SYDNEY, Australia – The spring sun may have been warm, but the Pacific Ocean off the outskirts of Sydney felt like a bucket of ice. I put my head down and tried to breathe in a steady rhythm as I swam faster than usual to warm up, keeping an eye out for a few swimmers coming my way along the rocky shore.
As the distance between us narrowed, they both stopped and seemed to point. I grabbed my head.
“Bull ray,” said one of them, a woman about my age in an orange bathing cap. I peaked underwater. It was half tide, the water was clear, but all I could see were rocks and sand about ten feet below.
“True?” I screamed when I came up again.
“Right there!” She pointed directly at me. “Just below you!” I pushed deeper on my next dive and then I saw it: a black stingray blanket, wider than I am tall, its wings flapping at the edges as if preparing to take off.
My heart pounded with, what – fear, wonder, appreciation? Probably all three. Bull rays are usually docile creatures, but their stinging spines are venomous. I was pretty sure one of them had been responsible for the death of Australia’s wildlife superstar Steve Irwin.
I’m not Steve Irwin. Before moving from Brooklyn to Sydney in 2017 to open The New York Times’ Australian office, I was a dutiful landlubber. I would take a dip in the ocean a few times a year, splash around and then retire to a beach chair. My version of exercise consisted of jogging six kilometers three times a week.
But in Australia something changed. I went from ignoring swimming to hating it to longing for the feeling of being submerged, stretching my body and mind with the creatures and currents of the ocean. Two years ago, I made my way to volunteer to be a lifesaver on one of Australia’s most dangerous beaches. These days I surf or swim in the Pacific four or five times a week.
I only got this far because the people around me, from neighbors to my children, insisted that I participate. “Give it a chance,” they said. Give up your individualism and journalistic distance, give in to Australian peer pressure, and embrace something American life rarely celebrates: skill.
The word simply means “skilful in doing”. Not exceptional, not superior. Purely competent. In Australia, this is the level of competence required of all 181,000 volunteers who patrol the country’s beaches along with smaller crews of professional lifeguards. Grandmothers, triathletes, politicians and immigrants, we all became proficient after six to eight weeks of group training on rip currents and rescues, CPR, shark bites, jellyfish stings and CPR.
The Great Lecture
Here are more fascinating stories that you can’t help but read all the way to the end.
Swimming in the ocean was a requirement – and an entry point to something deeper. Skill in the water has become for me a source of liberation from the cult of outrage and optimization on land. In rising and falling seas I can be imperfect, playful, apolitical and happy as long as I am in motion. As a citizen and citizen, I often wonder: what would the world be like if we all found a place with risk and reward that required humility, where we couldn’t talk or tweet, where we just had to get better at doing?
Risk and the ocean through time
The communal, sea-oriented culture I got into in Australia began 50,000 to 65,000 years ago when some of the continent’s earliest inhabitants made their way across land bridges and the seas to the northern tip of the landmass.
The rescue of Australian surfers began in Sydney with men like John Bond, a soldier and medic who gathered and trained a few local swimmers around 1894. Commanding and mustachioed in pictures, he’s a respected figure where he happened to land, and where I did, too — in Bronte, a Sydney coastal suburb around a small beach where southerly swells often produce waves of 12 feet and where rip currents can move at the speed of an Olympian.
I ended up in Bronte because the public school was teaching Spanish—which my children, who were 8 and 6 when we arrived, had learned in Mexico and at their bilingual school in Brooklyn. In our new house they had to learn another language. About nature. About a world where the sublime and the scary merge.
The Australian national anthem describes the country as ‘girded by the sea’. Globally, about 40 percent of the population lives within 100 kilometers, about 62 miles, of an ocean; in Australia, 85 percent of the country’s 25 million people live within half that distance. Speedo started here in 1914, and even inland — in arid cities the color of dust — public swimming pools are as common as playgrounds. Somehow, swimming just seems to be everywhere and expected of everyone. In Bronte most people seem to know someone who has tried to swim across the Channel.
For my son, Balthazar, known as Baz, and his younger sister, Amelia, the integration process began with a junior life-saving program called Nippers. It has been a Sunday ritual for generations. Thousands of children, ages 5 to 14, barge into Australian beaches from October to March to race on the sand, swim deep in the ocean and practice using rescue signs. The cute name doesn’t begin to describe what the action is like – each age group has its own colored swim cap; each child has his or her name on it and a neon pink rash guard, better known as rashie in Australia. Parents trained as lifesavers are their guides in the water, donning orange rashes to brighten the scene even more.
The first time I saw it, I had to laugh. It reminded me of Baz Luhrmann, the Australian director of fantastic films like “Strictly Ballroom” and “Moulin Rouge!”
But the longer I stayed, the more I came to see it as a summer camp (or boot camp?) for courage and community. The children pushed each other to complete each task. Together they battled the grueling surf. Fear and tears were simply ignored, not coddled, not denied.
One day my son found himself at the center of it all. He rode a plank and bobbed on waves twice his length until he reached the break zone. A wave lifted him and – with the force of a freight train – plunged him into the shore, sending the boy tumbling through sand and surf.
I ran over to him, trying to calm my pounding heart as a bunch of teenage girls gathered around him first. “Best wave of the day,” said one. Baz could barely breathe, his face covered in snot, tears, and sand. A few minutes later, he grinned with pride and was ready for another try.
My daughter turned out to be even braver – she was the one who persuaded her skittish friends to jump off cliffs or go for a long swim or take another ride on the rescue boards.
And then it was my turn. Baz challenged me. Amelia agreed: Dad had to get his bronze medallion, the lifesaving qualifier that would earn him an orange rash.
It was time to get proficient.
A personal struggle
Many people who have swam for sport or exercise since childhood write and talk about it with an affection usually reserved for romantic poetry.
My approach preferred four letter words.
In my first attempt to qualify for Bronze Medallion training, I failed. I couldn’t swim 400 meters in less than nine minutes as required. I finished in 10 minutes and 17 seconds, gasping for air.
That led me to take swimming lessons in my mid-40s from the same eager young woman who taught Baz and Amelia when we first arrived in Australia.
Humiliating? Yes. But the worst part of the swimming was the actual swimming. At Bronte Baths, the ocean pool carved into the sandstone cliffs on the southern edge of Bronte in the 1880s, each 30-meter lap felt like a climb up Mount Everest.
Eventually I started to improve. At some point I switched my freestyle technique, breathing every third stroke instead of every two, which helped me glide and see the conditions left and right of me – which became more important when I entered the pool in front of the ocean. dumped. Bondi Beach was where I had learned to surf, so I started swimming there. Since there were no lanes and no one was swimming next to me, I started to enjoy exercising and exploring. I marveled at silvery fish and underwater sand patterns. One day I even ran into a pod of dolphins frolicking and diving, staring in awe for as long as I could hold my breath.
When it came time for me to try the life-saving test again, after a few months, I finished the 400m with over a minute left.
New struggles followed. As part of the training, we had to swim together at 6am. It was spring: the water temperature was below 65 degrees. The quest for proficiency also included group CPR and rescue simulations, meaning chest compressions were close enough to smell each other’s breath. We were a bunch of strangers, men and women, about 15 to 50 years old, from different backgrounds, jobs and political views. None of them counted. We bonded to build our skills. We passed not because we were great, but because we were good enough – collectively, even after a wave knocked our swimmer off a yellow spine.
Skill, I realized, is not like victory, success, or whatever dominates America’s hierarchy of goals. It’s more forgiving, more inclusive, more noble – if we make it a priority. And we? How often do any of us look for a risk or a physical and mental challenge that has nothing to do with work or achievement, taking into account mistakes, interdependence and grace?
In researching a book on all this – Australia, risk, community – I discovered the broader benefits of becoming proficient. Martin Seligman, an American psychologist known for two very different lines of research (learned helplessness and positive psychology), told me that a search for competence can counter what he called a disturbing trend of American vulnerability. For decades, he said, our culture has sought shelter from feelings, believing that self-esteem is the spark for achievement. But that’s retarded, he explained. People don’t do well because they feel good; they feel good because they do well, often after failing and improving.
Perhaps children are the ones to follow. Here in Sydney, the new Nippers season has just started. While my son has persuaded me to let him enjoy the aquatic life with just water polo and surfing, my daughter continues to draw strength from the Australian Sunday morning ritual.
Amelia is now 11 and together we sometimes swim near where I saw that ray. Recently, when the surf was unusually calm, we jumped off the rocks at Bronte Baths and headed south to where we’d never been as the usual waves would whip us to a pulp. We could still feel the strong current and we knew there might be sharks around so we stayed close together. Neither panicked nor recklessly we swam a few hundred yards without noticing the distance until I saw another wonder from the deep – a blue gropper, a gigantic fish the color of a midday sky so slow it’s protected from spearfishing. .
“Here,” I shouted. “Blue Guy!”
Amelia was next to me in a flash and then downstairs. I followed right behind me, quiet and peaceful in a strange realm, pulling myself to the beautiful fish and the brave little girl.