Ocean swimmer Caitlin O’Reilly has achieved what no other teenager has done, and she’s not finished yet.
This weekend, O’Reilly, 19, aims to complete the sixth of seven of the world’s most challenging open water swims, the 42km Moloka’i Channel in Hawaii. No other teenager has completed five of the ultra-distance swims, let alone all seven.
O’Reilly is aiming be the world’s youngest female to complete what is called the Oceans Seven, a marathon swimming challenge consisting of seven challenging open water channel swims. The youngest to do all seven is 23.
The seven swims are the 36.2km Strait of Gilbraltar, the 43.2km North Channel between Ireland and Scotland, Japan’s Tsugaru Strait, which is 41km, the 33km English Channel, the 23km Cook Strait, the Moloka’i Channel, and the final one O’Reilly is attempting is the 32km Catalina Channel, from Catalina Island to Newport Beach, about 22 kms from Los Angeles.
That’s booked for July 2024.
The Oceans Seven is what former long-distance swimmer and marathon swimmer guide and mentor Philip Rush calls the ‘Mt Everest of distance swimming’. It was devised in 2008 as the equivalent of the Seven Summits mountaineering challenge. Only one New Zealander, Kim Chambers, has completed all seven, when she was twice the age O’Reilly is now.
O’Reilly has completed all the big New Zealand swims. At 12 she was the youngest female, and youngest New Zealander to swim the Cook Strait, and at 14 the youngest female to swim 41km across Lake Taupō. At 16, she was the second youngest by a few months to swim Foveaux Strait, spanning 26.9km. These swims are known as the triple crown, and O’Reilly is the youngest to do all three.
She is also just the third, and the youngest at 17, to complete a double crossing of Lake Taupō, a total distance of 80.4 km. That’s like swimming a double marathon, except with swimming there’s 30 second pauses every half hour to refuel.
“We have a small volume of blue Powerade; we put gel in that, mix it up and get it down, that is the guts of putting good fuel into your body to keep moving at pace,” Rush says.
O’Reilly’s friends and classmates at the Auckland University of Technology, where she has finished her second year training to be a paramedic, must think she’s a bit crazy, let alone her training partners at Auckland’s North Shore Swimming Club.
“All the time, yeah,” she says. “The initial impression is that they just think I’m mad, especially because I am in a squad with sprinters who do 50m events – there’s not much endurance stuff… well there’s 1500m events but even then, not many swimmers swim that.”
A 1500m event must feel like a sprint to O’Reilly. While she clearly loves swimming, she often used to ask herself why she wanted to spend so many hours in the water, in the dark, fighting through pain.
“In the earlier days of Lake Taupo and Foveaux, there were a lot of why questions,” she says. “But now I just want to be here, I’m enjoying it, it’s travel, and I’m enjoying the swimming, so why not do it?
All O’Reilly’s distance swims have been guided by Rush.
“I’m very excited by what I see with Caitlin,” Rush says. You are speaking with a very special young lady. She is so driven and has grown into a very special open water swimmer. She is still learning the trade, but everything she learns means she ends up swimming so much better and faster and stronger.”
Rush should know what it takes to be a proficient ultra-distance swimmer. He was the first person to swim a double-crossing of both Cook Strait and Lake Taupō. He also has the world record for the fastest two and three-way swims of the English Channel.
So, he also knows what it is like to swim in the dark, and it is that night-time swimming during the Cook Strait swim which set O’Reilly up for longer distances.
“But nobody had actually told me that Caitlin was scared of the dark,” he says.
“Let’s rephrase that,” O’Reilly retorts back. “I’m not scared of the dark – but then it was my very first time where I was swimming in the dark. Quite different.”
O’Reilly says she has never been stung by a jellyfish in any of her swims, but in August, she swam both the English Channel and the North Channel; the latter is notorious for its cold water and jellyfish.
“I expected 12 degrees and swarms of jellyfish, I got given 16 degrees, barely any jellyfish and managed not to get stung,” she says.
She also says her toughest swim was the one closest to her home in Auckland, last year’s double crossing of Lake Taupō. Like Rush’s big English Channel swim, O’Reilly also took 28 hours, saying she fought through a great deal of pain and tiredness.
“When I felt like that, I had a little cry and got on with it and kept swimming, trying to think about nothing and fight through the pain,” she says.
It’s that mindset while maintaining a 4km/hour pace that Rush says he focuses on when guiding swimmers like O’Reilly.
“It’s very difficult to think of nothing. You’ve got to get yourself in a relaxed state of mind because, all of a sudden, your mind starts playing tricks – I can see as we go along what frame of mind she is in.”
The Lake Taupō double crossing was attempted as the pair could not travel due to Covid restrictions.
“We couldn’t go overseas and do all those other ones, but it really set me up quite well for the rest of them,” O’Reilly says.
But after swimming many kilometres and the end is nearly in sight, it almost feels like swimming uphill.
“That’s the hardest part because the last 300m feels like it takes three hours. It’s right there, but you are not there yet. I just power through,” O’Reilly says.
Powering through with Powerade, Rush adds.
“Caitlin by the end of this Oceans Seven will probably hate blue Powerade.”