Imagine running a marathon. Not the average annual fun-run that you join for free T-shirts and participation medals (not that anything’s wrong with that), but a proper marathon.Now, imagine running a marathon. ON WATER.
That’s what these weightlifter, diver and one-armed swimmer typically do. And we feel tired just hearing about it.
We’re going to zoom in on these three great people in a minute, but before that, let’s dive into this extreme world of long-distance swimming…
This group takes on non-swimmers and throws them into the open water
Melaka Straits Swim (MSS) is a cross-border challenge covering a distance of 40 to 50 kilometres from Indonesia’s Rupat Island to Port Dickson in Malaysia. This is the first time we’ve heard of such an event, but it has actually been in existence for almost three decades.
Project director and relay swimmer Abdul Razak Abdul Aziz, organised a similar event called Projek Berenang Merentasi Selat Melaka with his wife Intan Siti Zarinah Jailani way back in 1992.
“Our only challenge in 1992 was to train and prepare our team members who were mostly non-swimmers,” he said.
“Open water swimming was unheard of then, so the authorities were wary of the dangers. They nevertheless supported us where we needed most, especially the Indonesian authorities.”
Since the swims was mostly conducted at night, swimmers were equipped with illuminated tow floats equipped with GPS transponders based on the Automatic Identification System (AIS), an automated and autonomous tracking system used by ships, to ensure the swim team could be seen by other vessels and to help avoid collision.
Abdul Razak said the device helped swimmers “appear as vessels”.
“When big ships see a cluster of boats nearby, they are more cautious.”
Other than support from the Royal Malaysian Air Force, Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) and Islamic Science University Malaysia medical team, Abdul Razak said the swimmers had undergone a regimented programme to condition the body for the event.
Among MSS finishers were Ridzwan A. Rahim, Roseliza Tamam, and Mohd Sabki Ariffin who are the weightlifter, the diver, and the one-armed swimmer. Can you guess who’s who?
Swim coach Roseliza, 39, picked up swimming nine years ago as an alternative sport following a knee injury that put a stop to her love for weightlifting.
“I love coaching and the experience gave me confidence about techniques, things to do when you’re sinking, breathing, the whole nine yards. But after a while, swimming at pools started to get boring and I wanted something different.”
“So, I started to look into open water endurance in 2017. I didn’t have the confidence then because I had not done anything like it before. But when one of the community members said I just needed to develop more on the conditioning, the rest was history.”
Roseliza said since she spends most of her time at the swimming pool, she practises daily between classes and even late in the evening.
“Although I swim in the relay category (a group of swimmers who take turns to swim throughout the race) where the training is less rigorous than solo swimmers, I still cover over 20 kilometers a week for training.”
Before MSS, Roseliza took part in the 6.5-kilometre-long Kapas-Marang Swimathon in Terengganu.
“For a first timer, it was a big challenge. Swimming in the middle of the ocean, you cannot see anyone. You’re practically swimming alone.”
“While swimming pools have references like ropes and underwater lines, you can hardly see anything in open water. People on kayaks occasionally approach to ask if you’re OK, then they move on to other participants.
“When I found out about MSS in 2017, I somehow got roped into becoming part of the event committee and essentially, the open water endurance family. I’ve not looked back since!”
Ridzwan, 41, said he didn’t even know how to swim until a decade ago.
“The reason how I got into open water endurance was through scuba diving. When I was applying for a diving licence in 2009, my instructor insisted I take swimming lessons from him for free because he wanted all his divers to be able to properly swim. Not all divers can swim, that has been an issue for ages”.
The former English daily journalist and cartoonist said having started as a diver, the transition to swimming in open waters was not that overwhelming.
“Despite the confidence, we are aware of our limitations, you should know how far you can go”.
“While divers get a perfect view of marine life underwater especially sharks, visibility is a lot less clearer during endurance swimming. But when the waters are clear, swimmers can still spot animals like whale sharks and turtles at Redang Island in Terengganu. Langkawi even has dolphins.
“Being in an endurance race, you would also have withstand attacks by sea lice (same pain sensation as ant bites) on your face till your lips go numb, and the occasional jellyfish sting.”
Asked about his experience at MSS, Ridzwan said the participants were lucky because the waters were flat but swimming at night still posed a challenge.
“During the day, a trained swimmer can go as far as the eye can see with minimal issues. But swimming in the dark remains a big question mark even for experienced swimmers. Issues like seasickness during a night swim is one of many things we need to study, and that is why we had to go through a lot of training that began half a year before the event.”
“The only person who had an advantage during the night swim was Wong (Hung Fai), the blind swimmer in our team, because he couldn’t tell the difference between night and day!
“Big waves to swimming among big crowds that may seem like a steep challenge, but you can swim in any condition as long as you remain calm, travel at your own pace and control your breathing.
“Most of us had a fear of water, but to overcome this fear, you must be able to tread water or float on your back if the situation calls for it. When faced with a big problem, you must know when to stop. These are important skills to have, which you can start practising at a pool.”
The One-Armed Swimmer
Mohd Sabki is a paratriathlete who had once reached sixth best in the world. The 37-year-old Terengganu native lost his left arm in a road accident in Chendering in 2000.
“Before the accident, I didn’t have any background in sports. Instead of dwelling on the accident, I felt like there was a reason behind it, and that it was up to me to make the best out of the situation. So, I tried dabbling in sports, and that’s when I fell in love with swimming,” he said.
Mohd Sabki, who carries out general work at Putrajaya’s Social Welfare Department, said he learned to swim in 2004 with one thing in mind – to enter the Paralympics.
“In 2005, I entered the Kapas-Marang Swimathon as part of the learning experience. When I applied to join the event under the state government, the officer was reluctant, saying my training at swimming pools didn’t count for anything compared to the open water event. I told him not to worry about me, and that all I wanted was the opportunity to join the event,” he said.
“I swam under Terengganu Closed (a category specifically for Terengganu residents) and to my surprise, I finished first, beating 17 able-bodied participants in the same category.”
The struggle of being an independent swimmer in Malaysia
Since Sabki is unable to find a coach who can guide him specifically for his condition, most of his training comes from watching YouTube videos posted by para champions around the world.
“The techniques taught by Malaysian coaches only benefit able-bodied athletes. Even sports officials still struggle to understand the swimming techniques for para-athletes. I was once disqualified from a Paralympics selection trial because the officials claimed I performed the butterfly stroke wrongly for breathing from the side. I showed them a video clip from the 2016 Rio Paralympics where China dominated the podium using the same style as I did earlier. The officials’ surprised expression was evidence enough.”
Mohd Sabki said he decided to compete as independent because there was too much red tape in the national sports councils. However, he said, it came with a cost.
“I had only joined the national team for a couple of months. Despite bringing home medals and great finishes, not being in the top-tier sports programme means less support and that includes a budget to send athletes to various Games.”
“During the recent Jakarta-Palembang Asian Para Games, some of my friends had to bear most of the travel and accommodation costs because they were in the lower tier of the sports programme.
“When I was ranked sixth in the world, I competed around the world like the ITU World Triathlon Grand Finals in Edmonton and London. But without enough financial support to attend more events on the calendar, I wasn’t able to maintain or increase my points. As an independent athlete, the search for sponsors has always been a concern, so I’m always grateful whenever any opportunity comes knocking.
“Being a champion takes more than a couple of overseas training. It takes a lot of effort, and trial and error. But even when you’ve achieved a certain level, support from any sports council or organisation is key to making your mark in the world.”
Being an independent athlete, Mohd Sabki has to juggle between two jobs. He said after sending his child to school, he would squeeze in a quick total-body workout and come noon, he spends 75 minutes swimming at least three kilometres.
Why knowing how to swim is more important than you think
“Endurance isn’t just about fitness, it’s about mental strength. Being attacked by a smack of jellyfish remains a nightmare, but if it’s just the waves, it’s a challenge I can handle,” Sabki said.
Sabki’s story is definitely a testimony of beating all odds to achieving personal greatness. However, swimming isn’t just for the extreme athletes.
Abdul Razak said MSS is one of many events to promote swimming as a life skill especially for Malaysians.
“Swimming is natural for humans. Our body is mostly made of water but we tend to ignore it. Growing up, most parents ask children to stay away from water…this only generates fear.”
“Over 600 Malaysians especially children die every year because of drowning and the numbers are only growing”
“We want to reverse this. We want to inculcate good habits in the younger generation to see water as a friendly environment instead of a dangerous force of nature.”
If you’re interested in learning more about open water swimming, join the MSS community on Facebook.