As Ken Thorley paddled his kayak out to sea, he made a mental checklist of all the things he needed to have on-board. Bananas and energy gels? Yep. Gatorade? Got it. Phone, camera and GPS? Ready to go. It was the first time he had supported his son Bill in an open water swimming race, and he wanted to make sure that things went smoothly. Strong currents, jellyfish, ocean debris, sudden cramping … the list of potential threats to the young swimmer were endless, but his dad could at least make sure he had the fuel and emotional support to get him to the finish of the 15km Clean Half Extreme Marathon race.
In five or 10k races, competitors share a safety vessel, but they need their own support for longer distances. It would be the furthest Bill had ever swum, a much greater stretch than his 10k in the Philippines one month before. Luckily, the race fell during a school holiday, so the 14-year-old was able to put in intensive training in the days before. He’d get up early and swim an open water 10k in the morning, before doing pool sprints with the regional squad in the afternoon.
Good Hope School's Cheyenne Cheung tries to focus on identifying her weaknesses and improving as a s
For an ocean swimmer, getting muscular cramp is a nightmare that can be difficult to avoid. Bill had experienced it a couple of times in the run-up to the race, but he wasn’t too worried about seizing up during the race: his father would be nearby with electrolyte gels and a kayak to hold onto if he was struggling.
On the morning of the race, Bill woke up feeling calm. He’d had a hearty meatball dinner the night before, and he started his day with a carb boost of macaroni. He was one of 12 solo swimmers, most of whom were much older. Swept along in a tide of adrenaline and thrashing limbs, Bill set off from Stanley beach at a pace. Save energy for the section leading up to Round Island, more experienced competitors warned him. There are no rocks there so the current is strong. It was early October, and Bill was thankful that the weather was clear and bright. Cooler currents and darker skies brought jellyfish, which the swimmer knew by painful experience to avoid.
Around the halfway point, Bill’s energy was lagging and he pulled up to his father’s kayak to grab a gel and down some Gatorade. Due to strong currents, Ken had been struggling to keep up with his son. Falling behind, he called out to Bill to continue on his own, so he could take a short-cut and meet up with him on the other side of Round Island. The Island’s notorious current wasn’t too much of a problem for Bill. But when he came out the other side, his father was nowhere in sight. The wind had picked up and he couldn’t wait around and risk getting cold – he had to carry on, even if that meant not having access to food, water or a safety craft.
Despite pulling, kicking and gliding as efficiently as he could, Bill felt his energy beginning to wane again. He was tired, his dad was still nowhere to be seen, and he felt a creeping cramp squeezing his leg muscles into paralysis. He could see other teams’ safety vessels, but they were too far away to notice Bill in pain. The swimmer tucked his legs beneath him, curled up into a ball, and tried to stay afloat while waiting for the agonising cramp to pass. He stayed composed, breathed deeply, stretched gently, and his legs soon relaxed. Now he had some catching up to do. With renewed purpose, his body cut through the water as the sea rose and fell around him. He couldn’t tell who his closest competitor was, or even where he was in the field. He just kept swimming.
The final kilometre approached and Bill was keeping a strong pace. Knowing the finish line was approaching gave him the motivation to power through and emerge strong. By the time he reached the shore, he was exhausted to his core. He got out of the water and walked to the finish, relieved that it was all over. He still couldn’t tell where he had placed, and looked around for his dad to find out, but Ken still wasn’t there. Bill wasn’t worried: his dad could have been among the hundreds of people milling around Deep Water Bay, and his own priority was to rest and refuel.
Record-breaker Vincent Suen will double in freestyle and butterfly at the 2016 Inter-school Swimming Competition
It was almost an hour later, after Bill had showered, changed and polished off a hamburger, that he was reunited with his father. He was tired, too, from battling the waves, yet overcome with pride and relief to see his son safe. The race team had to tow the kayaker back to shore after Ken gave up battling the wind and currents between Round and Middle Island. Ken feared his son was in trouble without his safety craft. Luckily, Australian International School had a relay team in the race, so Ken called the team’s pilot Craig Phillis to ask if he could spot his son. When Phillis eventually spotted Bill, the swimmer was approaching the finish line while laughing and waving.
As spectators and other swimmers clapped and congratulated him, it dawned on Bill that he had finished third. His time was 3:52:19 – just a little more than 20 minutes after winner Jose Luis Larrosa. Despite being the race’s youngest ever male swimmer, he had claimed a podium place. That evening, Bill tucked into a big dinner to celebrate, before winding down with videos games and an early night. It wasn’t until the following day that the enormity of his achievement sank in, as the family began receiving hundreds of congratulatory Facebook messages.
Sometimes Bill is asked what he thinks about when swimming alone for three hours or more. He tells them that he focuses on looking ahead, overtaking opponents, what he needs to do to win, and simply doing his best. Sometimes, he thinks about his future as a swimmer. He doesn’t know how far he’ll take the sport, but for the time being he’ll keep training, racing, and doing what he loves. And his dad better learn how to keep up.