Push Past Impossible
Multiple Guinness World Record holder, inspirational speaker, world-renowned extreme swimmer and single dad Ryan Stramrood’s new book is an eye-opening account of the deep psychological truths forged in the heat, or rather the ice of some of the world’s most hostile waters.
A couple of beers on the stoep at Breede River with a business colleague, and Cape Town ad man and self-confessed couch potato, Ryan Stramrood took a decision, aged 27, that would change his life forever. That initial decision was to start squad swimming as an antidote to a painful divorce and a general slide into early middle age.
30 or 40 lengths in the pool morphed into a 7.5km Robben Island swim, which morphed into the 10km classic Simonstown to Muizenberg swim, which morphed into a series of extreme swims in some of the planet’s most hostile and remote places. And a new career path as a globe-trotting motivational speaker sharing his powerful insights with corporates and schoolkids alike.
But, warns Ryan, he’s not urging you to jump into cold water, too. That’s his journey, his pain and his classroom. As he says in his closing remarks to a quite remarkable Boys Own adventure read, “I can now relay a real and unique awareness of the almost impossibly powerful mental defence mechanisms we all have operating deep inside out subconscious, steering us all to the comfortable route, the easier route where failure is less likely.”
Ryan says right at the start that he’s a normal oke, not some sort of genetically blessed polar bear – he just dived in one day and tried, and that, he says, is what turns ordinary into extraordinary. The fact that the foreword to his book is written by none other than extreme swimmer, UN Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh, himself no stranger to ice swimming, gives you some sense of what is coming next. And that is 200-odd pages of jaw-dropping accounts of ludicrously foolhardy swims from the Bering Straits to Antarctica, and from ice miles cut in frozen Siberian lakes to the first ever swim round the aptly named Sailors’ Graveyard at Cape Horn.
Ryan and a group of close swimming friends not only shoved forward their own personal envelopes. They pioneered new medical insights into the impact of cold-water immersion on the human body, and arguably were the frontrunners and trendsetters of the recent global fascination with wild swimming. “Every story, every adventure, every failure, each curveball and every success is filled with learnings, epiphanies, enlightenment and plenty of wow. If you believe that I am no different from you (and I really am not), you’ll finish my book well entertained, but with the benefit of an appreciation of how the mind works.”
When Ryan swims a double Robben Island, he denies himself on the first leg the luxury of all those niggling, negative thoughts that keep bubbling up inside the lonely mind of a long-distance swimmer, denies, denies, ignores, ignores, until he is on his return leg. Then those doubts can surface, but by then it’s too late, he isn’t going to give up now. The point was that he experiences those same doubts on a single Robben Island swim, too, and in fact on every open-water swim he does. The negative panic will never go away, but how one reacts to it, ah, that is the secret to it all.
Ryan is clear. This is not a self-help book. It’s just a story about how a self-conscious kid saw something inside himself that he wanted to explore. That exploration could be condensed into one simple lesson, Ryan says. That is, our subconscious is hugely over-zealous in protecting us from perceived failure. In other words, when we get into cold water, our bodies and minds have evolved extremely well to convince us that huge trouble is only seconds away. “Our minds manifest pain, panic, fear and hyperventilation within seconds and these all combine to accentuate a powerful impulse of self-doubt and negativity.” And this is present in our daily lives, too, Ryan adds. “It is present in our sports, careers, social and family lives. It activates every time there is an ‘unknown’ facing us. Our minds are designed to keep us safe. To keep us inside our comfort zones.” And the lesson? You don’t have to let your mind convince you that you can’t achieve your goal.