A dip into Ryan Stramrood’s swimming CV is impressive, and cold: he has already completed 103 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
Frequently Asked Questions
How did you get into open water swimming?
What are the biggest challenges attributed to open water swimming – cold, wildlife, conditions etc?
What life lessons has it taught you?
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?
Why would you suggest open water swimming to other people as a sport/exercise?
What are the health and fitness benefits and how does that translate to other sports?
How big is open water swimming in South Africa? Are there a lot of races to take part in or groups to join?
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.