The Interview: Ryan Stramrood

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Extreme open-water swimmer and ice swimmer Ryan Stramrood proves that with focus, determination and enthusiasm, almost nothing is impossible.
Ryan Stramrood says he’s an ‘average Joe family man’ but, as an Ultra Extreme Open Water swimmer and ice-swimming enthusiast, he's been around the world in search of bigger (and colder) challenges.

WHAT WERE YOUR INTERESTS WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP?

Oddly, my interests as a child didn’t include swimming! I was a normal kid with no ambition in the sporting arena. I was (and still am) musical and taught myself guitar. I liked water-skiing on weekends, and keeping snakes.

WHAT IS YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY OF BEING IN THE WATER?

I have always loved the water; I am naturally drawn to it. My earliest memory was when I was about four or five years old, and a fairly competent swimmer. I was at my grandmother’s house and swimming in her pool while the adults all braai’d in the garden. I was minding my own business in the pool and remember wanting to see how long I could hold my breath underwater. I took a deep breath and floated face down for probably only 10 seconds before my gran spotted me and thought I had drowned. Before I knew it, gran, mom and various uncles had all dived into the pool – fully clad – and yanked me out with great vigour. After they realisied I had just been playing, I got a proper scolding. Most unjust!

WHEN DID YOU START TAKING SWIMMING SERIOUSLY?

Besides being on junior-school squads, I really only started swimming in 2000 at the age of 27. At that stage, I was spending far too much time on the couch and wanted to improve my fitness and lifestyle. So I joined a swim squad with coach Gary Freeling, who I am proud to say is still my coach after 16 years and is still doing all he can to improve my less-than-perfect stroke!

WHAT WAS THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL DESTINATION YOU TRAVELLED TO FOR A SWIMMING CHALLENGE?

The first international destination I travelled to with my teammates was a little town called Ketchikan in Alaska. We wanted to compete in a cold swim around a local island called Pennock Island. It was a 14km swim in 12ºC water. What a beautiful place and such an awesome experience.

WHICH DESTINATION HAS BEEN YOUR FAVOURITE SO FAR?

Iceland has been my favourite. It is just so different to anywhere else I have been. The landscape is a mixture of volcanoes and glaciers. Despite being petrified most of the time I was there (due to the swim I was to undertake), I managed to enjoy the experience.

WHAT WAS THE ICELAND EXPERIENCE ABOUT?

I was based in a tiny town called Höfn. From there I travelled to a beautiful but frightening glacier lake called Jökulsárlón, in the south of Iceland. I undertook a small challenge there, mainly for the production of a TV series episode.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE STRANGEST OR FUNNIEST THING THAT’S HAPPENED TO YOU IN ANOTHER COUNTRY?

In Spain, I realised just how differently the Spaniards view time and structure! I was in a beautiful little town called Tarifa, waiting for the right weather to make an attempt to swim ‘from Europe to Africa’ across the Strait of Gibraltar – a significant distance. I was told by the swim organiser and support crew to meet at 8am, when we would assess the weather, and if conditions were good, we’d start the swim at noon. I arrived at 8am, safe in the knowledge that I had four hours for final preparations should the swim be on. I waited an hour for the Spanish team to arrive. This tardiness was expected. But when they did arrive, they simply said, ‘We swim now’, and jumped into the support vessels, looking at me to climb into the water. I was unprepared, expecting another few hours’ wait, and was forced to run across the road and purchase a six-pack of Coca-Cola from the café. This formed my only ‘feeds’ for the full swim, much to the astonishment of many. Needless to say, Coke is not recognised as the best nutritional supplement for endurance events!

WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST CHALLENGING THING THAT’S HAPPENED TO YOU WHILE TRAVELLING?

I have travelled extensively across beautiful Russia and it is mostly seamless – if you have all your papers in order and some savvy. But on one occasion, we arrived at the Moscow Domodedovo Airport to utter chaos. After an 18-hour flight and two hours of real scrumming at the customs area, with no queue system and some scary people, I was separated from the rest of the team in the chaos. When I reached the counter, it turned out that my Russian visa said that I was female! However, this was not communicated to me and I was whisked off to a security holding area with no way to let the others know what was going on (which I didn’t know either at that stage). Some interesting hours followed, but nothing nearly as daunting as the swim challenge at hand.

WATCH RYAN IN ACTION



WHERE HAVE YOU TRAVELLED TO IN SIBERIA?

We travelled to the remote but wealthy town of Tyumen. The challenge was to undertake a one-kilometre ice-swimming event in a ‘pool’ cut from a frozen lake, in air temperature of –33ºC and water at 0.3ºC.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST DIFFICULT CHALLENGE SO FAR?

The most challenging to date was a swim I undertook in Antarctica. It was a difficult, ground-breaking and dangerous challenge, completed in –1ºC water temperature, which is ultra-extreme. But it was the build-up to the actual swim challenge and the logistics that were most difficult. Relying on the ship’s crew to support us and keep us alive presented significant challenges, as did the extreme weather conditions.

WHAT OTHER HIGHLIGHTS COME TO MIND?

In 2012, our small team (Ram Barkai, Andrew Chin, Kieron Palframan, Toks Viviers and I) decided we wanted to become the first to swim around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, known as ‘The Sailor’s Graveyard’. Most sailing enthusiasts consider sailing around Cape Horn to be their ‘Everest’, so we thought it would be cool to try to get there – an insane journey – and complete a difficult swim in extreme temperatures and conditions. Added to this, we also wanted to attempt to swim across the icy wild-water Strait of Magellan, followed by an attempt to swim across the even colder Beagle Channel from Chile to Argentina and then back to Chile.
Our travels took us to a little town in Chile called Punta Arenas. We were based here for a week while we awaited the right conditions for the Strait of Magellan attempt. Thereafter, we travelled to what is sometimes referred to as the southernmost town in the world: Puerto Williams. It’s on the Chilean side, almost directly across from Ushuaia, the better-known town in Argentina that also considers itself the southernmost town. (We’ll let them fight it out.) We were based in Puerto Williams, which has nothing – really nothing – besides one coffee shop, which also sold beer and smelt of petrol fumes. We were there for just short of a week and were not too disappointed to leave once we had conquered the Beagle Channel mission and survived. From Puerto Williams, we managed to convince an old seadog who had a half-decent boat to take us on the nerve-wracking 20-hour one-way trip to The Sailor’s Graveyard. We got to visit the remote Cape Horn Island after our swim attempt, which is one of the highlights of my travels.

HAVE YOU ATTEMPTED ANY OTHER WORLD FIRSTS?

I travelled to a small town called Donaghadee at the extreme north of Ireland in County Down. The challenge was to attempt a world first double crossing of the notoriously difficult North Channel in relay format. The six-person relay was made up of a world team from South Africa, Ireland, Czech Republic, Finland, Switzerland and Estonia. It took 30 tough hours, but we succeeded and now hold the record.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT TRAVELLING FOR THIS SPORT?

It takes me off the tourist track, even if I am in a tourist-frequented city or town. I am often the guest of rural and remote locals and, while on standby for the swim challenge at hand, get to live with them and experience the real lives and cultures of the place I am at. It can be difficult, but I love the authenticity of it and the never-ending willingness and enthusiasm of my hosts to help wherever I am in the world and no matter how little verbal communication is possible.

WHAT DO YOU MISS MOST WHEN YOU’RE AWAY FROM HOME?

My son, Jesse! Without a doubt, being away from that little man adds a whole new level of tough.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE HOLIDAY DESTINATION WITH YOUR FAMILY?

I am blessed with a small family farm right on the banks of the beautiful Breede River, which is right on my doorstep in terms of travel time. It’s where my family has come together for 25 years and where my swimming passion began.

WHICH DESTINATIONS WOULD YOU LIKE TO VISIT IN THE FUTURE?

There are so many! I want to swim the Cook Strait between the north and south islands of New Zealand, so this is a destination I look forward to visiting. Norway’s glaciated lakes and fjords are high on my list too. Then I would like to visit both the North and South poles. And maybe one day I’ll just go somewhere sunny, comfortable and warm!

Connect with Ryan at www.ryanstramrood.com.
By Eugene Yiga

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