Madame Butterfly

The Point Leo Swim Classic is held on Boxing Day. There are two main races, the five kilometre and the 1.2 kilometre race; a beach run of four kilometres and a nippers’ swim over four hundred metres. The race is beginning just as I arrive and take a vantage point on top of a sand dune. The starting gun goes off and swimmers race to the water, crashing through the waist-high waves close to the shore, then seaborne and away, a peloton of thrashing arms and legs.

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Almost immediately, one swimmer is far ahead and soon after that, two others are neck and neck in second and third place. Three enormous red plastic inflatable cubes mark the apices of the broadly triangular course, with smaller red markers in between to keep the competitors on track. Each lap is just over a kilometre, four laps complete the course. The remaining forty-seven swimmers soon spread out, ploughing their way between the first and second markers but as they head out toward the third, occasionally disappear in the swell. The leader is going to take about fifteen minutes to swim a lap, a crew of life savers in a blue kayak keeping pace alongside.

But then, bizarrely, it seems there is one swimmer doing butterfly. Life guards cluster around on boards and kayaks. The announcer sees this at the same time and with disbelief, alerts the crowd over the loudspeaker. Everyone on the beach is enthralled: five kilometres of butterfly is an heroic feat and for a while, attention is deflected away from the leader who is now on the second lap and about to overtake the slower swimmers yet to finish the first. Smooth, powerful strokes, breath on each and unflagging rhythm. The butterflier curves and crests above the water.

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Spectators accumulate on the beach, untidy clusters of teenagers lie face down on towels, and competitors ready for the next race mill around talking to each other, or look intently out to sea. The surf lifesaving club has set up blue, white and orange marquees around the finishing line. A couple sitting near me on the sand dune, just downslope, are arguing. The woman is barely controlling her voice.

“I wasn’t being difficult. I was trying to be both things to both families”.

He turns from her, feigning disinterest but eventually, he argues back. The wind carries his voice away. Then she is on her feet, kicking sand out her Birkenstocks and leaning over him, thrusts her arms forward as if about to place her hands on his shoulders. They fall short in mid-air, outstretched and rigid, but unanchored. Speech leaves her and abruptly, she walks off. He stares out to sea, trying to pretend nothing has happened, then gets up and leaves as well, his stroll determinedly casual.

The butterflier is about half way around the second lap. But the announcer has run out of things to say and the crowd is bored with the pace now. The breeze has picked up, lifting the red plastic cubes out of the water but the lead swimmer is powering through the fourth lap, focussed, internal. The blue kayak sticks faithfully close. Suddenly, he is upright and at the shore, running across the wet sand to the finish line. The crowd cheers. Sam Sheppard is barely out of breath. He competes at national level and training for a ten kilometre swim in a couple of weeks. It’s serious business.

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The next two swimmers are out of the water a few minutes later. They are the crowd favourites and have swum inseparably throughout the entire course. The second place getter wins on the sprint up the beach. He is 32, the other is a 14 year old boy. Both are exhausted. The older swimmer is congratulatory and cheerful, the younger stunned and seasick. It was a remarkable effort. The boy joins his parents on a sand dune and curious, I walk up to him a little while later to congratulate him on the swim but by now, his father, in a broad Glaswegian accent, is talking him up for the 1.2 kilometre race in an hour’s time.

The announcer reminds the nippers to find their goggles and caps before they make their way, with anxious parents, to their race which is about to start further up the beach. The gun goes off and they scramble to the water, frantically swimming flat-out around the four hundred metre course. But the crowd’s attention is mainly on the adult swimmers, still finishing the five kilometre race. One by one, or in small groups, they emerge from the sea and cross the finish line. At one hour 50 minutes, two are still in the water with about two hundred metres to go and seven minutes later, a young woman, perhaps about thirty, and an older man in his sixties stagger out of the water together. He wraps himself in a towel printed with the Australian flag. She slumps against a sand dune, reaches into a day pack and starts sending text messages.

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The butterflier will be the last to finish. Arms, wing like, arc over the water, perfectly imitating the insect for which the stroke is named. Torso rising above the water, legs fishtailing, disappearing every now and again in the rising swell. Finally, eventually, a woman emerges from the water and jogs to the finish line. Ignoring the crowd, she looks around to find her way through the marquees and back to the sand but is approached by the announcer for an interview. After the long wait for the finish, everyone on the beach is waiting to hear what she has to say.

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“It’s just what I do. Five kilometres is my minimum training distance”.

The crowd is disappointed, hoping for an insight into why someone chooses to go against the grain and swim such a gruelling race, knowing they will come not only last but last by a long, long way.  Understandably tired and probably bored with the same old questions, she turns from the announcer to find her towel.  Later, I bump into Sue from the swimming group, getting ready to compete in the shorter race which is about to start. She mentions “that bird” who did the butterfly. I am appalled.

I decide to buy a coffee while I wait for the 1.2 kilometre swim to start. The warring couple are running the kiosk. They are very busy. She darts around coordinating the kitchen orders and counter staff while he is stationed at the cash register. I have to tell him three times which sort of coffee I want and am irritated by his vacuity. I decide to take it down to the beach with a bacon and egg sandwich from the surf living saving club stall. Mistakenly, I jump the queue and get told off.

It’s not the Peninsula of my youth and I wonder how many locals are on the beach.  Later, I am relieved to be home in the city. But the feeling remains for a while and is hard to shake.

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