Why did Andy Donaldson walk away from competitive swimming?
Andy Donaldson dreamed of swimming for his country and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow seemed the perfect opportunity to fulfil his destiny and wear the saltire. When he failed to make the team, it felt not so much a disappointment as a colossal failure.
‘I fell short of qualifying and had to sit on the sidelines and watch a lot of my friends who I’d come through the ranks with go on and live the dream. And, you know, it was hard,’ he says, still with a forlorn note in his voice.
Andy, now 32, switched to open-water competition, but again failed to make the grade on the international stage and gave swimming up entirely in 2016.
He admits: ‘I felt like I hadn’t quite reached my potential and achieved the goals I’d set out and I think, along with that, I felt a bit of shame and letting down a lot of people who believed in me on that journey and the coaches I’d worked with and, you know, my parents and everyone who had given time to help me get to that stage.’
How Andy Donaldson combined his interests in swimming and mental health awareness
To get to where he is now as a veteran of the Oceans Seven challenge, Andy has endured some dark, dark days, possibly the nadir of which was in 2019 when he admits he had gone several years ‘without a life’ as he worked in London’s City financial hub during the day and studied at night. He realises that he was filling the void created when he walked away from swimming.
It wasn’t until the Covid pandemic that he returned to swimming, casually. ‘I’d taken some time out from work due to mental health reasons and I was a bit burnt out and was going through a bit of an identity crisis where I wasn’t quite sure whether what I was doing was what I wanted to be doing,’ he says. ‘Things hadn’t worked out in swimming and things in my career were taking me down a path that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go down.’
He and a friend, Martin Smoothy, started a motivational swim group for adults, Swimclan, based off Scarborough Beach, Western Australia. Getting in the water and coaching others reignited his love for the sport. They were mentoring swimmers to get comfortable in open water, to prepare for triathlons and endurance swims, to achieve their goals.
‘This went on for a few months, then Martin turned to me at one point and said, “It’s all very well for you to tell these people to go after their goals, why don’t you do it yourself and revisit some of your own?” He was absolutely right.’
What records did Andy set in the Oceans Seven challenge?
In 2023, Andy became the first person to complete the Ocean’s Seven swim challenge within a calendar year – knocking off the English Channel, the North Channel (Irish Sea), Cook Strait (New Zealand), Molokai Channel (Hawaii), Catalina Channel (California), the Strait of Gibraltar and Tsugaru Strait (Japan) – smashing records in the process.
He faced obstacles including strong tides, cross-currents, tropical storms and even ending up on an IV drip after swallowing a jellyfish in the Molokai Channel in Hawaii! Nevertheless, he set a new world record in Cook Strait, New Zealand, and new British records in the English Channel, Molokai Channel in Hawaii, the Catalina Channel in California and Tsugaru Strait in Japan, as well as a new cumulative Ocean’s Seven record of 63hrs 2mins.
What was Andy Donaldson’s motivation for conquering the Oceans Seven?
Competitive swimming is in essence a solo sport, but Andy believes the key to unlocking his potential and delivering eye-catching performances was that he stopped swimming for himself and started doing it for others – in his case mental health charities and the people who have supported him on his journey.
Andy’s grandfather suffered from depression, a debilitation that has also shaped his life, and he realised that swimming with a purpose, raising awareness of mental health, was the tool he needed to achieve his goals.
‘It was raising money for charity and an important cause that’s close to my heart and I think that motivated me a lot more than swimming for personal accolades and personal goals,’ he explains.
Not only enjoyable, but inspirational – reaction to his achievements have rippled out beyond the swimming community and Andy has captured the imagination of people around the world (one Instagram post of him feeding during a swim has been liked 665,000 times, while one newspaper in New Zealand tried to claim him as a Kiwi).
So far, Andy has raised around $50,000 for his charity, Australian mental health researchers, the Black Dog Institute. And there could be more to come.
As he pays tribute to all those who hosted him around the globe and volunteered to be support crew, not least his mother Ruth, father Alan and sister Hannah, Andy looks to the future.
‘I think I need to rest and take in what I’ve done just a little bit, but I’ve got a few ideas,’ he says. ‘It’s not the end, it’s just the beginning. I’d love to keep doing these swims and use them as a way to support causes close to my heart.’
READ MORE ABOUT ANDY’S JOURNEY IN ISSUE 5.