Ocean & Ice Swimmer Laura Quilter Welcomes A Challenge

By Madeleine Crutchley
Laura Quilter, a competitive swimmer, loves a challenge. Photo / Michael Craig

In this series, How I Move, we explore sports in leagues of their own and hobbies that do more than keep us moving — ones that foster joy and community as much as a little competition. Previously, we spoke to Macarena Carrascosa about roller skating and actor Celine Dam climbing sport bouldering. Here, registered nurse and swimmer Laura Quilter explains why the water draws her back, again and again.

Meditation looks different for everyone.

For some, it involves pin-drop silence, a cushioned mat and deep breathing. For others, it requires a droning teacher and guiding instrumental track.

For competitive swimmer Laura Quilter, it involves a 25-metre lane and a race against the clock.

“Feeling your heartbeat, feeling the fatigue in your muscles and being really present in that moment.”

This is a connection formed early in Laura’s life. Before she took her first steps, she found herself submerged in the water.

“I started swimming as a baby. Mum and Dad always wanted us to be safe around the water and I grew up in Gisborne. Being safe at the beaches was a top priority.”

During childhood lessons at her local public pool, Laura found a keen affection for swimming. She began to compete in various heats and acquired skills to quell her insistent nerves around races. Throughout her teens, Laura continued to train, honing her skills and sprinting times to compete at a national and international level. In 2014, she swam at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

This level of athleticism requires an unwavering commitment — early mornings, vigorous training and a firm tolerance for pungent chlorine.

Laura Quilter warms up at Takapuna Beach, one of her favourite spots for ocean swimming. Photo / Michael Craig
Laura Quilter warms up at Takapuna Beach, one of her favourite spots for ocean swimming. Photo / Michael Craig

Laura speculates that swimming, despite its intense demands, grabbed her interest due to its distinct effect on her physicality. Laura compares gliding through the water to flying.

“I think it’s the sensation of being suspended in a different environment. I just love the feeling of water — the way that you manipulate your body, the way you engage different muscles. It can make such an impact on how you move.”

She speculates about the more grounded teachings of the sport, too.

“I also just loved a personal challenge, I loved how structured and easily measurable it was. I knew if I was getting better, I knew if I was progressing. I found the targets and the goals and the structure really enjoyable even at a young age.”

Training for competition can be brutal, as swimmers endlessly refine their technique to shave valuable seconds off their times. This means repeating laps, critiquing microscopic particularities of body positioning and measuring the glide of a single stroke.

This rigour is a rewarding part of the sport for Laura, though it does present psychological obstacles too.

“As I got older, the challenge was mentally keeping it together when the sets were really hard. There are certain training sets that will absolutely push you to the limit. I’ve cried into my goggles more times than I can count, honestly. It becomes a pursuit of not just the time but having autonomy or control over my mind as well.”

“I get very competitive with myself.” Photo / Michael Craig
“I get very competitive with myself.” Photo / Michael Craig

This focus on control can make pool swimming overwhelming. Swimmers are training and competing in an environment that is utterly unchangeable, meaning their technique and mental strength are the only objects to be scrutinised.

Laura has found some solace in ocean swimming, embracing the raw nature of the environment in contrast to the pool’s uniformity.

She also has had a lifelong association with the sea, starting with the Wainui Surf Lifesaving Club when she was 5 and competing with the club in national and international competitions throughout her teens and early twenties.

With Auckland’s Covid lockdowns leading to pool closures, Laura, who is now 31, found herself returning to the ocean again. When restrictions eased, she began to swim at Takapuna and Milford, meeting with friends, and found that the swims were alleviating the mental challenges imposed by her strict pool training.

“I think ocean swimming has taught me to become more mentally flexible. Pool swimming is so refined and technical. If I wasn’t executing times or doing skills well that was difficult to unload. Whereas ocean swimming, because you’ve got chop, waves and currents, you just have to adapt. You swallow water, you get kicked in the face, and sometimes it’s just a bit of a miserable time. I think I drank half of the Gulf on my Rangitoto swim.”

Laura swam to Rangitoto as a part of the Ocean Swim Series. Photo / Michael Craig
Laura swam to Rangitoto as a part of the Ocean Swim Series. Photo / Michael Craig

She hates to do it alone though, as John Williams’ famous two-note ostinato lurks in her ears.

“I’ve only swum a few times by myself and, if I do, my hands are almost dragging on the bottom because I’m that close to the shore. One time I swam out to the buoy line and all I could picture was blimmin’ Jaws. I swam straight back to shore.”

While she’s never encountered Spielberg’s nightmare, the experience of ocean swimming has seen Laura come across various creatures.

“I didn’t actually see a shark, but there was definitely a sighting when we did the Rangitoto Crossing. It was chased away by one of our kayak support team ... The most exciting wildlife I’ve seen are stingrays and fish.”

While swimming in groups mostly for safety, Laura also relishes the connection the activity affords her.

“I love the coffee afterwards. For me, the social aspect and having that to look forward to is as much of a priority as the actual exercise.”

This doesn’t mean ocean swimming is entirely non-competitive — but it differs from the clinical focus of pool swimming.

“It’s quite an interesting position because I’ve got a competitive mindset but I’m not necessarily in the front pack when I go to ocean swim. In the ocean, competition for me is quite different. Do I have the tenacity to maintain my stroke rate? To not give in and drop the pace?”

Laura has reaped the rewards of this variation and mental testing in the pool, swimming a lifetime best at a national competition at age 31.

“I think having that flexibility made me a little more open to the journey in pool swimming. It’s genuinely helped me be more well-rounded. With any issues in training or not hitting times, I’m not as binary. It’s not success or failure, it’s just part of it.”

So, after the pool and ocean, where does the striving swimmer go next? What offers more of a challenge?

Apparently, sub five-degree waters.

In the last three months, Laura has begun training to add ice swimming to her water-logged resume.

It is as simple as it sounds: swimmers take to waters colder than five degrees to complete distanced swims (no wetsuits allowed). That’s a big difference from the 27-degree pool she usually trains in.

Who would enjoy wild swimming? “Those looking for a unique challenge. It is obviously very far outside what would seem pleasant. I think these endurance events, these challenging events, they attract people with a curious, adventurous mindset,” says Laura. Photo / Michael Craig
Who would enjoy wild swimming? “Those looking for a unique challenge. It is obviously very far outside what would seem pleasant. I think these endurance events, these challenging events, they attract people with a curious, adventurous mindset,” says Laura. Photo / Michael Craig

Generally, the longest event is the “Ice Mile” (1.6 kilometres), capitalised to match its severity — though prominent NZ ice swimmer Sue Sherwen completed an “Extreme Ice Mile” (2 kilometres) swim at St Bathans last year.

Sensibly (if it can be called that), Laura is beginning her ice swimming training with cold showers and ice baths — an Ice Mile is not on the cards. She’ll start with “baby steps” of 50- and 100-metre swims when the oceans that surround Tāmaki Makaurau drop to the required temperature in June.

But ... why?

“Fascination, I suppose, with the physiology? And a bit of intrigue,” the swimmer says.

“There’s a lot that happens on cold exposure that is involuntary. There are a lot of cold shock responses — vasoconstriction, cold hands, breathing faster, all these things. For me, it was looking at whether I could train my body to handle such an extreme that I have zero experience with.”

Laura is so excited, it’s (almost) convincing.

Madeleine Crutchley is a multimedia journalist for Viva and premium lifestyle and entertainment at the New Zealand Herald. She covers stories relating to fashion, culture and food and drink, from her hometown of Auckland.

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