Lauren Anderson didn’t grow up as an adventure seeker but there she was on the beautiful Nā Pali coastline of Kauai in Hawaii taking on an 18 mile ocean swim. The swell was a bit bigger than expected and, Anderson admits, “initially I thought, what am I doing? Have I completely lost my mind?”
Anderson’s thirst for adventure was sparked when she met her boyfriend Matt. The pair started hiking and it quickly escalated to demanding mountain excursions and ski touring. As the difficultly of their challenges grew, Anderson says she started to “push through” a lot of mental barriers. “Growing up as a kid, I was extremely shy and didn’t really fit in with people,” she explains. “It took me a long time to realise what my potential was. Being surrounded by people who push you out of your comfort zone makes you realize what you’re capable of”— and what Anderson realized when the pair were kayaking the Nā Pali coastline is that she wanted to swim it.
Anderson started training for the long distance swim with a masters swimming group coached by accomplished triathlete Tony Richardson; she worked on her open water technique with her friend who is an Olympian gold medallist swimmer; and, amid covid-19 restrictions, she built her strength working out at home. She got nutrition advice from a friend who had swam the English Channel and listened to the recommendations of locals and those experienced on the Nā Pali coast. Two years later, she was ready. With the support of Matt in a kayak, Anderson stepped into the ocean and, despite the bigger waves at the start that tested her nerves, she said by mile five, “everything just opened up: the current was in my favour, everything was really calm, and I saw so many beautiful fish.”
Suddenly, however, at mile six everything changed and Anderson was in debilitating pain. A Portuguese man o' wartentacle had wrapped around her ankle, hand, and part of her neck. The deadly jellyfish-type carnivorous sea creature has a venomous sting strong enough to kill fish and, occasionally even humans. Although she had been wearing a thin wetsuit for protection from the sun and this exact situation, Anderson said she wasn’t prepared for the amount of pain:
“It was the most excruciating pain. For twenty minutes I couldn’t stop crying. I was so close to riding in on the kayak and calling it but my boyfriend said ‘you’ve trained too hard to give up,’ so I kept swimming. He helped get the manna o´ war off me, even though it was stinging him through his UV gloves. I just kept crying in my goggles and emptying out the tears.”
Despite her pain, Anderson made it to camp and successfully finished the first day of the swim. They poured hot water on her stings to alleviate some discomfort but Anderson said it was still quite painful and she had a choice to make: give up or keep going.
“Sometimes in life, things might be really hard or really painful but it made me realise, no matter how slow you may be or even if it’s not perfect, just being able to go through and finish…,” Anderson pauses. “A lot of times in the past things might have been scary and I just kind of give up. If it were younger me, I probably wouldn’t have been able to mentally do something like this. Whereas now, I’m much more resilient and stronger.”
She resolved that she would be in pain whether she stopped or kept swimming so she decided not to give up and continue the next day. Instead of trying to run away from the pain, Anderson says she mentally got comfortable with the discomfort and just took it step by step.
“The next day was one of the best open water swims of my life,” she beams. “It was just over 5 miles. The water was so calm. I saw so many beautiful fish and visibility was 80-100 feet. The day was amazing.” The conditions were so calm the locals were saying Anderson needed to buy a lottery ticket because she was so lucky. The luck didn’t stop with calm waters either:
“There were 1000s of flying fish going with us. Every time I tuned my head to the side to breathe I'd see the flying fish and it was so magical. It made me realise sometimes you just need to not sweat the small stuff. When you’re out there, you’re small. With the water and nature, we’re just a small part of it so it reinforced how it’s important to preserve that and as humans do more to help the planet.”
Part of Anderson’s adventure was raising awareness and funds for the Legacy Reef Foundation that works to restore and sustain healthy reef ecosystems around the world. Swimming with a bigger purpose was a way, Anderson explains, that she could help solve major world problems on a small scale “so we still have wonderful things to pass down to the next generation.”
Anderson successfully completed the 18 mile swim and one the biggest challenges of her life. She never once touched the kayak and swam solo the entire way but is quick to highlight her support community. “I wouldn’t have been able to do the swim without all those mentors or people who were there holding me accountable,” Anderson says.
It was her sense of community that Anderson says ultimately brought out the best version of herself. “People are motivating and it makes me feel like, if you have other great people around, what else can you achieve?”
To learn more about the Legacy Reef Foundation, visit:
To make a donation, visit Anderson’s funding page: https://legacyreeffoundation.networkforgood.com/projects/129088-pele-of-polyps-swim-for-the-reefs