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Thursday 22 August 2019

100 years of swimming down the Liffey: how did these lunatics catch the bug?

Declan Culliton yesterday completed his 22nd Liffey Swim. He explains what drives him on, and on, and on

Medal moment: Declan Culliton at the end of the race. Picture: Damien Eagers
Medal moment: Declan Culliton at the end of the race. Picture: Damien Eagers

Declan Culliton

As a seasonal sea dipper in the mid 1990s, I had no expectation that 23 years later I'd be plunging into the sacred waters of the Liffey, competing in the annual Liffey Swim for the 22nd time. However, that was the case as I prepared for yesterday's 100th Liffey Swim.

The sizzling summer sunshine of 1995 extended into autumn that year, encouraging me to continue my daily dip at the Forty Foot throughout the winter. A latecomer to swimming, I took it on myself to join a club, get some lessons and enter the Leinster Open Sea races that summer.

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Having previously only swam in the sea, I was pleasantly surprised by my first experience of the Liffey Swim. Managing to dive off the pontoon into the river at the start of the race with my goggles intact, what immediately struck me was the silky feel of the water, quite unlike the more salty and buoyant waters I normally encountered.

As a novice I had been subjected beforehand to the customary jibes by the old hands to "watch out for shopping trolleys" and "there's normally a few dead dogs floating under O'Connell Bridge". That first encounter was intended to be merely an exercise in survival, to finish the race, get out in one piece and tick it off the bucket list. But the whole experience was memorable, and one that I instantly vowed to repeat.

Old stagers talk about the water quality back in the 1970s, when the water was multicoloured as a result of discharges from the industries along the quays. Fortunately, that's all past and the quality of the water in recent decades is usually satisfactory. This year is the blip.

More than merely a competitive exercise, sea swimming - unlike many other sports - is inhabited by the most sociable gathering of people you could imagine. Like golf, it's also handicapped, in theory giving every competitor an equal chance of success. However, unlike golf, club entry fees in thousands of euros and substantial annual subscriptions don't apply. A couple of pairs of togs, a few towels and a decent pair of goggles and you're good to go.

It's not elitist either, with characters from all walks of life enjoying each other's company and conversation. Dockers, doctors, pilots, plumbers, accountants, postmen, schoolkids and pensioners all mingle in what must be the most classless of competitive sports. With 15 swimming clubs in Leinster staging sea races during the season and all competing for 'Club of The Year, the friendships between the clubs and their members are unique. Swimmers are regularly welcome to avail of opposing clubs' training sessions, if the schedule of their own club's training sessions are unsuitable.

That sense of togetherness in the swimming community is particularly noticeable before and after the qualifying sea races for the Liffey Swim. Moans about handicaps, rough seas, water temperature, leaky goggles, encounters with jellyfish and bad sight lines to the buoys in the races are invariably the topics of the day - just as they were when I started swimming.

One of the positive things I've seen in recent years is the increasing age profile of male and female swimmers qualifying for The Liffey. Looking back at the list of winners over the past 20 years, 80pc of them are still competing and the number of swimmers in the 60+ category is growing year on year. The eldest female swimmer this year will be 78 and the eldest male two years her junior - and believe me, these people are competitive swimmers and won't necessarily be among the last to finish.

Up to recent years the Liffey Swim was often staged at high tide, resulting in a strong current down the river, giving the weaker swimmers, myself included, the opportunity to hit the finishing line ahead of the elite and stronger swimmers. Those encounters at high tide also involved the claustrophobic journey under O'Connell Bridge, where my elbows seemed only inches from the underside of the bridge, during the few, but what seemed like endless minutes, it took to pass under that dark and intimidating tunnel.

The satisfaction of entering the walk-in showers provided by Dublin Fire Brigade at the race finish was all the sweeter when a queue of elite swimmers formed behind, following their unsuccessful efforts to catch us front markers, due to a raging current. Unfortunately, but no doubt correctly, those days are history.

The premier race of the year is conquered by the more athletic competitors these years. The race is now generally staged at mid-tide, resulting in the stronger swimmers taking pride of place in the finishing stakes.

The numbers competing in the race, and indeed all the other races in the calendar, has increased dramatically over the past number of years. This year's entries was close to 600 between the men's and ladies' race, double the numbers that would have competed 15 years ago.

Lifestyle changes have resulted in people engaging in sporting activities well into their senior years and sea swimming and the attraction of the Liffey Swim certainly benefited from this. Sponsorship from Dublin City Council and Jones Engineering has also been helpful in raising the profile of the event that attracted between 80,000 to 100,000 spectators in the early years.

Some things, of course, are sacred. As the Lord Mayor prepares to start the swim and the first wave of swimmers prepare to enter the river, a rousing rendition of Molly Malone always fills the air.

And post-race pints in Mulligan's of Poolbeg Street are also part of the tradition - as are the hard-luck stories and tales of woe which circulate. Except from the golden pair, whose names will be etched on the trophies as the winners of the men's and women's Liffey Swim 2019.

As the years have passed by, the anticipation of the Liffey Swim has become less and less daunting and more of an occasion to savour and enjoy. They - we - are the most colourful, diverse and gregarious bunch of sportsmen and women you could possibly hope to encounter.

Here's to the next 20 years!

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