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Ryan Stramrood during his 100th Robben Island swim. Picture: CALEB BJERGFELT
Ryan Stramrood during his 100th Robben Island swim. Picture: CALEB BJERGFELT

Coming in from the cold ... even changing the familiar phrase of “walking the talk” to “swimming the speak”.

Both of these could apply to a former couch potato who has metamorphosised into something of a human porpoise with a purpose.

We’re talking about Cape Town’s Ryan Stramrood, former ad sales house executive/owner who quite literally got off the couch and took the plunge (albeit slowly at first) into cold water swims and has now warmed to the point that he’s a highly sought after inspirational speaker, locally and internationally.

Now a youthful 50, his latest achievement was becoming the first person to complete swimming’s Cape Big Five — a handful of gruelling cold-water swims dotted around the greater Cape Town area, ranging from 8km to 33km.

“It all started when I was about 30,” he recalls. “I took a client on a business trip, mentioned that I needed to get off the couch and he suggested I join a swimming squad. My first effort was 20 laps (less than 500m) and I was so exhausted that I vomited next to the pool.”

But he stuck to the task and ended up sharing a lane with a man who had done the well-known 7.3km Robben Island crossing in only his Speedo, goggles and swim cap, and so this became Stramrood’s own Mount Everest.

It was totally out of his comfort zone “but I stuck to it, did my research, trained diligently and in December 2003, after 2hr 13min I ended up swimming from the island to Blouberg.

“It changed my world profoundly, especially the way the mind copes, or doesn’t cope with the challenge of cold water.”

He’s since gone on to conquer challenge or channel after the other and in 2008 managed the international “Everest” of swimming, the English Channel.

“I was nine hours into that swim and had hit the wall, swallowed a ton of salt water but what happened was that somehow I changed gear from body to mind and took it step by small step and after 13 hours in the water I emerged on a deserted French beach in the pitch dark of night.”

He says that swim changed his world. “I challenged so many little things that I could never have done before and have moved from being that couch potato to a long distance swimmer [with three Guinness World Records to his name], and then on to an international inspirational speaker.”

His fascination with the cold led him to the speaking circuit. “I started to realise through repeated immersions into freezing water that as humans we haven’t evolved to handle the cold but we have rather learnt to avoid it very well. The mind implements pain, panic and fear and learns to avoid it.

“And even though I was still doing regular Robben Island crossings I was still doubting myself, thinking of reasons to get out and this helped me to transition into international speaking.”

So well has he adapted to life in the icy water and outside his comfort zone that he now boasts an incredible 140 Robben Island crossings and uses that achievement as a platform

“From becoming my absolute Everest that swim became a platform to set other goals and then even the English Channel became a platform for other events.”

Coincidentally his next stepping stone proved to be the country that hosts the world-renowned Steppes ecoregion, namely Siberia.

Ryan Stramrood with one of his many trophies. Picture: SUPPLIED
Ryan Stramrood with one of his many trophies. Picture: SUPPLIED

“A group of mates and I ended up in Siberia for an ice-swimming event where the ambient temperature was — 33°C ... it was terrifying.

“We had committed to swimming a mile — organisers cut out a section through two feet of ice. In the end we did 40 laps which equated to a kilometre, in water temperature of 0.3°C. I never thought it was possible and pushed me to another level of belief and understanding of the mind.”

Stramrood says the pinnacle of his ice-swimming career came at one of the lowest latitudes on the globe.

“Myself and five other South Africans wanted to be the first to swim a mile south of the Antarctic Circle in our Speedos ... we couldn’t take our own teams or crew and had to rely on a regular passenger liner to support us.”

They were on standby for seven consecutive days but the geography just wouldn’t play ball and the passenger liner couldn’t deviate from its itinerary.

“I still managed to do the mile, so it was just north of the Antarctic Circle but just as brutal. It meant I was the first to swim an official ice mile in Antarctica at minus 1°C as defined by the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA, of which he is a founder member) and has really put me on the map.”

Two other members of the SA squad achieved the same feat a few hours later.

Back to the BigBay Events’ CT Big Five swim challenge though and he ranks them in order from shortest to longest

“The shortest is around Cape Point from Dias Beach to Buffels Bay and is 8km but it’s almost always wild and rough off the point.

“Then up the West Coast there’s Dassen Island to Yzerfontein which is 11km of very cold and uncharted water.

“The West Coast Angle is an interesting one, from Blouberg to the northern tip of Robben Island and then back to the coast at Melkbosstrand so you get very different flows of water and wind during the 18km.

“Also on the west coast is the Preekstoel-Mykonos Double which is from Langebaan lagoon to Mykonos and back, a long 24km swim.

“The big daddy is the False Bay crossing of 33km. Normally people swim it from Rooi Els to Miller’s Point but I was the first person to do it in reverse. False Bay is renowned for its Great White shark population and although sightings aren’t as common in recent times, it’s still very much in the back of your mind.”

On to his plunge into business speaking. It was his sister, Gill, who prodded him into approaching SalesGuru CEO Mark Keating with the idea that his swimming story could translate into a good motivational weapon.

“Much to my horror he booked me for three speeches in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town on consecutive days!

“Thankfully it was a hit and I think it’s because of my swimming journey and my repeat ventures into the icy cold waters. I’ve learnt so much about my mind and how it reacts to the cold and have developed methods to overcome it.”

He says the similarity between his sport and the business world is real. “Dealing with cold water relates to an uncomfortable corporate environment, often a hostile environment and generally the brain naturally reacts in a default or protective manner.”

His finding is that humankind’s brains have evolved to keep people safe and not allow them to push forward when the going gets tough.

“My message is that mindset is universal across all cultures, ages and positions within a company and pretty much life in general.”

But he’s clear on the point that when it comes to cold there are most certainly limits, mentally and physically.

“You can’t will away hypothermia ... it’s deadly and will eventually get you ... so it’s not true that you can achieve absolutely everything you set your mind on.

“Take my time in the Antarctica. It’s either me warming the whole of Antarctica up to my temperature or Antarctica cools me to its own temperature.”

He says it’s more a case of learning how your brain and body are going to react to extreme cold and training properly for it.

“We don’t have really enough cold water around the Cape ... I prepare for it by going to I&J here in Cape Town and they put together a true icebath where the temperature is just about zero.”

And when in doubt, the Ice Man shows his human side by going to the other extreme — “we’re South African so light some wood, start a fire, flop a chop, have a glass of wine, beer, brandy and chill.”

Throw in the fact that he loves playing guitar and singing a song or two and there you have it ... even fire can have a chilling effect on the man who thrives in the ice.

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