Life Health & Wellbeing

Thursday 23 January 2020

Five years ago I couldn't swim 100 metres, now I'm swimming 13 kilometres for cancer

Five years ago, Gerry Purcell (60) couldn't even swim 100 metres - now, he's one of 130 swimmers taking on a 13k Galway Bay charity event in aid of cancer support services

Gerry Purcell in Galway Bay. Photo: Andrew Downes, XPOSURE
Gerry Purcell in Galway Bay. Photo: Andrew Downes, XPOSURE

Kathy Donaghy

Braving cold water for hours on end, swimming through jellyfish and managing a distance of 13 kilometres may seem like a hell of a swim but Gerry Purcell's motto is "just keep swimming".

Gerry is one of 130 swimmers taking on the Frances Thornton Memorial Swim in aid of Cancer Care West on Saturday, July 21, which sees participants swim across Galway Bay, from Auginish in Co Clare and finishing at Blackrock Diving Tower in Salthill.

The swim is a distance of roughly 13 kilometres... if you swim straight.

This year, there will be 65 solo swimmers and 65 relay swimmers taking part in teams of two, three and four swimmers. Since the swim began 13 years ago, 569 people have swum the bay and this year again it will be a mixture of swimmers who have completed the swim every year and complete novices.

Gerry Purcell (60) isn't exactly a complete novice. He first did the swim two years ago as part of relay with two others. Last year he did it with one other person. This year he's going solo.

The feat is all the more extraordinary when you realise that five years ago he couldn't swim more than 100 metres. Preparing to take on a challenge like this has meant hours and hours of training in the pool perfecting his stroke, breaking it down into pieces to ensure maximum efficiency and the repetition of thousands of lengths to build up endurance for an event like this.

Married to Mary with two grown up daughters, Michelle and Niamh, Gerry, who is now retired, says he first became interested in swimming a few years ago. Inspired by a great community of swimmers who take to the sea in Galway every day, Gerry began by dipping his toe in the water.

He would go down to the sea at Blackrock early in the morning during the summer months and meet up with others. As a board member of Cancer Care West, he was aware of the Frances Thornton Memorial Swim and began to think that perhaps it was something he could aim for.

"I couldn't swim 100 metres of the front crawl. I could only do it by stopping and changing to breast stroke. Out of stubbornness, I kept going. I wasn't comfortably able to do the crawl breathing," says Gerry.

He aimed to do the swim in a relay and joined the Ocean Swimming Club at the Salthill Hotel to work on his swimming. His plan in 2015 was to do it solo this year, but first there was much work to do.

Training meant swimming five days a week in the pool during the winter; some days with others, some days alone. On Saturday mornings, he and his fellow swimmers would divide up the lanes and start building up endurance and distance before it was time to get the practice in open water.

"The first thing I had to crack was bi-lateral breathing. This is breathing on both sides because if you're only breathing on one side it restricts you. If you're in open water and the wind is coming in on one side, it's much better. It's also more relaxed if you can breathe this way," says Gerry.

"Once I got the breathing down I had huge amount of work to do on my swim fitness and technique. Every little tweak you make makes a big difference. The first year and a half it was a case of just keep swimming. I was lucky I didn't get any injuries," he says.

Moving from the pool to the open water only happens when the water temperature rises, he explains. Even at this time of year with the water temperature at around 14°C, swimmers taking on a challenge like a 13 kilometre sea swim will still wear wetsuits.

"At the end of April, we got into the sea. This year has been cold and by May the water was still chilly. It's only now getting warmer. I'm just back from high tide at Salthill and there are warnings about jellyfish at the moment," he says.

What's out there in the deep doesn't bother Gerry too much, even though he's swum through swarms of jellyfish so thick it felt like a soup.

"You can't freak out - you've no option but to keep going. It comes back to your coaching. You don't panic. I'd be more bothered if there was nothing in there. It's important that there's life in the sea," he says.

"The seal will only ever observe you - that's as far as he goes. Sometimes you might see dolphins, but I haven't seen any this year yet.

"When I'm swimming I think it's my space; it's my time in there. It's really between you and God. It's a very spiritual place in there. You might think of a song or some people count their strokes. I just try and keep everything relaxed," he says.

Safety is paramount on a big swim like this one and every swimmer has to have their own support boat. This is crucial in helping the swimmer navigate the journey across the bay.

Fellow swimmer and former Galway football manager Alan Mulholland is taking on this important support role for Gerry.

The swim will be governed by the weather forecast on the day. A small craft warning from Met Eireann would put it in jeopardy and it would have to be rescheduled so swimmers and support workers are hoping for calm waters on July 21.

So far, Gerry has raised €3,500 for Cancer Care West. It's a charity close to his heart. Hew lost his brother Michael to cancer at the age of 58, five years ago.

Last year's swim raised €108,000 for Cancer Care West and organisers are hoping to beat that this year. The monies raised will help fund the expansion of its support services for cancer patients, including a counselling service for children and a dedicated gym rehabilitation space for cancer patients.

Gerry says he's only one of many swimmers who are doing this swim and says there are many accomplished swimmers who have completed it solo many times.

With the hard work done and the preparations made, Gerry is as ready as he'll ever be.

This swim won't mean he is ready to hang up his wetsuit anytime soon - he's already thinking about the next challenge and has a slot in a relay team taking on the English Channel next year.

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