On Saturday, February 24th, 2018, in the wake of cyclone Gita, Abhejali Bernardova, a member of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team from Zlin in the Czech Republic, successfully conquered the Cook Strait of New Zealand in rough waters and challenging currents, becoming only the 10th swimmer and 4th woman - and probably the first vegetarian! - in the world to complete the Oceans Seven challenge since its inception in 2008.
The Oceans Seven challenge is the aquatic equivalent to the 'Seven summits' challenge of climbing some of the world's highest mountains. It includes swimming the English Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar, Catalina Channel in California, Tsugaru Channel (Japan), the Irish Channel between Ireland and Scotland, Molokai (Kaiwi) Channel in Hawaii and the Cook Strait. All of the swims are done in accordance with traditional English Channel rules: no neoprene, only a regular swim suit, cap and goggles, maybe some grease, and unassisted (no touching the boat etc.).The first person to complete it was Stephen Redmond from Ireland in 2012, and the first woman was Anna Carin Nordin from Sweden in 2013.
Starting at 8:11 a.m. from the North Island in strong swells that made her seasick for hours, and challenged by rough conditions and strong currents that slowed down her progress almost to a standstill, Abhejali stayed focused and positive and finally managed to complete the swim in 13 hours, 9 minutes and 48 seconds, arriving at the tip of the South Island in the dark around 9.20pm. For over three hours during the swim she was fighting strong currents merely to hold her position and not be pulled back towards Wellington. Finally, however, the sea settled and she was able to break through the currents and touch the shore of the Southern Island. Water temperature started out with 20°C, falling to 17°C near the Southern Island.
The timing to complete these crossings is extremely tight, as the swimmers can only attempt during either the full moon or on the half moon. At these times the currents and tides are at their calmest. With cyclone Gita hitting New Zealand on Tuesday and Wednesday, Abhejali had to cancel the planned swim on Thursday due to rough seas. On Friday the boat was not available. Even on Saturday the seas were still rough. It was hard to decide whether it would be wise to start or not, but the swim went off. Right from the start, Abhejali was challenged by high swells, seasickness and a jellyfish that got stuck in her swimsuit. There were moments where she doubted her decision to start that day - but she never thought of stopping. Had she not been able to start or complete the crossing, her next opportunity would have been two weeks later at the earliest, creating logistical, financial and other difficulties.
Abhejali is not only the 10th swimmer and 4th woman to achieve the Oceans Seven challenge, but also the first Czech swimmer. Whereas over 4,833 people have summited Mount Everest (8,306 summits) and around 1800 people have swum the English Channel, not even 100 have crossed the Cook Strait. It took Abhejali 8 years to complete the Oceans Seven swims. Coming from a running background, her first major aquatic adventure was a 4 person English Channel relay in 2010, followed by her first long solo challenge - the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Swim from Rapperswil to Zürich (26,4 km) in 2011. This gave her the courage and inspiration to go for the English Channel (2011), then on to swim around Manhattan Island (New York, 2012) and from Europe to Africa (Gibraltar Straits, 2013). As a natural next new challenge, Catalina came up (2015), followed by an icy and iconic 2 hours 35 minute Robben Island swim in 9°C waters (2016) which gave her the confidence to believe the cold North Channel (2017) was achievable. Before that, however, Tsugaru (2016) and then Molokai Channel, her most difficult swim (2017, almost 22 hours), were ticked off.
What is remarkable about her swims is not only the achievement in itself - battling seasickness, jellyfish, strong currents, cold water and many other challenges on the way - but also the fact that she was successful on her first attempt in each swim. As opposed to running a marathon or ultramarathon, you never really know with all of these Channel swims when and if the weather and tides will actually allow the swim to take place. Also, the swimmer may be forced to abandon the attempt for safety or other reasons after just a few hours into the swim, or even only a few metres from the finish. A clear asset in all her aquatic adventures has been her ability to keep a positive, cheerfully determined attitude, trusting in the power of Grace from above, the supportive prayers and good vibrations sent from her teammates and friends from all over the world, as well as the inner focus and calmness gained by years of regular practice of meditation. Her meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007) was himself a pioneer in the world of sports who inspired many people to believe in their unlimited inner potential and reach unprecedented goals. For his inspiration and service to open water swimming, he was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF) posthumously in 2012.
Abhejali was crewed on her Cook Strait swim by Harita Davies, who in 2017 became New Zealand’s first woman to complete the world’s longest race – the Self Transcendence 3,100 mile race in New York - and who also took part in an English Channel relay in 2014 and has crewed for Abhejali on other swims as a helper and kayaker. Helena Royden, a Czech speaking New Zealander, Stacey Marsh, P. Thorpe and Vera Sevestiyanova were also part of the helper team.
Asked, how she feels after her great achievement, Abhejali simply said: "Grateful and happy." And she is looking forward to more running again - especially in the Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run, which she helps organizing.