Stephanie Holmes completes her first ocean swims with a heart full of pride, and a gold medal.
While most sensible New Zealanders spent last winter doing their best to stay warm and dry, I frequently found myself tepid and wet. It was on purpose, too. Three days a week, from early June to mid-September, I dragged my pasty, protesting body to Auckland's Tepid Baths to swim lengths — as many as I could possibly manage.
I turned down offers of after-work drinks; I got up early at weekends to train; I monitored my progress with an app on my phone and slowly — gradually — the effort got easier.
While I was never going to beat Sophie Pascoe in a race, I could plod along in the medium-speed lane to reach my goal of 40 lengths, aka the magic number of 1km. Finally, I was ready. It was time to get on the plane.
New Zealander Scott Rice was at a wedding in Denarau when he had the idea for Ocean Swim Fiji. Rice, a former competitive swimmer turned entrepreneur, is the man behind New Zealand's Ocean Swim Series. Every summer, he's on the start and finish line for swimming events across the country, from Russell to Nelson.
He's gathered a loyal band of supporters — swimmers who compete in the various events, as well as families and friends who come along to cheer on their loved ones. And while these events keep him busy enough, in Fiji he realised he wanted more. He saw those beautiful tropical waters and the relaxed island vibes and thought, "wouldn't this be a great place for an event?"
It took 18 months of planning — and a lot of logistical headaches — but last September the inaugural Ocean Swim Fiji finally came to fruition.
Rice's broad concept was a "swimcation" — an active holiday in a tropical paradise, with plenty of time for rest, relaxation and rum cocktails. "Five days, three swims, zero worries", was the event tagline, and the hope was to attract swimmers from around the world, not just New Zealand and Australia. The idea was a good one, he knew. But would people come?
You could spot a mile off the swimmers waiting to board the flight to Fiji — all strong shoulders and healthy complexions. The Thursday afternoon flight had a celebratory atmosphere — more so even than the usual bunch of holidaymakers heading to this tropical paradise.
We all got the chance to meet properly that evening at a welcome function at Port Denarau's Rhum-Ba restaurant. I was arriving solo, and slightly nervous. This was to be my first ever experience of ocean swimming, and while I'd trained extensively, it had all been in a pool as I'm not hardy enough to take on New Zealand's frigid winter waters. I knew swimming in the ocean would be a whole different experience, with swells, buoyancy, salt water and currents to contend with.
Chatting to the other swimmers, I hoped I wouldn't be out of my depth, so to speak. There were a few first-timers, but many had taken part in ocean swims in New Zealand and Australia and seemed unfazed by the prospect. I felt like a rookie, but the general atmosphere was one of support.
Talking to an American woman and her Kiwi husband over the buffet dinner put me at ease. "Just enjoy yourself," she told me. "Don't worry about what everyone else is doing. Just take your time, stop if you need a rest, and remember to have fun."
Drinks and conversation flowed for a while, but it wasn't long before people started making their way to their accommodation for a restful night's sleep. The alarms were set for an early start, to catch the ferry to our first swim location — the privately owned Tivua Island, just an hour's catamaran sail from Denarau.
Fiji had turned on the charm for the day, with perfect blue skies and the sunshine making the water sparkle. The crowd was wowed — for many it was their first time in Fiji, and it certainly wasn't going to disappoint. People had travelled from far and wide to be here — as well as a band of Kiwis and Australians, there were swimmers and supporters from as far away as America and the UK.
"I saw a banner ad about this one night on Facebook," a Colorado woman told me, "but then I couldn't find it again, so I wondered if it might have been a dream." She managed to track down the Ocean Swim website and straight away signed herself and her husband up. Swimming in Fiji was certainly going to be a dream come true for her — in landlocked Colorado she's usually restricted to swimming in lakes.
As we sailed, the Captain Cook Cruises crew sang Fijian welcome songs with plenty of hearty "bulas", helping distract us from our nerves. The excitement mounted as we approached Tivua — a perfect oval of crushed coral, with a congregation of palm trees in its middle, surrounded by a ring of turquoise water, with the addition of some inflatable orange buoys marking out our course.
We were to circumnavigate the island — the 1km swimmers just once around, the 3km racers would complete an outer ring first, before then swimming the 1km course.
I was a jumble of nerves, excitement, butterflies and fear as I walked down the wooden jetty and set foot on the soft, white sand. But there was hardly any time to contemplate what was about to happen, as the 1km race — my first race — was about to start. After a quick warm-up, we were lining up on the sand, Rice with his air horn at the ready. I was pleased to see the diversity of ages and body shapes at the starting line — from lithe pre-teens, to squidgy grandmas, and a whole mixture in-between.
My only goals were to not come last, and to not have to be rescued by one of the lifeguards in the support boats. "You just have to finish," I told myself and, with a deep breath and the sound of the starting horn, we were off, running towards the water, no looking back.
Someone had promised me that ocean swimming would be a meditative experience. In my first race, I found that to be somewhat true, if only for the fact I could think of not much else other than trying to survive.
For the first two-thirds of the swim, I was locked in an internal battle, my brain telling me there was no way I could get around the course, even while my body kept on pushing.
I tried to focus on the light piercing the water, the warmth on my face as I turned to breathe in, the cool water lapping my flushed head as I exhaled. I tried to ignore the taste of saltwater, the other swimmers at my toes. I tried to repeat the mantra of a little blue animated fish, who once wisely said, "just keep swimming".
As I rounded the next buoy, I realised I could see the finish line. That sight gave me a new rush of energy and determination and, before I knew it, my feet were on the sand. "I did it!" I kept saying, to no one in particular, more surprised with myself than anything else.
I certainly wasn't first, but I wasn't last, either. And really, there would have been no shame, even if I was — those who came last in each race received a guard of honour from the other swimmers and much applause.
Great things happened on that line — proud smiles from swimmers, hugs from supporters, congratulations from strangers and, for one supporter, a down-on-one-knee proposal from her partner, who had just finished the 1km swim. She said yes, of course.
The camaraderie grew as the days went on. Although there was healthy competition between those at the front of the pack, everyone else seemed to be in it for the enjoyment and sense of achievement that came with completing each race.
On day three, at the Coral Coast's Natadola Beach, two men in the 3km race were neck and neck as they ran on to the sand and approached the finish line. But instead of jostling to get ahead, they linked arms and crossed it together.
Once each race finished, swimmers and supporters mixed and mingled over beers and buffet lunches, enjoyed free watersports, or simply dozed in hammocks, reflecting on what they'd already achieved that morning.
At night, we hungrily scoffed dinners and cocktails in Denarau or the restaurants at the Sofitel, our luxurious resort accommodation. It had every hallmark of a classic Fiji holiday, albeit with a little more exercise than usual. And it turned out, for me, that's the perfect break — the chance to challenge myself, followed by the chance to wind down and relax.
By the morning of our last swim, I was really in the swing of things and looking forward to my last challenge. This was to be the event with the most "wow factor", Rice had promised in his welcoming speech on the first day — the chance to swim around the stunning island now home to Malamala Beach Club.
There was a party atmosphere as we enjoyed the 25-minute cruise out to the island, everyone enjoying the views and the anticipation of the final swim. It was a cloudy day, but that was welcome relief for the collection of sunburned swimmers and supporters who went too hard in the sun in the preceding days.
We shared the journey over with some island day guests, who were impressed when we told them what we were about to do. "We'll raise a cocktail to you from our day beds," they promised.
The final swim, like the first, was a lesson in mind over matter. The swim felt long for my tired body and I kept having to remind myself to keep putting one arm in front of the other, and to keep my legs kicking.
But again, like the first day, I rounded a corner and saw the final buoy, a sight enough to spur me on to cross the finishing line. Once more, not first but not last, with a total sense of pride for what I had achieved.
"You've spoilt yourself doing this as your first event," an experienced swimmer from Rockhampton told me, over celebratory cocktails in Malamala's picturesque infinity pool. The water we were swimming in was exceptional, she said. Usually when ocean swimming you face low visibility and strong swells. Fiji was like a perfect dream.
Things got loose as the day went on and the cocktails kept flowing, warming us up nicely for the awards dinner that evening.
On the sands in front of the Sofitel, we enjoyed a hearty buffet dinner, traditional Fijian music and spectacular fire dancing. Rice took time to thank all his crew and everyone who made this first event possible, including the participants and supporters, who put their trust in him and booked a place on this inaugural event.
There was genuine emotion as he thanked Lauren Harrod, his right-hand woman, for everything she had done. It took more than 18 months and a lot of hard work and effort to execute it, he said, and he couldn't have done it without her. Judging by the relaxed faces and happy smiles of the crowd, it was all worth it.
As the awards were handed out, I had a big surprise. As the only woman swimming in my age group, I became a gold medal winner by default; the only gold medal I've ever won in my life. I chose to ignore the fact there was no one competing against me and wore my medal with pride for the rest of the evening.
The night wore on and we danced barefoot under the stars to a live band playing middle-aged white people favourites like Abba, Tom Jones, and the Doobie Brothers, finishing with a traditional Fijian farewell song.
Further down the beach, fireworks from a wedding lit up the sky. They weren't meant for us but, like my gold medal, I chose to enjoy them anyway ... a fitting end to a spectacular swimcation.
The second Ocean Swim Fiji takes place from August 22-26, limited to 200 swimmer spots. All-inclusive travel packages, including flights, accommodation, events and meals, are available and can be tailored to suit.