Michael Wells wonders whether he's set a new world record for the longest breaststroke distance ever swum.

The 56-year-old Darwin man spent 20 hours and 18 minutes in Lake Taupō swimming 30,000 breaststrokes from Little Waihi at the southern end of the lake to Taupō town at the northern end.

While Wells' feat, to raise money for breast cancer research and support in Australia and New Zealand, was the first time anybody has breaststroked the length of Lake Taupō, he's been unable to find any information that the distance of his epic swim has been bettered by any other breaststroker.

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Breaststroke is the oldest but also the slowest of the competitive swimming strokes and it took Wells nearly twice as long to swim the length of the lake as the record holder Philip Rush, who swam it freestyle in 1985 and came in in 10 hours, 14 minutes. Rush was also Wells' coach and advisor for yesterday's breaststroke attempt and was by his side for the entire swim.

Wells completed the swim to raise money in honour of his sister Susan, who died from breast cancer in 2017. It's not his first epic swim - in 2018 he risked death and serious injury to become the first person to swim across Darwin Harbour, a 7km crossing infested by saltwater crocodiles, box jellyfish and venomous stingers.

The live tracker showed Michael Wells' progress as he breaststroked 41.6km across Lake Taupo.
The live tracker showed Michael Wells' progress as he breaststroked 41.6km across Lake Taupo.

He says tackling Lake Taupō was also a huge challenge, but in an entirely different way. The risks this time involved hypothermia, exhaustion and medical events such as a heart attack and he was closely monitored throughout by his support crew. His two children, his sister and his former wife were alongside him on a chartered escort boat.

He was lucky with almost perfect conditions, with only short periods when the notoriously fickle lake waters created choppy waves. Most of the time the water was almost completely glassy, making for smooth going for Wells' consistent 24 strokes per minute, a rate which barely wavered throughout the 20-hour swim.

"When the sun came up, it was a beautiful day and I could lie on my back and see Mt Ruapehu and life didn't seem so bad, but when I got tired, it wasn't so great. My arms and shoulders were really sore and I had pain in my lower legs."

Michael Wells breaststroking the length of Lake Taupō, Sunday February 9, 2020. Photo / Arlo Wilson-Wells
Michael Wells breaststroking the length of Lake Taupō, Sunday February 9, 2020. Photo / Arlo Wilson-Wells

He entered the water just after 3.30am on Sunday morning and came ashore at the Lake Taupō Yacht Club at 11.48pm where he could barely walk after so much time in the water.

"I came ashore and I just had to drop to my knees... I just sort of crawled out."

Wells' original goal was to complete the swim by 8pm and having to continue in the dark after sunset knowing he still had several kilometres to go was "a huge psychological challenge".

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"When you're exhausted and you realise that you've got another three or four hours it's just a huge blow."

Wells says although he could clearly see Taupō town in the distance from halfway across, it felt as though it was never getting any closer and once darkness fell it was almost impossible to judge distance.

Michael Wells being supported by son Arlo Wilson-Wells after his 20 hour 18 minute marathon breaststroke effort the length of Lake Taupō. Picture / Arlo Wilson-Wells
Michael Wells being supported by son Arlo Wilson-Wells after his 20 hour 18 minute marathon breaststroke effort the length of Lake Taupō. Picture / Arlo Wilson-Wells

"At one point I felt really close and I asked Philip, and he said it was still 5.5km away and my heart sank [because] I thought I was almost there. It was dark and I was in pain and I still had three hours to go... just that portion of it was a marathon."

However Wells says despite taking longer than expected, to cover 41.6km in 20 hours of breaststroke is pretty good going.

"I didn't get any assistance and I never got out of the water at all and I didn't hold on to the boat or anything at all because that wouldn't be in the spirit of it."

His sister Robyn in the escort boat, herself an accomplished swimmer, was prepared to take over Wells' swim if he became too exhausted or unwell to continue, although she says she knew he was capable of the swim and would give it his absolute best.

"It was amazing to see him make that effort and when I could see at one point he wasn't making much headway and how hard it was, I really felt for him. But it was really empowering that he was fulfilling his aim the best way he could and that felt really uplifting."

Michael Wells (centre) with family the day after becoming the first person to breaststroke the length of Lake Taupo. From left; Lucy and Arlo Wilson-Wells, Michael, Robyn Wells and Karen Wilson.
Michael Wells (centre) with family the day after becoming the first person to breaststroke the length of Lake Taupo. From left; Lucy and Arlo Wilson-Wells, Michael, Robyn Wells and Karen Wilson.

Speaking less than 12 hours after completing his swim, Wells could barely walk, he has a swimcap suntan line and his son Arlo says his father looks as though he has shed several kilograms in a day.

But with the Australian total sitting at A$12,125 and the New Zealand total on $3130 and still rising, he feels he has done his best - not only to honour sister Susan, but also for Robyn and his former wife Karen, who are both breast cancer survivors.

Wells' family say they are in awe of his endurance and stamina and the perfect weather and beautiful setting made them feel as though Susan had blessed them all.

To support Michael's record-breaking swim you can search Swim for Susan on givealittle.co.nz. Proceeds go to the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation.