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Biography

A dip into Ryan Stramrood’s swimming CV is impressive, and cold: he has already completed 71 Robben Island-to-mainland crossings and swam solo across the notorious English Channel. With a team of South Africans, he swam the first official “Ice Mile” in -1°C water in Antarctica, completed the world’s first swim around the southernmost tip of South America – Cape Horn – and, again with some extreme friends, was the first, South African male to swim from Europe to Africa across the Gibraltar Strait.

But beyond Ryan’s physical prowess, this born-and-bred Capetonian is a gifted speaker whose telling of a personal journey of challenge and discovery is deeply inspiring.

It’s hard to believe that not very long ago, fitness was not much of a priority for Ryan.

Couch potato was where I was heading, and eventually I decided I needed to do something. I’d always enjoyed swimming, so I nervously signed up with a small swimming squad. I think I managed about 20 lengths before I was exhausted, but I stuck with it, and after a while I started meeting guys who were doing big things in swimming.

It wasn’t long before one of those guys suggested that Ryan attempt to swim from Robben Island to Blouberg.

At first, I thought it was an insane idea; something reserved for elite athletes and nowhere near my aspirations nor abilities. But I trained for it anyway, and in 2003 I gave it a go, and succeeded.

It was that first Robben Island swim – 7.3km in very cold water – that started Ryan’s journey and got him thinking about what more was possible. Since then, Ryan has been quietly crossing channels and setting records without much fuss or publicity, and still describes his swimming as a hobby – one he undertakes “for deeply personal reasons”.

I’m not a professional athlete by any stretch of the imagination. Nor am I superhuman. My body doesn’t have any special abilities. My story isn’t about winning or losing or success or failure. It’s a story about pushing beyond my own perceived limitations, about learning. You can do it too, if you really want to.

It was a moment in the middle of the English Channel in 2008 that really brought the “why” home for Ryan.

I reached a point in the swim where it was physically impossible for me to carry on. I’d hit the wall. I still had four hours to go to get to France and every part of me was screaming, ‘get out’ and ‘impossible’. Thanks to a strong support team, a bit of grit and for the first time, switching gear entirely from body to mind, I eventually found myself on a French beach many hours later in complete darkness. The experience taught me how the mind is designed to keep you safely inside your comfort zone; to make you believe your limitations. If you believe them, you have no reason to change them.


Main photo: © Shamil Tanna Photography

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Frequently Asked Questions

How did you get into open water swimming?

In the year 2000 it dawned on me that I was spending far too much time on the couch and wanted to improve my fitness and lifestyle. So I joined a swim squad with coach Gary Freeling, who I am proud to say after 16 years, is still my coach today. I could barely manage 20 lengths at that stage, but stuck with it until one day it was suggested that I attempt to swim 7,3km in icy water from Robben Island to Blouberg. At that stage, it was an impossible challenge in my mind, but I did the work in and out the pool and succeeded. Life changing. The bug had bitten and my open water swimming journey had begun.

What are the biggest challenges attributed to open water swimming – cold, wildlife, conditions etc?

There are SO many challenges attributed to open water swimming. In Cape Town, the water is often very cold. And the cold has a profound impact on the human body and mind. It makes it extremely difficult to perform physically for an extended period. Then comes the ever-changing conditions – suddenly there is no lane rope to keep the water calm and no black line at the bottom to guide you. Even the smallest chop on the surface impacts the swimmer and forces him/her to change stroke and breathing technique and often to use muscles you did not know you had. Currents are unpredictable in open water and often a swimmers finds himself being pushed backwards requiring more effort to move forward. There are always the dreaded stingers just waiting for your head-on collision. Added to this comes the psychology of looking down into the abyss and knowing that without doubt, you are being watched…

What life lessons has it taught you?

I have been on a journey of self discovery through my swimming feats around the world. What seems so basic to me now, was a very real Everest to me only a few years or months back. The lessons you learn from this are so simple, yet so powerful. I was taught in my English Channel crossing in 2008 (36km from the UK to France) that we are governed by a default setting of our minds to ‘self protect’ – to keep us safely inside our comfort zones. And in this space you can never LEARN. It taught me to unlock a new default mind setting called ‘self explore’ and I live my life looking at my world and my ‘impossibles’ very differently thanks to the many ‘impossibles’ I have simply gone out and done!

You’ve done some incredibly tough swims – was there ever a time you thought you had bitten off more than you could chew? If yes, how did you overcome?

Oh yes! Many times I have felt I have bitten off more than I can chew. In fact, of late I have set challenges knowing that I will be biting off chucks more than I can chew. But this is how you put yourself outside your comfort zone! And once committed, you have no choice but to figure it out  – and without fail, you’ll learn a little bit more about yourself and about just how powerful that ‘power tool’ in your head is. Surround yourself with the right people and get the right support team in place – many times a challenges has succeeded only because I had the best support team. And there are so many lessons there too!

Why would you suggest open water swimming to other people as a sport/exercise?

Open Water Swimming is one of the best sports in the world – it is the kindest on your body in the long term and one of the most ‘all round’ exercises you can get for body and mind. It doesn’t have to take place on a court, on a road, on a field, or even a pool, but is rather truly one-on-one with nature which can be completely exhilarating and refreshing.

What are the health and fitness benefits and how does that translate to other sports?

A certain level of regular exposure to cold water is deemed to be of great health benefit – many swear by it, while being one with nature nurtures the mind. It also forces one to face what many fear the most in open ocean water, which can be daunting of course, but I believe adds a level of mental strength and endurance not common to any other sport. Although injuries are not completely absent, when compared to other impact sports, swimming is the kindest. This in turn greatly extends the age range of open water swimmers.

How big is open water swimming in South Africa? Are there a lot of races to take part in or groups to join?

Open Water Swimming in SA is not huge yet, but it is growing rapidly. There is a swim series called the Freedom Series (freedomswimseries.co.za) started and owned by Ram Barkai which holds an event in the Western Cape on every public holiday. Well known swims such as the Midmar Mile in KwaZulu-Natal are numerous, with the pinnacle of the Open Water Swim series being the Freedom Day swim – a race from Robben Island to Blouberg.

The International Ice Swimming Association (IISA) has introduced a whole new genre of extreme swimming to the world and it is growing here in SA at an alarming rate – check out internationaliceswimming.com.

Speaking for the Western Cape region only, there are a number of informal groups that meet weekly to support each other in the ocean and many more formal swimming squads dotted around. If you are keen to get into the water, no doubt you’ll find a group of like minded individuals in your area.