Ithaca as the location for your swim and how the collaboration with Healthy Seas? GreenFolk Ltd? and Project Planet Earth? came to be, highlighting what these partnerships meant for the mission and impact of your swim?

Oly Rush: Ithaca really came about because of an email I received from a friend. He made me aware of the work Healthy Seas had carried out, clearing an abandoned fish farm. I looked into it some more and began to think they might be a good charity to support and Ithaca a good location to swim. The rest is history! 

GreenFolk Ltd has been legendary with their support. I met Chris after he dropped me a message on Linkedin. He travelled down to me and we headed out on a beach clean up near to where I live. I could tell he shared the same passion and concerns for the environment as I did and since then he has continued to support both the swims and the work we do at Project Planet Earth, our newly registered charity. With the support from GreenFolk I was able to train full time for Ithaca, and that included the mental strength training, for me that comes in the form of getting out on the coast and cleaning the beaches, reminding myself ‘why’ and strengthening that muscle!  

Given your achievements, including swimming the length of the Jurassic Coast, setting the record as the fastest person to swim around the Isle of Wight, and being the first to swim around Grand Cayman, what is the next challenge you’ve set for yourself, and how do you plan to leverage it to further your environmental advocacy goals?

Oly Rush: It’s the last part of that question that I need to work out before I go into my next swim. Without some form of measurable, positive environmental outcome, it simply won’t be possible. To do what has never been done before requires an immense amount of energy and passion. For some people setting a record, the recognition or financial gain might be enough, but that just isn’t going to keep me going in what will be the toughest swim so far. I need to figure out what will make this next swim worthwhile, then I’ll get to work to make it happen. 

The longest, non tidal assisted open water swim is something we are looking into. 

Note: Oly Rush completed the 54.9 km circumnavigation swim around Ithaca, Greece in a time of 19 hours and 25 minutes on August 8, 2023.

Photo credits: @jonschutte