For ultra swimmer Theodore Yach, there’s no such thing as ‘impossible’.
Theodore Yach is one of South Africa’s most accomplished cold-water ultra-swimmers and has tackled what many believed to be the impossible. Sitting at Oceana Power Boat Club next to the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, Theodore, 52, says when not in the water, he’s in his element near it. As he recalls the pinnacle of his swimming career, it’s hard not to feel the urge to jump overboard to experience the thrill for oneself.
“My dad, Solly, was a champion swimmer and Olympic water polo player,” says Theodore. “He enrolled me in swimming lessons. My earliest memory is practising at my grandfather’s pool in Wynberg, Cape Town, and my swimming teacher, Mrs Mack threatening to pull my teeth out if I didn’t swim properly! I started swimming long distances while boarding at Wynberg Boys High School and began sea swimming in the early ‘80s.” Theodore has successfully swum across the English Channel and completed the Robben Island to Cape Town crossing a record 56 times. Last year November, he became the first person to swim from Cape Town around Robben Island and back. He spent almost 11 hours in the water, covering another gruelling 30-kilometre swim in shark, jellyfish and bluebottle infested waters, not to mention the constant threat of hypothermia as the water off Cape Town can drop as low as a chilly five degrees.
“My most difficult swim to date has to be the English Channel in 1996. It took me a year to prepare for the race. My weight went from 90kg to 106kg for this crossing. It took me four hours to swim the final 800 metres and I landed far from the predicted landing point. The weather was adverse for several hours and the current almost impossible to beat, but having failed in 1989 I was determined to succeed this time around.” Theodore says his swim from Cape Town around Robben Island and back comes in a close second. “I trained really hard for that swim – averaging about 30 kilometres per week of swim training. Speed was never an issue. The aim was to get from point A to point B – that was the challenge. For some inexplicable reason, my left shoulder stopped working properly at about the sixth hour. I had to find a stroke action that worked, without causing me to leap out of the water with pain, until I finished. There is a phenomenon where the body changes shape slightly after many hours in the sea and that happened to me on this crossing, but I was back to old myself after about 24 hours.” Recounting one of the more risky open water sea-swimming exploits he’s undertaken, Theodore thinks back to the time he attempted to take on False Bay many years ago, but stopped after several hours because he kept imagining he was seeing Great Whites behind every wave.
Theodore is a trustee of the Mauerberger Foundation, which provides scholarships and educational support, and of the Cadiz Open Water Swimming Development Trust. He has also just written an autobiographical book entitled In My Element, which is due for release in July. The book, which took six months to write, bares Theodore’s challenges and personal highlights, sharing his stories about Cape Town landmarks, swimming with sea life and the anxiety he feels during every boat trip to the start of any swim.
“I never once suffered from ‘writers block’,” says Theodore. “The story unfolded naturally and easily. Fortunately, I inherited my mom’s love of scrap booking and keeping photo albums and memorabilia and had lots of source material to draw from, so writing the book was easy. It was difficult to decide what to leave out along the way.” Looking to the future, Theodore says it’s no secret that he is aiming for a crossing from Hout Bay to Robben Island. “In 2010, I undertook the 36 kilometre ultra swim but failed. The route goes directly past Duiker Island, home to a seal colony and food source for Great White Sharks, so I had to swim through some very dangerous waters. I’m going to try the crossing for a second time during the latter part of this year, to try and raise funds for disadvantaged swimmers and highlight Cape Town’s Great White Shark Awareness Project, and this time I’m going to finish, come hell or high water!”
Theodore Yach, Olympic, swimming, Mauerberger Foundation, Robben Island