First Woman To Swim Around Lord Howe Island l Lauren Tischendorf
Close your eyes and imagine yourself swimming 35 kilometres around Lord Howe Island, large swells, shark-infested waters and ocean depths. No wetsuit. One woman. 13 hours.
Most would call this lunacy.
Lauren calls this home.
This conversation is with the awe inspiring Lauren Tischendorf. It’s a deconstruction of her relationship with the ocean and where it’s taking her.
Welcome Lauren! I actually saw you this morning in your Penguins swimmers for our early morning Bondi swim. Pretty sure that was you up front, so fast!
Let’s begin with, why be an ocean swimmer?
There’s nothing quite like it. The joy, flow and tranquillity the ocean provides, there is nothing quite like. In a forest or a dirt track, you can only be touched by the breeze, a leaf, a mozzie. In the ocean, she wraps her whole self around you, and if you dare, she welcomes you whole heartedly. (That’s a bit deep and descriptive, but, so true. Also, where can you absolutely go, where you have absolutely no excuse to answer your phone or speak to anyone - it is pure meditative joy (not force).
Did you grow up swimming?
For as long as I can remember! Everyone in my neighbourhood had a pool growing up, so we were always jumping fences to swim, and I also did diving, synchronised swimming and water-polo as a child. I did a lot of squad swimming as a teenager when my family immigrated to Australia from South Africa, it was a way to make friends (and also my first love, playing tennis, was quashed, because the boys didn’t like me beating them and there was noone to play with - true fact, but as a sixteen year old, that’s even hard, let alone being a girl and with a funny accent - everything was against me) In the water in the lanes, there was no time to speak, let alone breath) and we swam in mixed, all ages, so the competition was only your time).
After moving to Sydney almost ten years ago and spending time on the Eastern beaches, I’ve explored ocean swimming much more deeply. There is nothing better than a sunrise swim at Bondi to start your week off, it’s meditative bliss! I now swim daily, if not twice a day. Group swims are best, but there is personal joy in doing a Bondi lap to clear the cobwebs with a body surf in between (the big swell keeps you grounded)
As the first woman to ever do so, you just completed a solo swim, circumnavigating the 35km’s of Lorde Howe Island. Congratulations! Where did the idea to take on this endurance adventure come from?
I’ve been swimming 35km per week for the past three years (ocean swims were a sublime relief during COVID). In mid-2020 before a group ocean swim kicked off, I received an off-hand remark about not being able to keep up with the male group. I went on to beat them in the swim, and the experience flicked a switch within me to keep adventuring, pushing my boundaries and stay accountable to myself. No woman or girl should be told they are not worthy or strong enough when they are doing the hard work. As long as we know our own capabilities and boundaries, no one should tell us what we can or can’t achieve.
Also, I have done some ultra marathon road races, so actually testing my body in a different way and seeing how it would react and change, was something I was keen on too.
What training was involved to prepare physically and mentally? Would you set off on solo swims around Bondi?
I’m so very lucky I have so many groups that I swim with in and around Sydney. To keep my love of swimming (beyond the drag of following a black line solo), I did 4 pool squad sessions a week (about 5kms a session) and 4 to 5 ocean swims a week (of varying distances, with one long swim on a Saturday, often getting in well before squad and finishing after). I love social ocean swimming groups too, so I made sure to alternate my Penguins ‘In & Out’ swim on a Wednesday with a squad as well as Friday’s Salties ‘Bay lap’ with squad Friday 50’s. Given I already had a solid foundation and routine of training (I was incidentally training long distances, out of pure swimming joy - is that a thing - that sounds crazy out loud, right?) From January to April, I increased my Saturday squad sessions to 3, 4 5, and 6 hour swims.
But yes, there were a few long Saturdays of 6 hours swims, doing laps of Bondi in terrible conditions (whining winds and 6ft waves one memorable day with 3 hours of seasickness and no eating or drinking), where it was just me and the Bondi Lifeguards on the beach. As boring as they were, it created a great sense of self-knowledge that, I was physically, but also mentally ready for what I had thought would be smooth conditions at Lord Howe (the water and wind Gods were training me well for what they had in store for me).
I also did a bit of road running and strength work, but training twice a day is a lot to squeeze, in between talking non-stop and running around kindergarten children (that is a daily long distance sprint in itself). Of course, no swimming event and distance event is done without cold water training and i was lucky enough to sit in a friends ‘meat deep freeze’ every few weeks at 1C to 9C for 30 minutes to get my fingertips ready (I love cold water, and I knew the island water would be warm, but my fingertips just can’t always stand the wind and water).
Was there anything which surprised you during the swim you didn’t expect?
A couple of things, but the Kingfish were one. I knew there would be sharks and some fish, but after about 3 hours swimming, two enormous Kingfish made a beeline for me in the water. They looked magnificent, but eyed me out and I was not really expecting such big fish.
I knew about the swell, currents making you swim in one spot for hours, sharks circling and winds, but when they come, they are never pleasant, I just had to work through them step by step. I trouble-shot the entire swim and only had a rhythm for about an hour and half in total (that was incredible swimming - a feeling of total strength and control - short-lived, but incredible). I did not come away having solved the world's problems or analysed life's greatest questions (you would think so after 13 plus hours), however, there was almost not much time to think throughout.
Sunset. I was turning the bottom S/ Southern end of the island, ‘heading towards the end’ probably about 10km away, and I saw the sun starting to set. In my very ‘clear mind’ I thought, yay, I have three hours until the sun sets, I can see the end point’ish in the distance, I can totally get there in time. Well, Sundowners, my gin drinking time of choice, went within half an hour. I have never been so cranky and disappointed (of course for a brief moment, as there was a boat ramp to finish at). But still, my appreciation and understanding and judgment,, perception of time and sun failed me. But, as the crew took pictures, luckily, it was an incredible sunset and so proud to have been in the water.
The naysayers were interesting, especially those on the island itself. Some openly said I would not be swimming. Many on the island had bets of my time. But, the incredible cheer and support that came through after the swim (cars honking and adults and children cheering at the boat ramp) were incredible, so too after the swim. It was so very heart warming and I am eternally grateful for their enthusiasm and support in my adventure.
We’re thinking… “sharks”. See them?
Yes, oh my gosh. Literally, after 12 I stopped counting. They were everywhere from about 5 hours in. Mainly Galapogas sharks, which I clocked, but Mako and Tiger sharks are around the area as well. During the time I was stuck for two hours in terrible currents, I had to stop the nutrition and feeding breaks, as the sharks were circling at a hand length below. They had been about 2 metres below, but were coming closer and following the whole time. At one point, I had stopped for a vegemite sandwich, yes, as one does, vegemite sandwiches are great for swimming (but not with sharks, nor large swell, which turned them into cold salty mush), but a large, two plus metre Tiger shark, came into my ‘personal bubble’ you know that proximity you give when you go to hug someone who is not a hugger and they keep you just arm extended, well, that’s where he was and that was just too close, so I just stopped, said, “cheers, shark, I’m off” and off I swam. It was a surreal, process, action, reaction, but after being stuck in the same place, I had just about had enough.
It’s important to note, that due to the currents and huge swell and waves, the crew on the boat couldn’t see the sharks, which was probably a good idea, as my dad, a long time surf lifesaver and surfer is petrified of sharks.
Again, sharks also featured a lot, as they have a ‘feeding frenzy’ at the south end of the Lagoon I was swimming through at dusk...I’m not sure how, but as a stroke of luck, I managed to miss them - probably all the channel grease and bright Budgy Smugglers.
A final note on sharks, due to having the swim ratified with the Marathon Swimming Federation (International Board), I could not use shark deterrents (think shark shield and shark bandz), nor get out the water, my crew had strict instructions to only get me out if I was bitten by a shark...so there was that.
Your Instagram bio mentions “Stubbornness at finger tip, Adventurer at heart”. Were there moments of self doubt during your swim when you relied upon your stubbornness? Or was it your heart? What gets you through something as demanding and challenging as your adventure?
It was the most incredible feeling. I have never had such self-belief and self-confidence as I had throughout the swim (and if you know me, I’m just not that kind of person, I constantly over-think, second doubt myself). I know this, compared to ultra marathons, where I have been violently ill and all I wanted to do was go home. I knew that it would be hard going, I knew there would be big swell, possibly currents and certainly sharks, but at no point did I want to give up or stop. There were points towards the end, when I literally just had had enough swimming and my crew I could hear were getting anxious (I was loving it - they used a torch to light the reef below - stunning - and then rolling on my back to do backstroke to see the incredible night sky) and that we had to take a longer route to the boat ramp, due to the low tide and reef, and all I wanted to do was take the most direct point (in the dark, you can’t see towering rocks in front of you I have now discovered).
It was the most remarkable feeling. I wish for everyone to experience this in their life (I’m sure everyone else has, but, as a 37 year old, it was incredible and I kick myself for never having such confidence).
I think that the planning and the support and belief of a team goes an incredible way in making something like this come to life. There were many social occasions and events I didn’t go to (and know I totally was not invited to go because ‘I am swimming’). I also had a few great mentors who talked me through the various processes to ensure I was ready.
So too, does knowing why you’re doing it. I think of all the women who have stepped before us, who changed the world they lived in, so that we can do what we do with confidence, how can we not push ourselves and the boundaries. My great-granny was the first woman admitted to the bar and lawyer in South Africa and had to do it all twice, to prove she wasn’t cheating. I can’t just sit in my comfortable hamster wheel and process through life...what will the next generation learn and grow from that.
I guess, I am also a loyalist and great believer that what you say you’ll do, you do (I apply this to when I say things to my friends, so I had told them I would do it, so I had to follow through). I believe that we need to be accountable not only to others, but also ourselves. The option of not doing it (that is finishing too), was just not an option.
How did you manage caloric intake to get you through 35km?
I had a great nutritionist, who is experienced in ultra, endurance events, as well as making things natural and was aware of my gut health (on a research projects a few years previously in PNG I had picked up 6 of the 8 gut bacteria, so there was that to manage). I digress...yet again…
But we created a strict’ish plan of nutrition every 30 minutes - one 30 minutes liquid of 150mL Tailwind (my favourite endurance substance) and the 2nd 30 minutes a food varying combinations of dates and almond paste, Snickers bars, Cliff shots and gels and also, sandwiches (who doesn’t love a cheese and vegemite sandwich at lunch time).
So, I had a rigorous plan set-out and my Mum, in charge of nutrition was onto that, as too a nifty device I created with some duct take, rope, protein shaker bottle, zip ties and silicone drinking bottles. Needless to say however, the best laid plans often never work and after being in the same spot for two hours, being circled by sharks, the sharks chasing the feeding devices, I decided after 6 hours, I had had enough stopping and fuss with feeding (the soggy vegemite sandwich may have had something to do with it - yuurgh), I knew I had enough nutrition in me to push on to the end and for the next 8 hours, I barely had anything, but for the two sips of water.
Swimming can be a lonely pursuit. We can’t talk underwater! Where did your community and support network come from and who is it made of?
I am so incredibly lucky. I have an enormous group of people in my community. I have swim squads, pool swimmers, ocean social and competitive swimming groups, casual swimming friends. All ages, backgrounds, experiences, cultures and professions. It’s absolutely brilliant. When it’s you, the ocean and your togs and the person or people next to you, there is nothing more grounding nor humbling. There is always someone I can call if I want to go for a swim. Sometimes, I feel utterly guilty for going to the beach by myself for a dip or swim, and not calling friends. All the same, someone times, that quiet, meditation, time for yourself and mother oceans waves to cleanse you is all you need.
What did you learn about yourself?
As much as I didn’t solve the world's problems, or my life's mystery, I certainly realised that there is an inherent confidence I had lacked for so long and she was there, ready. I realised that I have to keep pushing for somethings, so often, I let things go to go with the flow just to make people happy. I also learnt that when I do things I love which feel natural, everything (almost everything) conspires to make it happen and so very easily with incredible people along with way. There are so many other things...but we’d keep digressing and then we would be here for an unnecessary long time.
There are also some other things I need to still tap into, I don’t know what they are, but I’m excited to find out.
We will be watching your movements for future adventure swims. Any thoughts on the next challenge?
Ha ha, funny you should say that. The very next day, after completing the swim, I have eyed out another swim. But, like this swim, it will be kept quiet, adventurous, never-before-done swims seem so competitive, so I’ll let you know closer to the time. But, be assured, there’ll be a cage this time for sharks. In seriousness, though, I’m super excited to be joining 4 swimming pals, guys a number of years older than me, swim the South Head (Bondi to Watsons Bay) swim mid-May. And then it’ll be lacing the running shoes again with some trails again.
How can women in our community learn more about you and support your inspirational achievements?
I love meeting and chatting with women who are interested in adventuring or had some interesting life experiences or who just want to dip in the water. My Instagram page is a great way to connect. I also have a Kickstarter Page which will help fund some of the swim and go towards sharing the story of helping girls and women reach their potential and develop ocean and personal confidence. Alternatively, I can usually be found at North Bondi beach in the mornings.