Abby Armstrong of Hamilton, New Zealand is about to swim 22.3 kilometres between Upolu and Savai’i and she calls herself ‘Average’.
This twenty eight year old is about to do something remarkable, but to fully understand just how remarkable, you need to know why she’s doing it.
Seven years ago, Abby fell into a dark head space.
A new adventure into a house in the country didn’t quite turn out as she had hoped. She began to feel isolated and alone. This lead to depression. It was a hard time for Abby, and one she is happy to leave behind her.
Her recovery was thanks to a great support network of friends and family, but she also credits a lot of it to exercise and routine.
Abby explains “Swimming gave me a focus. It is well know that endorphins are released through exercise but the routine also helped. I started to eat well and felt like I was regaining control.”
From this routine came a real passion.
Abby now swims competitively whenever she can. She has completed several NZ Ocean Swim Series - a six race, nationwide series - winning her 25-29 age group (a competitive age group that sits just under the elites and full time swimmers) two years in a row. She has also had great success against swimmers from all over NZ, Australia, and the Pacific, having won her group for the last two years at the 10km Taupo lake swim.
How does she account for this success?
“I am not an amazing swimmer, I work really hard to get where I am, and I truly believe that if you set yourself goals, and you are prepared to work for it, anything in life is possible.”
And this most certainly seems to have become a mantra.
This, the latest chapter in an incredible journey, is going to be her biggest challenge by far. The 22.3km swim challenge, across Apolima Strait from Upolu to Savai’i is the longest open water race in the Southern Hemisphere. (The next longest swim is the Rottnest Island swim in Western Australia at 19kms.) It is about endurance of body and mind. As serendipity would have it, Abby saw the swim advertised on social media and it came at the right stage of her development.
She is putting in a massive amount of training for the swim, guided by her coach, Paul Kane from Matamata. Every Sunday, Paul sends through her programme for the week ahead. And once a month, they meet to work on her technique and skills coaching.
The swim schedule for this week includes 84km.
Paul is very thorough, “Abby has been training with me for over two years and has built up a great base. She is able to hold 70km a week comfortably and looks like she will be able to increase that working towards the big race.”
He adds “Her technique was already at a high level when she started with me but she has made a number of changes that have helped with speed and efficiency.”
Abby’s aim for Savaii is to swim it in 6.5-7hrs so she is hoping for perfect conditions on Thursday April 7th, the day of the swim.
It seems fitting that the support network that saw her through her recovery, will be there to support her in her biggest achievement.
Mum, Jo, and training partner Pat, will alternate duties on the kayak, offering support as well as food and liquids, Abby’s boyfriend (and biggest fan), Sam and Dad, Pete, will be the race managers, staying on the guide-vessel and orchestrating the race strategies.
Coach Paul sums it up well. “Abby has a very lovely and supportive family and partner. They have done a lot to help her train at a high level, which gives her the ability to turn the Upolu-Savaii swim from a ‘just finish challenge’ into a great race. She has the talent and fitness to do something amazing in Samoa.”
Swimming has become much more than a tool in Abby’s recovery. It has brought her closer to her Mum – her now swimming buddy and competitor in some of her swims – and has ignited a desire to help others train and stay both mentally and physically fit.
This has manifested in a career change. Having left her job at a pharmacy, she went back to school. She is currently in her last year of a Sports and Exercise Science degree at Wintec.
Abby has learned a lot about herself over the last 7 years. She has gone from just an average swimmer, using exercise to help her through mental illness. To a self assured, medal winning and knowledgeable athlete. Her dream is to turn her experiences as ‘#theaverageswimmer’ into a way of helping others.
Abby Armstrong is about to attempt the inaugural Upolu-Savaii 22.3km swim, to highlight an illness that is often taboo, to raise money for a charity that can help those who suffer it, and to launch a career for herself so she can continue that good work. I think you’ll agree, there’s nothing average about that.
If you would like to support Abby or donate to her swim, visit her give-a-little page #theaverageswimmer.