Turning the fearful into fearless

By Martin Lang


From keen triathletes struggling with the sea's vagaries to landlubbers afraid to go deeper than their knees, seasoned ocean swimmer Sheryl McLay helps set people on the right course.

Swimming coach with Shorebreak Aquatics, McLay is in her sixth summer of organising the Team Shorebreak Ocean Swim series at Mount Maunganui's Pilot Bay, a string of five weekly events in December-January.

With the final race in the series hitting the water tonight, McLay explained the background of the Thursday evening fixture.

"We had started our swim coaching programme and it became obvious something was missing. Lots of people wanted to do triathlons like the Port of Tauranga Half, or things like the Round the Mount [swimming] race. We set this up to fit in with those events," she said.

McLay and Team Shorebreak also run pool swim coaching plus Saturday morning open water coaching sessions, and all Saturday participants get along on Thursdays races to put their tuition into practice.

It's not only experienced athletes who benefit, either.

"We get middle-aged men who are terrified of the water, and by swimming here they learn to love it as much as anyone can. We also get a lot of young kids, exposing them to this is pretty neat. We have such a beautiful beach environment [in the Bay] and the number of kids who don't make the most of it because they are afraid of the ocean is saddening," McLay said.

An open water swimmer who swam Cook Strait in 1982, and the next year completed a south-to-north crossing of Lake Taupo as well as conquering the English Channel, 51-year-old McLay has been coaching swimming to triathletes for 20 years.

Fine Thursdays bring up to 120 entrants, while grey skies and blustery winds last week whittled entries to 50 for the two-lap 1500m swim and 12 for the 750m distance. The series has a "really good core group of about 40 locals who are regulars", McLay said.

Making the event a family affair are Papamoa surf club members Matthew, Mason and Justin Pickering, and Tessa Hennessy, Matthew's sister.

A regular since the series' inception, dad Matthew would bring along Mason, 16, and Justin, 13, to watch, so it was only a matter of time before the boys were lining up alongside him.

"I used to beat Mason. Well, the first couple of times anyway," Matthew said wryly. "The boys train in the pool five times a week for surf club competition, so this is a good change."

Now in his fourth year doing the series, Mason undoubtedly has the edge over his 48-year-old dad, winning the men's 1500m division in 19:44 and pocketing $50 on the evening the Bay Times dropped by. Not that competition is the prime motivation, though.

"It's a bit of fun," Mason said. "It fits well with our training. It's competitive when your friends are in it," quipped Justin, now in his second year of the series.

Waihi resident Hennessy, 45, was using the Pilot Bay events as a springboard to the Katikati Masters Ocean Swim from Orokawa Bay to Waihi Beach this weekend, although that event has been shelved with the amount of debris washing up from the Rena making it unsafe. A Katikati Masters member, she had only done pool training before.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mt Maunganui's Helina Footner was celebrating completing the 750m course for the first time, having only recently learnt to swim. Buoyed by the company of friend and Welcome Bay resident Therese McLachlan on the triangular course, Footner was chuffed with her achievement in what was the 61-year-old pair's third tilt at the event.

"I'm a bit scared of the depth but I managed to do it," Footner said. "It's great to get out of your comfort zone."

McLay says Tauranga decorating firm SMARTS are "awesome in their support", helping meet the costs of providing the lifeguards, winner's prizes and spot prizes such as bottles of wine.

Registration takes place adjacent to the Salisbury Wharf carpark from 5.30pm and the starting gun fires at 6.15pm.

Also organiser of the Surfbreaker sprint triathlon held on December 27, McLay said numbers were down from 250 last year to 130. She said she believed exaggerated perceptions around oil spillage from the grounded container ship Rena last year were a factor in the lower turnout: "I think people got the impression the beaches were more badly affected than they actually were, particularly the Main Beach."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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