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From nappies to night-swimming: The similarities between raising a child and ultra-marathon swimming

Over the last year or so, I’ve had the privilege to talk to a range of audiences about my experiences in ultra-marathon swimming. Often, during the question and answer section that follows the structured part of the talk, I will get asked a question that goes something like: “How have you found ultra-marathon swimming helps you in your job?” The short answer is that it helps in many ways, and I’ve often pondered beyond the specific setting of work the parallels between ultra-endurance sport (generally speaking) and life in a broader sense. But more recently, a new comparison has come to the fore: The similarities between ultra-endurance sport and raising a child.

About six months ago, my wife and I welcomed our first child into the world. You are warned time and time again in the months that lead up to the birth that your life will soon change, but there really is nothing that can truly prepare you for everything you will face as new parents. No sooner is a once sonographer’s image now manifest into the real world beyond the womb, this tiny ball of flesh and vocal chords is now entirely yours to care for and raise. That can be both an exciting and daunting prospect at the same time. I would argue that ultra-marathon swimming has helped to prepare me for the start of this very different expedition. While there are many similarities between what seem to be two very different pursuits at face value, these are the four key parallels between ultra-marathon swimming and raising a child.

A baby and swimming

Raising a baby and ultra-endurance sport aren't so different after all

Firstly, it’s not a sprint. In ultra-marathon swimming, it can take years to build a base of physical and mental stamina. For this reason, completing a channel crossing such as the English Channel is often a multi-year goal with a number of interim goals along the way. You must be persistent and consistent, avoiding short-term bursts of heroism to favour instead the long slog. This frame of mind goes against the grain of a society that tends to indulge short-term thinking and immediate gratification. The same philosophy applies to raising a child. Immediately following the birth of our daughter, I had a long-term clarity that I previously did not. Instead of thinking in years, I started thinking in decades and, beyond that, generations. The micro is important of course, but it is directionless without an overarching macro-level purpose. Think long-term and be patient; you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve with consistency compounded over years.

And over that longer time frame, there will be ups and downs, which leads into the next point. Things will not always go according to plan (and that’s okay). In training to swim from Great Barrier Island to Auckland in 2023, I developed a training plan with a beautiful, gradual build which saw me progress from 30 kilometres a week to 100 kilometres a week, holding this for several weeks before commencing a three week taper. The plan was going swimmingly until, well, it wasn’t. I picked up an injury mid-training, which forced me to adapt. I had to go off script. I didn’t expect it, but there was no point wallowing in the moment. If I wanted to achieve my goal, action was necessary. In raising a child, my experience has been that you can have well-laid plans but be prepared to go completely off-script at very short notice. That sleep routine that you thought you had nailed down? Here’s a few days of random night wakes (with screaming included) to keep you on your toes. From what I understand, I’m in for another twenty or so years of randomly interspersed challenges in raising my daughter to keep things interesting. But I’m okay with that because, as ultra-marathon swimming has taught me, you can create the most perfectly developed plan but be ready to draw outside of the square when things don’t play out as expected.

And when things don’t go according to plan, it’s good to remind yourself that any discomfort that you’re experiencing won’t last forever. This too shall pass. This is a mantra that I’ve held to for many years in preparing for and completing ultra-marathon swims. I love undertaking the training journey and the expeditionary goal that sits at the end of that journey. But let's get real for a second: it's not all unicorns and rainbows. There are some sessions that just suck. There are days when I’d rather not be out there training. And there are parts of ultra-marathon swims that are incredibly mentally and physically tough – when you’re in immense physical pain with still many hours ahead of you, it can seem almost impossible to push through. The same goes for raising a child. When my daughter is screaming in my ear at 2am in the morning, it can be hard to see the positives in that moment. But in that moment, I remind myself, among other things, that this too shall pass. No matter what you’re going through, eventually it will end. And, better still, if you can see the opportunities in these difficult moments, you can not only survive but learn to thrive when they arrive.

Finally, it’s a team game. From the outside-in, ultra-marathon swimming can appear to be an individual sport. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In swimming from Great Barrier Island to Auckland, I had no less than 20 people in my support crew both on the water and on land. Smaller expeditions, such as Foveaux Strait and the Matapouri to Poor Knights double crossing, had up to 10 people in the on-water support crew. I couldn’t do these swims without the help of the support crew, and that is not an empty platitude by any means. It simply would not be possible. By the same token, it takes a village to raise a child. And while today, in modern society, we are separated from the concept of tribes and villages as once existed in times long gone by, we still have access to our own version of a “tribe”. I was so humbled by and grateful for the neighbours, family and friends who cooked meals for us in the early weeks of our daughter’s life, when we had no idea what the hell we were doing and were adjusting to our new normal of sleep deprivation. Or the family members who came over to watch our daughter to provide an opportunity for a quick nap. Or the friends who gave their advice and shoulder to lean on. It would have been far more difficult had we tried to do this alone.

As I’ve walked this journey called life, it’s become clear just how many likenesses there can be across seemingly disparate fields. An outside observer may think the lines of relationship tenuous between ultra-marathon swimming and raising a child, but in my experience there are many links. Ultimately, the wider your range of experiences and the greater your conscious ability to apply the lessons gleaned from these experiences, the greater your ability to move from beginner to expert and so, in tandem, the greater your ability to get the most out of your life.


Bruce Hopkins
Bruce Hopkins
Feb 25

Yet again a bloody superb post Jono, thankyou. As someone who was trying to make my living in the performing arts while becoming a father to 3 children I made the determination that I would try to keep a perspective on my priorities, the number one of which were my parenting my children. 'This too shall pass' was a phrase that I have carried with me for the last 3 decades. So simple & yet so effective when you embed it into your life. My daughter & her partner have a just turned 1 yr daughter & she has 3 wonderful older cousies thanks to one of my sons & his partner. Whanau is the core, you & you partner…

Mar 08
Replying to

The application of "This too shall pass" is certainly quite universal isn't it, Bruce. Thank you for sharing your view and insights around the importance of family, I'm starting to see that for myself as well.

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