Fiji: Full flipper power to beach bar

By Phil Taylor

First up, acknowledgments. Thank you Sam Pearlman. Thank you Glenn Muir.

Here was I, a ... well ... let's say "challenged" swimmer, holidaying at the Fiji Swims carnival and everywhere I looked was another legend of the water.

Flying the flag for Australia were Shane Gould (still referred across the Tasman as "the golden girl" due to her once simultaneously holding the world record for all distances from 100m to 1500m), Murray Rose, a Snell-like figure thanks to four golds and a silver won at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, and Neil Rogers, who captained their 1976 Montreal Olympics swim team.

From the United States were recent Olympians Allison Wagner and Dana Vollmer and some horribly accomplished ocean specialists. There were some pretty flash Kiwi swimmers here too, though not as good as Danyon Loader who won the main race of the Fiji Swims a few years ago.

So you will understand that I felt a little out of my depth? Oh well, at least there were plenty of rescuers.

But then, as we ate on the first night at tables set on the sand beneath the palms in front of the Sofitel Denarau Island, I got chatting to Sam and Glenn. I should make it clear that they are indeed competent swimmers. They are Aussies after all. It's just that they are a little more like mortals.

I liked Glenn immediately and not only because he had a little mono-ab, indicating a balanced approach to swimming and post-swim refreshments.

Sam claimed not to be "a real swimmer at all". Rubbish. What he meant was that as a surf club swimmer, he's a sprinter rather than a long-distance ocean man. And, as if to draw a line under the point, he mentioned he'd that day done the longest swim of his life 1500m with his Team Bollywood relay cohorts to a nearby island.

Sam had seen a notice about the Fiji Swims on the wall at the Bondi Icebergs Club one chilly day last autumn and decided combining a mid-winter tropical holiday with some exercise was the perfect incentive to keep up his autumn swimming. Ditto for Glenn. He'd done a similar event in Vanuatu and was hooked.

There's a choice of three swims at the Fiji event. The relay is on the first day. I watched a shoal of slim-hipped, broad-shouldered figures on the beach jiggling in anticipation as dawn peeped over the horizon. Somewhere over that shimmering sea was their destination - Beachcomber Island. Still air, warm, flat sea. Perfect.

A couple of hours later there was excitement aboard my ferry as we caught up with the swimmers. Each stroke a splash of white - they looked like spilt pearls in a bright blue sea. The winner was an all-female group named Team Queensland, despite one member, Alex Goddard, having swum for New Zealand at an Oceania Games. They broke four hours and the race record.

Sam and Glenn's team got the most raucous reception when they arrived much later. All of Team Bollywood's dozen swimmers leapt from the boat to swim the last 100m together to the amusement of a posse of pasty European backpackers sunning like seals on the white sand.

I was gobsmacked by the three who swam the 18km solo. You couldn't help but empathise with the last of them when asked how he felt in the final stages. "The island looked so beautiful," said Lionel Evans, a local, "and I wanted to get there as soon as possible. But it seemed to be drifting away from me."

The relay is really the prelude to the individual swims, the 2.7km from a sandbar to Beachcomber and the 1000m crossing (flippers optional) from Treasure Island to Beachcomber. There is one other - the short and hilarious Beach to Bar event. Flippers for this one are compulsory. That, combined with a Le Mans-style start of a run into the sea, creates mayhem (ever tried to run in flippers?).

First out of the sea, into the bar and to skull a beer wins ... a bar tab (it is an Australian-devised event). And it's obviously a generous tab judging by the effort the creator of the Fiji Swims, Dave Handley, made to try to win.

Handley is a likeable Australian with strong Kiwi links. He once worked in Auckland for art patron James Wallace and, while based in Prague, represented the movie Once Were Warriors in that part of the world.

His parents, Kenneth and Di, were at the Swims and Kenneth, 73, a retired NSW Court of Appeal judge, did the 1000m event. The Fiji Swims are a family affair not just in participation. The event owes its existence to the Handley family's affection for Fiji.

Dave Handley lived the first six years of his life there while his father practised law. The family returned regularly for holidays, often on Beachcomber when it was a hideaway with a few simple bures. That island became the inspiration for the swim series he started six years ago.

By then the roaringly successful Sculpture By The Sea, which he set up in Sydney and has since replicated in Perth, was doing well and Handley was looking to do add something else to his events business. Fiji Swims fitted the bill.

"It has the nice blend of a fun ocean swim in the warm Pacific in the middle of our winter and the chance to help the Fiji Islands, not just economically but also to reduce the rate of drowning."

It seems odd for a nation of 300 islands with such strapping people but Fiji has a drowning rate five times that of Australia's. Part of the entry fee for Fiji Swims goes towards a project started in 2005 by Shane Gould aimed at doing something about that.

Gould, who spent the first seven years of her life in Nadi, says Fijians don't get formal swimming training and consequently few know how to relax in the water. She and husband Milt Nelms - a swim stroke guru who helped Ian Thorp develop his technique - visit to run swim clinics. Their focus is on training teachers' college students.

If my experience at a casual session Milt and Shane ran on the beach at Treasure Island is anything to go by, they are perfect for the job. Milt's advice made a real difference for me. The warm, clear water under sunny skies probably helped too and I felt primed for next day's swim to Beachcomber. But a storm blew in overnight. Strong winds, heavy chop. Flippers or not, I selflessly offered to mind the kids while the wife took on the white caps.

Did I mention that she is the fish of the family?

- NZ Herald

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