"If there is open water we will find it," says Ram Barkai

Catching up with a Guinness World Record Open Water Swimmer

Open water swimming, one of the fastest growing sports worldwide, fuels your appreciation of the natural environment, takes you to places you never thought were possible and has the power to connect people from every spectrum of society.

Having swam in the frigid waters of Antarctica (The Guinness World Record fastest 1km), in shark infested waters around South Africa and in the icy lakes of Switzerland Ram Barkai has done more than prove himself as one of the world's leading open water swimmers. He heads up the Cadiz Open Water Swimming Development Trust which is a new initiative to bring the benefits of the sport to Cape Town's disadvantaged communities.

CTMag: What sparked your interest in open water swimming?

Ram: I grew up in the water surfing, diving, swimming and windsurfing but when I came to South Africa in 1996 I began to swim in the sea at Camps Bay and Clifton. An open water swimmer has to deal with the elements so I had to adapt to cold temperatures and waves.

CTMag: What actually goes through your mind when you're swimming in icy temperatures?

Ram: When you hit the water you have to swim but the cold temperatures are invigorating and refreshing. Cyclists are above the elements, runners own the elements but swimmers are with the elements feeling the water, drinking the water and becoming immersed in it. The sensation, especially in the sea, can be quite trippy.

CTMag: How do you prepare for an open water swim?

Ram: First of all I want to dispel rumours that athletes are superhuman. Some people have a very strong and passionate mind whereas others might discover they are extremely talented. You can't train yourself physically to swim with sharks but I did read a lot about them and went diving with them in cages. As martial artists say: 'the best place to be is behind your enemy's sword'. If sharks were aggressive then I would have a problem with swimming with them but if they really wanted to eat us shark attacks would be more frequent. The elements pose a slight risk but we undertake careful research and make sure that we have taken precautions.

CTMag: Are there times when you have been afraid whilst swimming?

When I swam around Robben Island at night I remember that the sea was rough. At some stage when I couldn't see anything I did start to think about sharks and in my mind I thought I could see shadows. I had nothing apart from Speedos and a pair of goggles.

CTMag: During your career as an open water swimmer what has been your proudest achievement?

Ram: My proudest moment is when 400 people dive into the water for a swim that I initiated.

CTMag: How fit do you have to be for open water swimming?

Ram: Like any sport you have to be fit. You can't just run a marathon and say that it was all in the mind you have to prepare yourself physically as well.

CTMag: How would you convince somebody who was afraid or didn't know what to expect to give open water swimming a go?

Ram: I don't believe in forcing anyone to do things that they don't want to do but I would invite them to come and swim with us on Sundays. We would stay with them and take them to the kelp and rocks and once they got over their fear they would realise that it's actually very beautiful. I think you do need to have an appreciation of the outdoors. Some people who give it a go bite but others might have a terrible experience with 3m waves and 10 degree water.

CTMag: How will disadvantaged communities benefit from the Cadiz Open Water Swimming Trust's new initiative?

Ram: South Africa has a huge coastline and the sea is accessible to everyone. I can't believe that people grow up without being able to swim. Everyone deserves and needs to be able to swim. Two thirds of the world is water and it should be ours for the taking - the water is fresh, the air is clean and you might even encounter seals. Some days we'll swim near Clifton Fourth Beach and stop to look at the houses. Things look very small all of a sudden and it's fascinating to see the world from a different perspective.

CTMag: Where are the best spots in Cape Town for open water swimming?

Ram: It depends on your level of experience. Clifton Fourth beach is best spot for beginners as you're within a few minutes from the beach if anything goes wrong. Camps Bay has more waves and is more physically demanding but there are plenty of cafes along the strip to reward yourself with a hot chocolate afterwards.

For more information contact the Cadiz Open Water Swimming Development Trust +27 (0)21 657 8300.

By Lisa Nevitt

*Ram successfully completed the first of three of the world's toughest swims in the remote Patagonian region of South America, on the 15th February 2011. He swam at least 4km across the Strait of the Madellan in rough seas, with wind gusts of up to 35knotts 64km/hr), heavy chop, and a water temperature measured at 4 degrees celcius by the Chilean Navy.

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