Australians love a body-bash in the surf. In January, during the world's biggest annual ocean race - the Lorne Pier-to-Pub - Hayden Cotter, an unknown Sunshine Coast sixteen-year-old out of Lawnton Swim Club, beat Mack Horton and Gregorio Paltrinieri - the reigning 400-metre and 1500-metre freestyle Olympic champions.
How often, except in dreams, do you get to trounce two idols at the same time, in one race?
We here at Outdoor think it extraordinary that two reigning Olympic freestyle champions were beaten - in a freestyle race - by someone who still hasn’t yet qualified for a final in his own national championships.
Cotter’s effort had us pondering an age-old aquatic conundrum: does mastery of the ocean’s eddies and currents trump straight-line pool speed?
Outdoor caught up with Cotter just before a 4pm training session at his Sunshine Coast training base with coach Harley Connelly at Lawnton Swimming Club, and asked how he did it. Had he been doing any special ocean training?
Fifteen-year-old Sunshine Coast teen, Lani Pallister taking out her first Pier to Pub title.
“Not really, just the usual pool stuff, but I do really like racing in the surf,” he says.
“I don’t know how I managed to win to tell you the truth," he says in response to the obvious question, “straight away after the start they went right and I was stuck out left, so i just stayed out for a while and went for it, then I pulled away from a guy who was with me and just kept going,” he says, the memory clearly still fresh and lingering.
“With about four or five hundred to go,” he continues, “we sort of came together, myself, Horton and Gregorio - like we nearly crashed into each other - and then I suppose we hit on the same line to the beach and just started sprinting”.
Some of Australia's best ocean swimmers are surf lifesavers.
Horton, Olympic 400 metres champion and one of the world’s fastest 200 metre swimmers, was bemused at the outcome, saying, “get him in a pool — he managed to stick with myself and Gregorio in that final sprint home, get him in a pool”.
In the women’s race, fifteen-year-old Lani Pallister pipped 6-time champion Harrier Brown, ending her quest for a record-breaking seventh women’s title.
The sea, the sea...
Few things are more satisfying than feeling physically in tune with nature. Ocean swimming is certainly a different propsition than pounding out laps in a chlorinated pool where, typically, there's nothing but tiles to stare at and perhaps the odd floating band-aid to negotiate. You can fall into your local pool without really thinking about it, but when it comes to the sea, or any oustide water course — no matter what level of skill you have — a considered appraisal of the conditions is mandatory.
Getting jammed in a pack and having to battle those around you to stay on a decent race line can be frustrating.
Whether your game is getting up at 4am, paddling out into a dark predawn ocean and perhaps getting slotted for a few triumphant seconds before work, or even if it’s being out on a lonely mountain trail, an icy wind whispering into your ears and your legs momentarily in possession of boundless energy, feeling the primal ticking rhythm of nature is sure to rouse the spirits of all but the most malcontent of begrudgers.
Ocean swimming is a relatively straightforward way many Australians get this elemental fix. With a culture that encourages the development of swimming skill from a young age and with thousands of miles of beach-fringed coastline, being in the surf and learning to use the push and pull of the ocean’s currents and rips while swimming or surfing becomes second nature for many.
New kids on the block. Sunshine Coast teenagers and 2018 Pier to Pub champions, Lani Pallister and Hayden Cotter.
It is perhaps for this reason why events like the Lorne Pier-to-Pub, staged about two hours drive south of Melbourne at the famous beach-side town on the Great Ocean Road, and the Cole Classic, now staged in the Sydney northern beachside suburb of Manly, are regarded as iconic summer events.
Both continue to go from strength to strength, attracting swimming royalty from the pool and surf. It’s a huge boon to complete the race and a massive honour to be crowned Pier-to-Pub or Cole Classic champion. Over the years, the mantle’s been held by multiple Olympic champion Kieren Perkins, Olympic medalists Rob Woodhouse and Daniel Kowalski, Australian swim team members and surf swimming champions Hamish Cameron, Stacey Gartrell, Bronwyn King, Naantali Marshall and Daniel McLellan. And perhaps the most unusual champion, ex-Hawthorn Football Club supremo, Stuart Fox, a legendary tough surf swimmer who defied expectations to regularly beat more accomplished pool swimmers, like Woodhouse and Cameron.