A passionate representative for mental health, Andy Donaldson spoke openly with writer Amy Monkman about his past struggles and the importance of community as he takes on his next challenge – UltraSwim33.3.
Coming into the Zoom frame wearing a crisp white jumper with the word SWIM embroidered across the front in an ocean blue, Andy Donaldson sits comfortably, smiling.
And why wouldn’t he be smiling, after all this man is now the world-record holder for the prestigious Oceans Seven challenge. Not only did he become the first person to complete the swims in less than a year, he did it in the record-breaking (cumulative) time of 63 hours 2 minutes beating the previous world-best of 64 hours 35 minutes. From the Strait of Gibraltar to the Molokai Channel in Hawaii, Andy and his team have spent the past year travelling the world taking on the most iconic and dangerous channels. The challenge was a huge success and was, as he describes: “the best year of my life.”
However, after talking to Andy for a few minutes, it becomes apparent the accomplishment has been a rollercoaster journey of ups and downs, not just to acquire the record itself but in fact a deeper lifelong journey of personal growth and resilience following depression, loss and grief.
A brief background
A swimmer in his younger years, Andy enjoyed a successful career winning national titles at 200m freestyle. However, bitter disappointment followed after he failed to make the cut for the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games.
“I felt like I had failed and let people down who believed in me,” he explains as he shares his past ambitions. “Life wasn’t going the way I thought it would and I realised I had to start exploring other career options.” After ending his professional swimming career in 2016, Andy became an accountant.
“I felt the pressure of societal expectations and threw myself into a stable 9-5, I gave it everything I had, to the point where I wasn’t leading a balanced life. When friends and family would come to visit I would be too busy to see them – in the end, it all became too much for me and I sunk into depression. I guess looking back I was just doing too little of what made me happy.”
A fierce advocate for mental health, Andy explains his personal reasons for becoming so involved with the cause.
“When I was deeply unhappy, the depression didn’t happen overnight. It was months and months of small, incremental bouts of unhappiness that were difficult to recognise at the time. Thankfully I had amazing people around me and I was able to go and see someone,” he takes a sigh of relief. “You know, depression is one of the most difficult things to deal with, I saw it in my grandfather who suffered chronically, and at the peak of my accounting career, I lost two friends to suicide.
“I was devastated, I just didn’t see it coming. Two guys I had known from swimming, we had been on the journey together and it just came out of the blue. They never shared their struggles, they masked it really well. That experience really forced me to take stock of my life.”
From volcano guide to swimming coach – a chance encounter
After quitting his job and becoming a volcano guide in Central America, Andy was forced to return to Perth, Australia during COVID-19 where he met a key person in his life by the name of Martin Smoothy. It was a chance encounter. The day after lockdown lifted, Martin and Andy bumped into each other on the local beach.
Martin, in his 60s, had taken up open-water swimming after a health scare. He told Andy that when he was 50, he’d had a heart attack and kidney failure in one week.
“I remember that day so well,” said Andy. “He interrogated me! He was like, where have you been? What have you been doing? Why aren’t you swimming? What are you doing with your life?”
“I tried to answer his questions as best I could and from that day on he gently encouraged me to get back into swimming. To swim for the pleasure of it, for the people, the community, nature… ultimately for purpose. I soon rediscovered my passion for the sport and realised how much I needed it in my life.”
It wasn’t long before Martin and Andy had created a local community of swimmers, coaching as a duo. “We wanted to help inject some purpose into people’s lives, help people towards their goals.”
It was this venture that led to Martin challenging Andy to pursue his own dreams. It was too late to become an Olympic swimmer, but together they built up Andy’s confidence which ultimately led him to conquer local races and eventually become a world-record holder.
What is it about open-water swimming?
“There’s no one single answer,” he laughs. “What’s remarkable is that the sport attracts a diverse group of individuals, transcending backgrounds and statuses, as everyone leaves their differences on the shore or by the pool when they enter the water. This shared environment brings people together in ways that are hard to describe but deeply meaningful. It’s not just about the physical act of swimming; it’s the post-swim moments, like enjoying a coffee together, that contribute to the sense of community and camaraderie.”
“At face value, it seems like an individual sport, especially what I do with these big marathon swims but it’s the furthest thing from that. It’s a sport that allows these bonds to develop which I think only come about when you go through adversity and challenges which is very common in life and swimming.”
Andy’s next adventure will take him to Montenegro with the newly established epic adventure race series UltraSwim33.3. Designed to push people out of their comfort zones, UltraSwim33.3 is designed to help participants swim the length of the English Channel crossing (33.3km at its shortest) over four days in various stunning locations, such as Montenegro and Croatia.
“Montenegro is such a beautiful part of the world but the highlight of the event is really the people. Something like UltraSwim is a new, interesting, and intriguing idea – bringing swimmers in from all over the world to come together and create some great memories. The value of community cannot be underestimated, I wouldn’t have come this far without people like Martin.
“With Ultraswim33.3 being the first series of multi-day events, it offers a sense of community where everyone goes back to the same hotel, and they get to share and chat about their experiences and that’s been the real draw card for me, it’s what I’m most excited about. At the end of the day, this sport is about people and I’m excited to get to Montenegro and hear everyone’s stories. Perhaps I’ll even be able to help encourage them along the way!”
A parting word
When offered the opportunity to add anything to his interview, Andy offers some parting advice for potential outdoor swimmers: “If you want to know anything about outdoor swimming, talk to someone who is involved. We have such a friendly and welcoming community; that’s what this sport is known for. Come and suss it out. There will never be any pressure but there’s a benefit to having people around you that can show you the ropes, if nothing else from a safety perspective. Just don’t ever be afraid to ask for help, whether it’s in swimming or life.”
UltraSwim33.3 #2 Montenegro will begin on 29 September 2023 and is sold out. The 2024 calendar has just been announced with three new events lined up.