Guest post: Owen O’ Keefe

Owen is one of the really special young people we are occasionally lucky to meet. Another Sandycove swimmer, Owen was the youngest ever Irish person to swim the English Channel at the age of 16, and not that but was blazingly fast. For those of us infected with the Channel bug, we understand how extraordinary this is, as for most of us our age is actually an advantage to completing the Channel, giving us reserves we badly need, and few of us would think seriously about such a task at such an age. In fact he and Lisa both had Lance Oram as pilots, and Owen was getting off the boat when Lisa was getting on.

Not finished there he also completed the Gibraltar Strait last year, organises the annual Blackwater swim, (now a big swim in our local calender), has been a recipient of a National People Of The Year Award, has been the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association representative for the south of Ireland, is organising this year’s Irish Channel Party (a big deal) and continues to complete a series of first-ever swims along the Irish South Coast such as Around Sherkin Island. He is hugely popular with our whole group and I’d like to say I swim with him more but I can’t keep up with him. Oh, he’s currently in college.

It’s an honour, as always, for me to feature a guest post from him. Unsurprisingly for those who know Owen, his post is very considered of the future of open water swimming in Ireland. And I feel confident that with Owen, Chris Bryan, and another young swimmer in our group, Billy “The Phenom” Mulcahy, the future of Irish Open Water Swimming is in good hands.



[T]his post [..] reminds me of when I had my own swimming blog and never used to update it! The though of having to write full sentences just scares me. Anyway, I’ve started now so I might as well keep going…

“If you could change one thing about this sport, what would it be?”

For anyone that loves the sport of open-water swimming, it can be difficult to think of anything that you might like to change about it. However, I’m sure that most people would agree that one very positive change would be to have more people taking part in and enjoying our sport in Ireland. In other places, e.g. South Africa, Australia, USA and Great Britain, open-water swimming is well-established and popular sport. Why then, aren’t there more people enjoying the sport here in Ireland, surely one of the world’s greatest swimming locations?

As you have all seen from reading this Blog, Ireland’s seas, rivers and lakes have so much to offer us in terms of swimming. Increased participation can only be a good thing for the sport. Only recently, Donal wrote an article about the amazing group of swimmers at Sandycove (Kinsale) and the contagion of great achievements resulting from this active community of swimmers. The Sandycove swimmers are always encouraging new swimmers to sample the sport and inspiring those already hooked to dream big and achieve great things. Everything that is great about sport can be found at Sandycove, so why isn’t the message spreading?

I’ll leave you to think about that for a while. As usual, it’s taken me ages to start writing but now that I’ve started I can’t stop!

In my experience, there are a number of long-standing barriers that prevent many people in Ireland from getting the chance to even get a taste of the sport. It must be said that these barriers are held up from both inside and outside the sport, that’s what makes the so strong!

One of the main barriers preventing people from sampling open-water swimming for themselves is the stereotypical view of the sport. Many people outside of open-water swimming do not even see it as a sport, they have visions of an elitist, misogynistic, backward pastime where high-minded, overweight, old and middle-aged men take a weekly skinny-dip in the sea to escape from their families and remind themselves of how they’re made of steel. I’m not joking, that is the typical Irish view of open-water swimming. People obviously don’t want to be associated with such activities so avoid real open-water swimming also. Hopefully the televised Olympic 10 km is helping to change this view.

Local authorities believe that jumping off of piers and bridges in GAA* shorts in June is open-water swimming and this has prompted them to erect “No Swimming” signs at favourite swimming locations all around the country. I have on occasion been cautioned by people associated with the local council for swimming at one of my main training spots!

Certain conservative elements within our sport would rather keep it all for themselves. One of their main methods of doing this is by enforcing an outright ban on all wetsuits, and when they are forced to accept wetsuited swimmers they insist on leaving all non-wetsuited swimmers start first in races “to make them feel more important”. I heard that last quote at a meeting and was shocked that the organizer of the swim in question was praised for this! The use of a handicapping system and the enforcement of ridiculous age limits are also widely used techniques to prevent growth of the sport.

The single largest obstacle to increased participation in open-water swimming comes from outside the sport itself but from within the aquatics spectrum. Since open-water swimming is essentially swimming in any location other than a pool, pool swimming is the natural feeder sport for open-water swimming in most parts of Ireland (surf-rescue is a big feeder in counties such as Clare**). Due to the respective age profiles of the two sports, one would expect to see a natural progression of many young swimmers from pool swimming to open-water swimming. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Ireland. Many swimming clubs in Ireland have very negative attitudes towards open-water swimming and are not one bit pleased about their members taking part in open-water swimming. Some have begun to spread myths to swimmers and parents about how bad it is for their technique and their muscles, etc. I know of one club which is currently going down the line of expressly forbidding their members from swimming in the open-water! How is our sport supposed to survive without a steady flow of young blood and fresh ideas?

At a national level, Swim Ireland gives the impression that open-water swimming is nothing but a nuisance to them. The largely technocratic National Open-Water Committee seems to have been completely disbanded and, to the best of my knowledge, we only have one high performance place for open-water! That swimmer, by the way, is Chris Bryan – best of luck to him for the coming season! A serious change in attitude is needed at a national level.

Well, that’s pretty much my rant about what the problem is. In [the next part] I will try to offer some solutions and highlight where efforts are being made…

So now that we have established what the root causes of the problem are we can figure how to fix it? Here are a few of my own suggestions:

We need to change people’s long-held view of the sport. How do we do it? Organize more swims and get the local community involved so that they can see for themselves what the sport is really like. We can also encourage people to watch the Olympic 10 km in London this year so that they can see competitive open-water swimming at the highest level.

Educate local authorities on what our activities involve and convince them that we are responsible, safety-conscious people who are not an insurance risk to them, i.e. they don’t need to bam us from swimming!

Convince conservative elements within the sport that increased participation is a good thing and not a threat. There will be a few who will want to keep the circle small so that they can just keep “passing around the trophy”, diplomacy will not work on them. Lift all of these unnecessary bans on wetsuits so that we can include those who simply can’t swim without them and triathletes. End the use of handicapping, especially for large races as it leads to potentially dangerous situations at the end of a race, and let’s get back to the common sense idea that whoever is fastest wins! It’s nice to win something every so often but who cares once you’re having fun?

Encourage club swimmers to try open-water swimming. Trying it isn’t going to hurt them, if they like it then they’ll stick with it, if they don’t then they just stay in the pool, what’s the big deal? In my view, every club should have a water polo squad, a diving squad, a synchro-squad and an open-water squad. I would love to see all swimming clubs progress to becoming aquatics clubs, I can see this benefiting everyone!

Swim Ireland need to some to the realization that open-water is a legitimate aquatic discipline and as such it is entitled to appropriate coordination and funding. Given the opportunity, I think open-water could be a potential area of medal winning for Ireland at the Olympics.

Maybe these might work, maybe they mightn’t, who knows unless we try? Have you got any ideas of your own? If you do, please share them with others and let’s grow this great sport. It has so much potential here in Ireland, let’s do it some justice…

Now that I’m almost finished, I’d just like to acknowledge a few people who have done a lot for open-water swimming:

Ned Denison – has done Trojan work in recruitment of both swimmers and event organizers and has encouraged so many people around the world to set big goals, and achieve them. Always leading by example, Ned is himself one of Ireland’s most accomplished open-water swimmers. Without him, the Sandycove group would not be what it is today.

Marie Murphy RIP – of Newry & Mourne SC gave the last few year’s of her life to developing the very successful Camlough Lake group in Northern Ireland. She encouraged so many young swimmers into the open-water and did so as part of the club program. She also set up the Junior Championships at Camlough with Pádraig Mallon and these have been very successful.

David Walliams – much loved comedian, swam the English Channel in [I think] 2008 for Sport Relief UK and subsequently swam the Straits of Gibraltar and the River Thames, raising millions of GB£ for charity. His high profile swims have shown the public what our sport is really about.

FINA and the IOC – have done an awful lot in recent years by running high level open-water races all around the world. Giving the top athletes an arena as they have is always raising the profile of the sport and gaining respect for the top competitors.

Finally stopped writing. Oh, I just remembered that I would like to thank Donal for letting plug my event:

Martin Duggan Memorial Swim – Sunday, 1st July 2012 – Fermoy Rowing Club, Ashe Quay, Fermoy, Co. Cork –

Apologies that the website is still “under construction”. Like Iarann-Ród Éireann***, and open-water swimming in Ireland, it’s not there yet but it’s getting there…

Owen’s English Channel Videos.

Part 1 ,

Part 2 

People of the Year Awards: 

*GAA: the Gaelic Athletic Association, the amateur organising body for traditional Irish sports, the largest organisation in Ireland  and one of the largest amateur organisations in the entire world

** County on the Irish West Coast, famous for its high cliffs and rough waters

***  Iarann-Ród Éireann: Irish name for Irish Rail

I’ve started updating the details for the Sandycove swimmers. I’m having problems adding Owen at the moment. Here’s a list of his swims in the interim:

Around Lizard Point (7.5 km – Kynance Cove to Cadgwith) – First Time Recorded – 26th July 2008, 1 hr 59 mins, aged 15 yrs.
Cork City to Myrtleville (26 km) – First Time Recorded – 4th July 2009, 5 hrs 47 mins, aged 16 yrs.
English Channel Solo – 21st September 2009, 10 hrs 19 mins (fastest born in ROI), aged 16 yrs (youngest from IOI).
Straits of Gibraltar Solo – 22nd July 2010, 3 hrs 52 mins, aged 17 yrs.
Around Sherkin Island (16 km) – First Time Recorded – 31st August 2011, 3 hrs 58 mins.


2 thoughts on “Guest post: Owen O’ Keefe

    • The Dublin (east coast) area races are notorious for putting new or visiting swimmers in with the scratch (fastest) groups, even when the swimmer is very experienced and can say for example, their speed for a kilometre. It means few of us ever swim in east coast events, (I’ve never swum in one).


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