From Retirement to Rottnest, Reflections on a Rotto Solo Win

Updated: Jun 15


Flying Scotsman Andy Donaldson crossing the line

Foreword

There’s nothing quite like that moment when your toes touch the sand after successfully completing a 19.7km Rottnest Channel Swim solo. All that training, dedication and hard work becomes worth it in an instant as you surge up that ramp to a chorus of cheers and reunite with friends, family and loved ones. You’ve done it. You’ve swum to Rottnest. And to describe it in a word, it’s unforgettable!


On Saturday 20th February 2021, I was first to experience that feeling as I crossed the line in a personal best time of 4:04:30. It was a result beyond my wildest dreams as I'd swum faster than any other solo, duo or team that day, and I'd posted one of the quickest crossings in Rottnest Channel Swim history.


But at the time, I wasn't thinking about any of that. I was taking in the moment and thinking of all the very people who had helped make it possible. It was pretty surreal! Overwhelmed with emotion, I threw my arms in the air and let out the biggest of roars. This was for them. And it was for one of my greatest supporters in life. My Grandpa!


One year on, I still get goosebumps when I think back to it all. The Rottnest Channel is a swim like none other and the achievement of successfully crossing it will sit with you forever. Though the way I see it, what you'll remember most is not the time or the end result, but instead everything around it. The journey and the people that were on it.


My own path to the podium was a little different to what you might expect of a winner. Having grown up as a swimmer in Scotland who then switched to Open Water after moving to Perth in 2013, I was no stranger to racing. Though less than a year before Rottnest, ideas of a solo could not be further from my mind. I was happily retired, the sport was behind me, and I was instead on the other side of the world, sliding down the hills of Nicaragua as a Volcano Tour Guide, running away from life and all forms of responsibility.


However in March 2020 that all changed when the Covid pandemic swept across the globe. Amid the chaos and confusion, I abandoned my travels and scrambled my way back to Perth. With no job or direction, and having spent the best part of the last year backpacking, I didn't know what the future held. It wasn't until a chance meeting at the beach with Martin Smoothy and Chrishan Jeyaratnum on my first day out of quarantine where that changed. They asked me to get into the water with them.


Although badly out of shape (it had been almost two years since I’d last swum a lap), I loved being back in the water again. Our ocean swim catch-ups continued and not before long, we were talking life and exploring ideas to help get more adults into swimming. I began to regain form, other areas of my life started to flourish, and eventually, I felt the time was right to revisit one of my biggest unfulfilled dreams: to win the Rottnest Channel swim solo.


What followed was quite a journey, one which I never thought I'd sit down to write about. Though I thought I'd give it a go. I learned a lot in that year, particularly from others, so I've tried to share some of the great advice that I received, and the different insights I gained along the way. Hopefully it helps or can inspire in some way. Ultimately, my message is that with the right help and support, anything is possible, and I believe it's never too late to chase your dreams. To everyone swimming, best of luck. You can do this!!

Backpacker Andy volcano boarding in Nicaragua 2020

It's Not A Solo, It's a Team Effort

If there’s only one thing that you take away, let it be this. The Rottnest Swim is not a solo, it’s a team effort and you cannot do this journey alone. By this, I mean there are so many people involved in the success of your swim and without them, none of it would be possible.


Breaking it down, on the water you have your skipper, paddler, and crew. And on a wider scale, you have your coach, training partners, friends and family who all form a tight knit group to support you day-in day-out on your journey. Never underappreciate their input, their support and the vital role each play.


And so here is my first insight. Seek advice from others, create a highly positive support network, and surround yourself with the right people.


Seek Advice

When I committed to racing Rotto, one of my first moves was to find people that could help me prepare for the swim. I sought advice from friends, coaches, nutritionists, and even former winners. I asked them everything: how to train, how to eat, how to best fuel myself on the day, how to prepare in the week leading up to the swim, and how to race on the day. Equally important, I asked them what didn’t work and what they would avoid.


From these discussions, I looked for the trends and patterns in advice. This was because many people had their own thoughts or ideas of doing things, with advice sometimes being polar-opposite to what others had recommended! I discovered that nobody was necessarily right or wrong with their approach, but that I'd need to find what'd work for me.


Race Plan

With these insights, I created a robust eight-page document with everyone's suggestions, and I added my own thoughts or ideas on how to prepare for and tackle the swim. Was this overkill? Perhaps. Though getting it down on paper helped, and it gave me the utmost confidence in everything I’d do. I'd done my homework, I knew my plan, and so on race day I could simply turn up and execute my swim.


Squads

The next step after this was to join a swim squad. I'm someone who needs structure to get to a goal and I felt it was best to surround myself with others also striving towards targets. After all, you are a product of your environment. For this I re-united with my old training group, Perth City Swimming Club, coached by Eoin Carroll and Jason Evans.


On one of my first sessions back, I sat with Eoin to talk about my goals and I proposed this idea of trying to win Rotto to him. His response was honest. It wasn't going to be easy, but with the right planning, preparation, and full commitment, there was a chance. That's all I needed to know. We agreed to go for it, committed to the process, and got to work.


Training Partners & Support

After I got back into a squad, I thought I'd try encourage some friends out of retirement to come train alongside me. Jarrad Lawford, Travis Nederpelt, Paul Laver and Brad Smith responded to the call, and they joined our group alongside existing City swimmers such as Alec Mander, Simon Huitenga and Jonney Sammut.


It became a crew of great swimmers and we had a fantastic environment where everyone had fun and would push each other. The Rottnest idea quickly became a goal everybody felt part of, and not only were we training hard, but we were keeping each other encouraged, engaged and accountable.


Tackling Self-Doubt

During my preparation, I experienced a few dark days with bad swimming, exhaustion and overwhelming self-doubt. There'd be voices in my head asking: What am I doing? Am I good enough? Will I embarrass myself? Have I bitten off more than I can chew? Do I even stand a chance against such and such? I certainly felt them, and they were tough.


Though I tell you, no matter how good or experienced a swimmer you are, everybody goes through this. We are often our own biggest critics, but at the end of the day we're all human. It's ok to have bad days or to fail, and it's ok to not be feeling it. However it’s how you respond in those moments which matters most, and from experience, having good people around who can lift you up is priceless.


In my case, I was incredibly fortunate to have guys like Jarrad Lawford around me who never seemed to lose faith, even when I'd lost faith in myself. He'd know exactly what to say exactly when it was needed, and could help me push through when I simply wanted to stop. Support like that is something you can’t place a value on, and to Jarrad and the guys who were there for me, I could never have done it without you.


Support Crew

When it came to the day, I chose some of my closest friends for crew and to paddle. My team of Brady Knight, Heidi Gan, Simon Le Couilliard, Warren Raymond, Jacquie Rough and Alexandra Rough were all people who understood me well, were well versed with my plan, and had been behind me almost every step of the journey.


They call it the ‘twelfth man’ in soccer when backed by home support, and I believe the same applies for Rottnest. For me, their presence that day was priceless. With non-stop support from the very start, their cheers throughout the swim were always uplifting, and hauled me across the line when everything hurt.


What's best was that with everybody there at the finish, we could share that moment as a team, celebrating all who had contributed so greatly to the success of the day. I’ll always be grateful for their efforts and support, and never at any stage did I feel alone.


Key Takeaways

1) The journey is always better when it’s shared.

- Join a squad or find other swimmers doing a solo to go train with.

- Be part of other people’s journey and invite others on yours.


2) Seek advice from those with knowledge of the swim.

- Ask them how to prepare, how to feed, what worked, what didn’t.

- Look for trends in advice and tailor it when creating your own plan.


3) Never underestimate the value of your support crew and paddler.

- Ensure they are prepared and that they have capacity to help you for the day.

- A crew can be the difference between gold and silver, or a successful and unsuccessful day.

Andy celebrating with big sister Hannah on Rottnest Island

Hard Work Gets You Somewhere, Smart Work Gets You Further

As a youngster growing up in the west of Scotland, I used to pride myself thinking I was the hardest working trainer in the pool. I would race warm-ups and thrash down the pool to be first to the wall, even if it meant exceeding the efforts written on the board. Put simply, I was someone who wanted to race everything.


Then one day, a senior Scotland Team swimmer tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Andy, you work hard. That will always get you somewhere. But smart work will always get you further”. Those words always stuck with me and would go on to form the crux of my approach to the Rottnest Channel Swim.


When Eoin and I sat down to discuss the idea of racing Rotto, we had to be realistic. I'd been out of the water for a long time, and I'd spent much of the past year partying whilst on my travels. Quite simply, it wasn't the ideal base to work from!


I was also going to be racing against an incredible field of swimmers in the Champions of the Channel. Guys who were fit, fast and were gaining selection for Australian Dolphins teams. It was going to be tough, and we knew to have any chance of success we’d have to be smart.


Patience

As a start, we felt it important to not rush straight in. The natural instinct could have been to go hard from the start, particularly when fired up and keen to get back into shape. But I'd seen this before (think of all those New Years Resolutions!). I felt that such efforts and motivation might be hard to sustain, or could result in injury or burnout.


Moreover, Eoin and I had one condition that we'd do this swim with no regrets. Swimming was to be enjoyable and to compliment life, not take over it. Therefore starting in October 2020, I gradually got back into squad swimming. I started with 5x two-hour swim sessions per week through till December, and I tried to do things right by focusing on technique.


Mileage

At that stage, I knew my mileage was far less than others, but that was ok. Swimming mega-kilometres straight off the bat would have killed me, and I'd likely have grown bored with the training. I am by no means advocating doing no work through till race day. You can’t swim across a 19.7km channel without getting the miles in somewhere! But what I suggest is to swim quality miles, train with purpose and to ensure everything you do counts.


After building myself a strong foundation, I introduced an extra couple of sessions two months out from the swim. The gains were seismic. I was fresh, my technique was sharp, and I was in a place where I could push myself in a great run up to the event. The timing was perfect.


Purposeful Training

When it comes to Rottnest, it’s worth understanding that this swim is unique compared to most swims out there. For starters, there’s no pack and no drafting, it’s just you and your paddler as you swim almost 20km to an island out at sea! Every 15-20 minutes you guzzle down liquids to keep yourself fuelled, and some might even have a snack along the way. These are not normal aspects of a swim, so it’s key to practice them!


Swim with your paddler, trial your feeds, practice taking them, and ensure your stomach can handle them during an intense workout. Ultimately, train the way you plan to swim. If you swim in a busy lane, lead the lane and don’t draft. You’re not able to do this in the swim so why practice that way.


A word of advice given to me was that “Rottnest only really starts after the 10km mark, so do everything you can to prepare for that”. If you have swum a solo before, I think you will appreciate this. It’s that feeling of load and fatigue in your arms that you'll feel after that 10km mark, particularly as you approach that final stretch from Phillip Rock.


The smart swimmer will prepare for this, finding ways to replicate the load, and they will attempt to manage it whilst maintaining good stroke and composure throughout. Our approach was to train after an open water race or after an aerobic circuits’ session. Both worked well, though I’m sure there are plenty of other innovative ways. One coach even suggested that I try swim with a tshirt and tights on. I'm not sure if he was pulling my leg!


Prepare Smart & Plan

Thus, my second insight is this - prepare smart and train with purpose. Devise a plan to get you to Rottnest and become part of a squad who will help you get there.


When it comes to squads, there are plenty of good ones out there with good, experienced coaches capable of getting you to Rottnest. Groups like the Positive Swim Squad, eSwim, Team STS Perth, Perth City Masters or where I swim at Perth City Swimming Club. The list could go on. But I suggest that you plan with your coach, and outline a pathway from where you are now, to where you want to be.


Technique

Where possible, have your coaches look at your technique because it forms the foundation of everything. If your coach can’t do this, spend time with somebody who can. I can’t place enough importance on technique because the scope for gains are truly immeasurable.


Even as a 31-year-old who has swum competitively since the age of 7, I still have my stroke corrected on a day-to-day basis. So it’s important to learn, and important to implement what you learn as you swim, particularly when you are fatigued. This is because when you tire during the swim, your stroke will revert to what you have practiced, and when that’s applied over 20km, it makes a difference!


Train For Your Own Swim

Remember, everybody will have their own particular approach to tackling Rotto. Therefore I encourage you to prepare for your own swim, and race your own race. By this, plan out your own preparation and race plan in consultation with your coach. Train to your cycles, not somebody else’s, and on the day, you have your plan. Stick to it!


Key Takeaways

1) Prepare for your swim with a smart plan.

- Consult with others for this and ensure your plan maps out how you will get to your goal.

- Train purposefully and try to replicate what you will do on the day.


2) Join a squad and find a coach who can support you on your journey.

- Ask them to assist you with your technique. The outcomes are immeasurable.

- Implement good technique when you are most fatigued. That is when it matters most!


3) Prepare for your own swim, and race your own race.

- Advice from others is key, but it's not necessarily a one-size fits all.

- Find out what works for you, create a plan and stick to it.

Representing The Kai Eardley Foundation at Rottnest

Swim For Something Bigger

There’s a Friedrich Nietzsche quote that goes something like this: “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”. Or in other words, those with purpose can bear almost anything. When I think about this, I feel it holds particularly true in sport.


I see people running marathons to honour their family, and when everything hurts, they somehow push on. Or exhausted athletes on the last day of an Olympic campaign, finding a way to step up and squeeze out that little bit more for a relay-team and their country. It’s incredible!


Charity

When it came to Rottnest, my something bigger was mental health and the Kai Eardley Foundation. Set up by Claire Eardley following the tragic passing of her son, the Kai Eardley Foundation is a charity that supports mental health initiatives and workshops for young adults around Perth.


With myself and the Swimclan crew of Jarrad Lawford and Jonney Sammut (Duo) and Brad Smith, Paul Laver, Travis Nederpelt and Nate Saunders (Team of Four) all entered and targetting respective category wins, we felt we could use our swims to raise awareness and much needed funds for this incredible cause.


Mental Health

Moreover, this was a very personal cause to me. Through life, I’ve known many great men that have had battles with depression. One of my greatest supporters and inspirations growing up, my Grandpa, was one. To me, swimming for mental health, and in a roundabout way, swimming for Grandpa, was one of the most meaningful things I could do with my life.


I knew that with purpose and with him in mind, I could push myself through any sort of pain barrier, even if I had nothing left. It kept me going, and the hurt never mattered because to me, I knew I could do him proud. Crossing that line, everything stopped and I knew he was smiling. To be honest knowing Grandpa, the result wouldn't have mattered. He’d have simply been delighted that I’d tried my best.


Find a Reason

With this in mind, the next insight is simple, yet immensely powerful - have a reason to swim.


Your reason may be external, for example swimming for charity or for a loved one. Or it could be to tick off that goal that you’ve always dreamed of. Or perhaps like me, it's a bit of both. Either way, with purpose comes drive, meaning and accountability.


And when you have it, I suggest that you share your purpose and intentions with others. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but in return you will receive encouragement on those days you feel down, and the occasional reminder from peers on why you’re doing this.


Key Takeaways

1) Those with a why, can bear almost any how.

- Find a reason to swim.

- Whether it’s a loved one, a charity, or a personally defined goal, purpose gives you drive.

2) Share your purpose and intentions with others.

- You may feel exposed or vulnerable at first, but in return you will find support and another mechanism to help you keep on track.

Navigating choppy waters

Preparation Tips and Raceday Minutia

As mentioned before, there are a lot of different ways to prepare for and race a Rottnest Channel Swim solo. It can be hard to know which way to go. When asking for help, I suggest you be open to advice as nobody's necessarily right or wrong. Take it all down, and through trial and error find out what works for you.


Race Strategies & Execution

When it came to planning my own race strategy, I looked to Sam Shephard's solo winnining performance of 2019 for inspiration. Sam, a former Australian Dolphins open water swimmer, had also come out of retirement for the swim, and he was to be up against a great field including the Rottnest Channel solo record holder and a World Championships medallist.


He took the approach of swimming strong from the start, taking the lead, and raising the bar once again to be in firm control by the 15km mark. By the time he reached Rotto, Sam held a commanding lead of almost 10 minutes, it was incredible. This was in my eyes, the best Rottnest performance ever, and it was an approach that I wanted to try emulate.


Again, this style wasn't for everyone and a few coaches told me not to try it. It would require a great deal of bravery to start off hard, conditioning to hold, and willpower to finish. But in my eyes, this was the way to do it. I felt that many of the best Rotto wins involved swimmers leading from the start: Jarrad Poort, Solomon Wright, Sam Shephard, and I believed it was an approach that could play to my strengths. As my old coach once said, "sometimes you have to put your balls on the table". I felt this was the time to do exactly that.


On the day, I put it to the test, and set off the beach at pace. I linked up with my crew, and swam out in front towards the clear water. We were in the lead! Maintaining a firm pace to halfway, I was still sitting first but not by much. What's worse, I remember thinking to myself that I'd used more juice than I'd have liked, but there was no time to complain. I knew that if I wanted to control the race, it was time to attack. I kicked up the gears and pressed hard.


In swimming, they talk about the 3rd quarter being where a race is won or lost. For us, it was exactly that. I'd pushed hard, and used up almost everything by 15km, but it had worked. We had lost all other boats from sight, and we had a comfortable lead as we approached the island. I knew that a large gap in the final stages of the swim is near impossible to close and that it would only happen if I completely blew out. Therefore I conserved my energy, swam smart, and took my time to enjoy that final stretch into the finish.


Regardless of the approach you choose for the day, I suggest breaking your swim into segments and identifying how each of these will be swum. For me, these were 1-1.5km, 1.5km-10km, 10-12km, 12-15km, 15-19.7km each with their own stroke rate, target pace and purpose. If you are racing or chasing a time, I think this is important for you. Map out your strategy, and give it to your crew so they can hold you to it.


Training & Lead Up Ideas - What Worked

In no particular order, here are a few things that helped me during my preparation for Rotto.


Mixing pool sessions with open water swims + paddler.

- practice feeds, pace and paddler positioning.

- practice how you will communicate together for the day (short instructions etc.).

- paddler must learn to recognise your stroke so they can pick you up at the start on the day.


Take big swigs of fuel in training so stomach gets used to it .

- this is very important, as this replicates what feeding will be like on the day.

- practice with what you will drink on the day (you'd be surprised at how many people don't).

- practice during intense workouts, ensuring your stomach can handle them.


Do a 5km in the pool before or after open water races / do back-to-back open water races.

- this is to make the swim as hard as possible by racing with load & fatigue.

- this is to replicate the load you will feel at the 15km mark. Learn to cope with it.

- you can do something similar with swim sessions (e.g. circuits prior to a session).

- this approach may see you failing to win many races (I didn't win a single one that summer), though with your eyes fixed on the long term goal, I assure you it's worth it.


Finishing the end of sets with band only / pull & band.

- this is to replicate the feeling at the 15km mark (sinking hips and change in body position).

- using band only / pull & band will force the upper body to compensate as you cannot kick.


Pick up timing chip on the day before.

- this turned out to be a simple, yet hugely effective tip.

- picking up the chip the day before gives you one less thing to worry about on the day.


Hydration and recovery.

- both hydration and recovery are hugely important.

- I had massages fortnightly through my training block, including the Thurs before raceday.

- I made sure to be on top of my fluids, particularly during hot summer days to help maintain performance and promote good recovery (particularly during the week leading to the swim).


Carb loading.

- I received solid nutritional advice for Carb Loading and devised a meal plan up to race day.

- a key point was not to overeat to the point of being uncomfortable or unwell.

- rather, focus on eating quality carbohydrates and the right things (get veggies in!).


Feed planning.

- I received nutritional help and feedback when constructing my feed plan for the swim.

- prepare your feeds the day before and label them clearly (this helps crew identify feeds).

- be sure to prepare enough spares (I made the mistake of not preparing enough).

- if adding gels / caffeine tablets etc. ensure it's mixed well and is no longer fizzy.

- my feeds were all liquid and I did not eat any solids during my swim. This might not be for everyone, but I did not want heavy foods sitting in my stomach or gut during the swim.


Planning session with your crew.

- meet with your crew once you have a good idea of the weather conditions for raceday.

- set your plan for meet ups in the starting channel e.g. north or south.

- consider placing things on the boat to help it stand out (e.g. we had a big Scotland flag).

- iron out the logistics for both before the swim and after (how you & paddler will get to Cottesloe Beach / how everybody will meet on Rottnest and manage the kayak).


Training & Lead Up Ideas - What Didn't Work

Here were some ideas that sounded good in principle, but didn't work for me.


Underwater headphones for long swims.

- I received Sony u/w headphones at Xmas. I can't tell you how excited I was to use them.

- however as they're not allowed in the swim, I didn't use them in the end. The message: don't practice with what you cannot use.


Speakers on the kayak.

- another idea that I wished could have worked (I really do like my music!!).

- when practicing in the river, I couldn't hear my paddler's communications and couldn't hear the music either. It wasn't worth the trouble.


Feed sticks.

- this was an idea pitched by a friend who'd had good experiences using one of these to receive his feeds during his own solo win.

- having practiced with the stick, I found that I preferred taking my feeds by hand from my paddler, and not overcomplicating the process.


Organising an evening with friends the night before.

- in theory, this sounded good as a way to stay relaxed and take my mind off the swim.

- in reality, it turned out to be too hard to organise, and I just wanted a quiet night to relax.


Raceday - What Worked

In terms of raceday, here are a few things that helped.


Beach prep.

- lathering up with vaseline around the major chafing areas of neck and arm pits.