Caitlin is a regular swimmer at Samoa Swims & Events in Auckland. She met with us at the
Orewa Estuary for a chat and photos.
Age, 16 years
Lives in Waitoki, Rodney
In less than two weeks, on or about the 19th of February, sixteen-year-old Caitlin O’Reilly of Waitoki will swim Foveaux Strait, all 28 km of the treacherous pass between the Bluff and Stewart Island. The swim is timed for the lowest tide cycle in the Strait this month.
To those in the know, there is no doubting that Caitlin will achieve this goal just like she did when she swam Cook Strait in 2017 when she was only twelve years old. Then two years later, Caitlin swam 40.2km across Lake Taupo. The three swims form the sacred Triple Crown (TC) of NZ open water swimming. The Cook Strait swim makes up one of the world's Ocean 7 swims, the pinnacle of this global sport.
Caitlin’s focus was on completing Ocean 7 before turning twenty, but COVID19 got in the way. Last year, she was due to swim the Catalina Strait (USA) and the Tsugaru Strait (Japan). The other four swims the Molokai Channel (Hawai’i), English Channel (England to France), North Channel (Ireland to Scotland), and the Gibraltar Strait swim (Europe to Africa) were to follow. These swims will now have to wait until the world is well again.
The COVID19 interruption turned Caitlin's attention to challenges closer to home, and there is no none bigger than the NZ Triple Crown of Cook Strait, Lake Taupo, and Foveaux Strait.
When she finally lands on dry ground at the end of her swim in two weeks, Caitlin will have completed this rare feat even amongst some of the big names of ultra-marathon swimmers in this country. That list includes legends of the sport such as Phillip Rush (multiple crossings of Cook Strait, English Channel, and Lake Taupo), Meda McKenzie (Cook Strait, first NZ woman), Sandra Blewett (NZ Triple Crown), Barry Davenport (first to cross Cook Strait), Perry Cameron (Cook Strait), John Coutts (multiple swims) and Keith Hancox (second person to swim Cook Strait) to name a few. And of that list, only Sandra Blewett has completed the NZ TC, along with four others. Caitlin will be the sixth Kiwi to complete all three swims and by far the youngest.
The evolution of Caitlin O’Reilly is remarkable, it is based on a foundation of self-belief that belies her years. She is instilled with an abundance of quiet confidence that makes her an outstanding example for young Kiwis to follow.
Caitlin was only eleven years old when she decided to swim Cook Strait. At that time, she was coached by John Gatfield, himself a legend of the Cook Strait Swim. The year was 2004, and Gatfield was only 13 years old, and he swam Cook Strait becoming the youngest swimmer in the world to do so (8h 8mins).
Gatfield’s coaching and example made an impression on 11-year old Caitlin.
“Yep, I decided there and then to swim Cook Strait,” she said.
The next twelve months was spent preparing for the big swim. She wasn’t daunted or fazed by the prospect, nor were her parents Mike and Courtney when Caitlin told them she wanted to swim the Strait.
“My parents are wonderful people. They are in full support of what I do. I am very lucky to have supportive parents.”
“None of this would happen without them. When I come up with a goal, they don’t question it or ask whether I was sure I wanted to do these things.”
Caitlin admits that she didn’t fully understand what she was getting herself into. She knew Cook Strait was long, and it was going to be hard, but just how hard?
On the day, her swim started at 2 pm to fit in with the tide. It was all going well until it got dark.
“I cried. Phil told me I had 10 km to go, and I underestimated how long that would actually take me, and it looked like I wasn’t moving. And it was getting dark, and I had never swum in the dark before, so I cried.”
Caitlin kept swimming, then her concerns subsided when she was told there was only 2 km to go. She finished the swim after 9 pm well into the dark in a time of 7hrs 19mins 56secs. Her time is in the top 10 percent of times for Cook Strait (130 swimmers since 1962), even beating her coach by 48 mins.
The Taupo swim was a mere formality of lake swimming. She completed that in 13 hours.
For Foveaux Strait, Caitlin is planning on a swim time of around 9 hours. Phillip Rush will again captain the swim, dad Mike will be on the boat, and mum Courtney will be on the beach to welcome her at the finish.
The direction of the swim is not yet known, north to south or south to north. It will depend on the weather and tidal flow on the day, that bit of information will be known two days out, and the decision will be made for the final swim plan.
Caitlin says she is not concerned about things she cannot control, such as the weather and the direction of the swim or how cold it will be. The water temperature is expected to be 14 degrees Celsius, and she will swim without a wetsuit in keeping with the rules of international marathon swimming.
She will be in control of her approach to the swim, which includes a bit more speed than she employed in the first two swims. She will stop every half-hour to take on food and nourishment and then keep swimming until she reaches the finish.
“I’m not concerned with the swims on the day, but it’s leading up to the swims that is a real challenge, having to go to training when some mornings I just don’t want to go.”
Caitlin will keep the training up to within two days of the swim. She is currently putting in 40-kilometer weeks, and there was a 60-kilometer week recently. That has been the norm since May, a nine-month stretch of training.
With two weeks to go, she is super ready to take on Foveaux Strait, and we wish her well.
NZ Triple Crown Swimmers
It seems the Triple Crown challenge comes in pairs with the exception of Sandra Blewett in 1988. Belinda Shields and Michael Quinlivan completed the TC a year apart in 1984 and 1985, and Chloe Harris and Simon Olliver completed their Triple Crown in 2017. This time, Caitlin and Jonathan “Jono” Ridler from Massey, Auckland are swimming Foveaux Strait in the same tide window in two weeks to complete their Triple Crown. We hope to bring you Jono’s story next week.
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