Tammy van Wisse - Marathon Swimmer

Tammy van Wisse, marathon swimmer
'Marathon swimming teaches you a lot about yourself; it teaches you that you have a lot more inner strength than you thought possible.

Tammy is an Aussie champion who has swum around the world one and a half times, covering 60 000 kilometres in her marathon swims, sometimes for more than 20 hours straight. She's conquered the Murray River, the Hudson River and the English Channel twice, and now she's embarked on a new challenge: to save Australia's waterways.



What were your career aspirations when you were a kid?

I did ballet classes from a very early age and always wanted to be a beautiful ballerina.

When did you start swimming and why?

When I was 11, my parents bought us a backyard pool – one of those above-ground four-foot pools – and they thought it would be good from a safety perspective for me to learn how to swim. Also I had a bit of a weight problem when I was a child and I used to get teased. So swimming was a form of exercise as well as a safety precaution.

How did you get into marathon swimming?

I competed in pool swimming competitions for many years and my goal was to make an Australian team. Unfortunately I didn't have the skill level to be fast enough to make a team. I went to the Nationals many times and just missed out on the selections. So I diversified into lifesaving and started competing in lifesaving competitions. I did really well and started moving to open water swims. At first it was just short stuff, like one or two kilometres.

In 1986 I heard about a 20 kilometre swim in Port Phillip Bay in Victoria and I thought it sounded like a fantastic challenge. I hadn't swum anything more than about six kilometres prior to the event, and I came third overall. Two guys beat me but not by much, and I beat the current woman's marathon champion. I was shocked – I hadn't realised marathon swimming was a sport. I knew I was good at endurance because my coach used to tell me I was like an Energizer Battery that never runs out. I'd found my forte. After that I was approached by a number of coaches who told me I could represent my country. That got me interested – being able to live my dream and represent my country not in pool swimming but in marathon swimming. It was fantastic, and it was just a matter of perseverance and redirecting my talent.

How many hours a week do you train?

For long distance swimming I usually swim 10 or 11 sessions per week, each session lasting two to three hours. I cover around 10 to 12 kilometres per session. The time involved is a bit like a full-time job when you add the time it takes to go to the gym three times a week, do yoga and run. When preparing for a long distance swim I get out into the ocean to acclimatise myself to the environment and do my laps out there.

What was your longest swim?

The longest in terms of time was when I swam around Port Phillip Bay in Victoria. That was 144 kilometres and it took me almost 22 hours non-stop to complete. The longest distance swim that I've done is the Murray, which is 2438 kilometres. That took me three and a half months or 106 days to complete, but I was swimming six to eight hours per day and hopping out at night time because it was dangerous with the snakes and snags.

Does it still count if you get out of the water at night?

The Murray Swim was for the Guinness Book of Records and we were abiding by the rules for the book. Obviously it's not possible to swim for three and a half months without getting out of the water. We had officials with us and GPS coordinates were recorded and signed on each time I got in and out of the water.

What was it like swimming the English Channel with your brother John in 1993?

In 1993 we hoped to become the first brother and sister to swim the English Channel together but we didn't anticipate how cold it was going to be. It was about 11 degrees in the Channel that year. I handled the cold a lot better than my brother as he was a lot skinnier than me and, although we had both put on 10 kilos, he got hypothermia four kilometres from the coast of France. It was a pretty hairy situation. Dawn Fraser was on his support boat and when my brother disappeared under the boat she had to jump in and grab him and bring him back on board the boat. Dawn broke four ribs in the process of bringing John back on board the boat. She did an amazing job. Luckily he didn't suffer any long-term effects. They wrapped him in sleeping bags and got his core temperature back up again. I completed the swim – they didn't tell me what had happened to John.

A couple of months later back in Melbourne John started talking about the swim again. We did another 12 months of training and put on more weight. Instead of putting on 10 kilos, he put on 22 kilos. And we both managed to get across in 1994. John became the fastest Australian and broke Suzie Maroney's record. That's the record that still stands today.

Do you swim in a cage?

Sometimes. I swam in a cage in Bass Strait, because it's the home of great white sharks and because I was swimming throughout the night, when my crew couldn't keep an eye out for me. The cage acts as protection but it's also very difficult to swim in because it's a bit like being in a washing machine. The waves can throw you from one side of the cage to the other.

What do you think about when you swim? 

I rely very heavily on my support team. They have a whiteboard and write messages for me to see when I'm breathing to the side. They display information on how many freestyle strokes I'm doing per minute, information on the weather, tides, and distances. I also ask them to write jokes and draw silly pictures and other things to take my mind off the pain so I can keep going, because the most difficult thing is to keep going for a long period of time. I also listen to a lot of music before I do a swim and memorise sets of songs – during a swim I play them in the CD player in my mind. Every marathon swimmer has different strategies to help them get through it.

What's it like having Dawn Fraser as a coach?

Dawn is fantastic. She is someone I have admired for many years and she was one of my heroes when I was growing up. She is a great mentor and a wonderful role model.

You've become an ambassador for water issues. Did you plan to become a human water-quality tester?

It's something that has evolved which I didn't anticipate. I've competed in rivers, lakes and oceans all around the world and on numerous occasions I've been sick after completing a marathon swim. When you're in a body of water for 15 or 20 hours, you can't help but swallow small bits of it as you're going along. If the water quality is bad, I get sick as a direct result.

Some of the places I've been to swim have been pretty horrendous, like around Manhattan Island. The Hudson river is quite polluted and at one point they had untreated sewage going into the river as we were swimming through it. I became very, very sick after the swim.

The Murray River swim was called the 'Healthy Rivers swim' to promote the fact that we need to look after our waterways. I think it's wonderful to use sport in such a positive way. I also do a lot of talks at schools, for science days and stuff like that as well. I bring it back to layman's terms for the average person who is probably a bit sick of hearing all the scientific stuff.

What are you doing now?

I've got a six-month-old baby so I'm doing more speaking work at the moment. I still go swimming three or four mornings a week which I really enjoy. I haven't given up prospects for doing another marathon swim down the track. Marathon swimming is one of those great sports you can continue doing right into your later years of life. The buoyancy of the water means less impact on your body than for, say, marathon runners. The only downside is that, with all those strokes, you can get some muscle wear and tear in your arms.

What would you say to someone interested in becoming a marathon swimmer?

You have to be very comfortable with your own company, very patient and have a lot of drive and determination. It's not something I'd recommend for young kids – I'd say you'd start when you are 16 or over. Mentally it's a very difficult sport; you have to cope with high levels of pain for a long period of time. But it teaches you a lot about yourself; it teaches you that you have a lot more inner strength than you thought possible. It's been a wonderful journey for me because I work with a team who helps me get from point A to point B, and going on that journey is a wonderful experience.

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