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Embracing the Swimming Culture After a Move to Australia

  • November 25, 2021

The word simply means “skilled in doing.” Not exceptional, not superior. Purely proficient. In Australia, it’s the level of competence required of all 181,000 volunteers patrolling the country’s beaches alongside 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 resuscitation.

Ocean swimming was a prerequisite — and an entry point for something more profound. Proficiency in the water, for me, has become a source of liberation from the cults of outrage and optimization on land. In up-and-down seas, I can be imperfect, playful, apolitical and happy as long as I’m moving. As a father and citizen, I often wonder: What might the world look like if we all found a place of risk and reward that demanded humility, where we couldn’t talk or tweet, where we had to just get better at doing?

The communal, sea-savvy culture that I fell into in Australia began 50,000 to 65,000 years ago when some of the continent’s first inhabitants made their way across land bridges and the seas to the northern tip of the landmass.

Australian surf lifesaving got its start 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 photos, he is a revered figure where he happened to land, and where I did, too — in Bronte, a coastal suburb of Sydney encircling a small beach where southern swells often produce 12-foot waves and where rip currents can move at the speed of an Olympian.

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