Abhejali Bernardova from the Czech Republic completed the swim from Robben Island to Cape Town in South Africa. Stacey Marsh was assisting her from the boat and gives this account: Marathon Team founder Sri Chinmoy visits Robben Island in 1996. Sri Chinmoy met Nelson Mandela and the two had a warm mutual admiration.
This was one of the shortest swims Abhejali has done, but one of the toughest. The ‘Freedom Swim’ as it is know, is the swim from Robben Island - where President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years of his 27 years of imprisonment - to Blougberg in Cape Town. It’s a ‘short’ 7.5km swim in shark infested COLD water.
Abhejali arrived with a window of a week to find the perfect conditions to swim. In preparation for the expected 13 degree water Abhejali had been trying her best to do cold-water swims in an already cold Czech winter.
We arrived in Cape Town on Thursday to find the water temperature slightly less than ideal at 11 degrees! Not fazed by this Abhejali soon jumped in and spent a good half hour catching waves and doing some swimming to see how her body will cope with the decrease in temperature. That evening someone who had swam this many times, informed us it probably was not going to get any warmer over the next few days. And looking at the weather charts Saturday seemed the most ideal time to do it.
As the day approached, each person we contacted to confirm Abhejali was going to try on Saturday gently asked if we knew it would be extremely cold, and that no one else would be swimming it that weekend! After a brief pause to take note of all the warnings, Abhejali decided to continue a Saturday swim. The day arrived, the conditions looked good, and we made our way to the start. Our pilot gave Abhejali a stern talking to, telling her it would be tough — the distance may be small, but this swim is a hard one, and with these water temperatures it would be nearly impossible for anyone to finish.
As she jumped in to start her swim, our pilot radioed ahead to let them know someone had started, not giving a predicted finish time, as he privately expected he would have to pull her out. He noted that the temperature had dropped to 9.5 degrees — where it stayed for about half the distance — a detail we decided not to pass onto Abhejali. As she progressed she complained of cold and numb feet. Our pilot said that was a good sign — if she could not feel them it would be bad. Abhejali couldn’t talk much as her throat and mouth were too cold, but still managed to yell instructions to us from time to time — another good sign!
When Abhejali reached the 5km mark, we could see she was still strong. We relaxed a little, realising she might actually be able to finish! Our pilot was getting more confidence in her as she continued swimming strongly and even picked up the pace a little.
However, as we got closer to the shore she started to go ‘walkabout’ — instead of staying with the boat she started to swim sideways, parallel to the shore. At that angle she was going she was heading straight for rocks 800 metres from shore. We pulled her back on course, and as the boat could not go any further, I was told it was time to jump in and try and guide her to the shore. With strict instructions from the pilot and a buoy full of warm clothes and a hot drink for her, I headed into some freezing cold water.
It was tough keeping up with her even this late in the swim but she was now in the correct orientation as we made it into the shore. With large waves pushing us in, she landed on dry land 2 hours 35 minutes after starting on Robben Island.
In the lead up to Abhejali’s swim in Cape Town she was invited to speak to students at a primary school in Johannesburg — a school visited by the Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run in 2015. The Principal loves the Peace Run so much he invited anyone from the Peace Run who visits South Africa to come to his school and speak to the students. He was thrilled to hear Abhejali was coming to do the Robben Island swim, and jumped at the chance for the students to hear the motivation behind her long-distance open-water swimming.
The students congregated after lunch, loudly talking and giggling as they arrived. However when we started chatting with them before the talk, they fell silent, and shushed each new group of students arriving, so as not to miss a word. Abhejali spoke for about half an hour, showed videos of her swims and answered many questions. As the students made their way back to class, some hung back to talk some more with us. When they saw the Principal they quickly turned to leave, but he was happy they wanted to ask more questions; he told them they could stay and speak with us for as long as they liked. Students told us what they had learned from her talk: never give up; go after your dreams; nothing is impossible.