Abby Armstrong has experienced the highs and lows of life. And now she’s training hard for the longest ocean swim race in the southern hemisphere; to push her own personal boundaries, as well as raise awareness around depression and mental health for other young women.
Abby Armstrong calls herself ‘the average swimmer’. Yet there is nothing average about the hours she spends churning up and down the pool each week, and nothing average about her goal to be one of the first in the world to swim 22.3km from Upolu to Savaii in Samoa in a few weeks’ time. There is also nothing average about her determination to succeed.
The 28-year-old clocks up about 85km a week as part of her training regime, and is aiming to build to 100km; ‘if my shoulders hold out’. To put it into perspective, her weekly grind is about 3400 lengths of a 25 metre pool.
“It takes me about three hours to swim 10 kilometres,” reckons Abby, “but that depends on the sets, reps and intensity.”
Part of Abby’s weekly training includes at least one open water swim.
“For the past few weeks it’s been the Waikato River, but often I swim at Lake Puketirini in Huntly or in the Tairua Harbour. “
Abby swims from the Narrows near Hamilton Airport to Wairere Bridge in a session, as preparation for her Samoa event.
“My greatest fear with the Samoa swim is jellyfish,” she admits. “I’m terrified of them, even more so than sharks.”
Undertaking such a daunting task with just a handful of others from around the world, is equally a personal challenge and a way to draw a line under her own journey with mental illness.
“It’s also a way to inspire young people, particularly young girls who might be in the same space I was. And it’s a way for me to build credentials so I am able to help others deal with similar issues through fitness.
“I have suffered the effects of mental illness and I have come out the other side. I know how much sport and nutrition helped me in my journey and changed my career path and study to put me in a place where I can help children and teens in that same position.
“The money I raise through this swim, beyond the entry fee and expenses, will go to Youthline Charitable Trust, a youth development organisation offering counselling services, information and development programmes to benefit and aid those in need. Ultimately I am hoping to work with them in the near future.”
Abby’s own experience with depression came unexpectedly after leaving school and embarking on her career as a pharmacy technician.
“I moved out of town and was living quite remotely. I stopped exercising and got myself in a bit of a tizz,” she admits.
“I was 19 and hid my depression from everyone, even those I was closest to. I just avoided my friends and family and wanted to be alone. I stopped playing sport, I stopped going anywhere. I didn’t want to be around people or want anyone’s help.”
Abby eventually decided to start exercising again and found it made a huge difference to her state of mind.
“I’d swum competitively when I was in primary and middle school and always loved being in the water, so I got back in the pool for starters. It helped that it was something I enjoyed.”
After spotting some flyers advertising the New Zealand Ocean Swim series, Abby decided to up the ante and start training for an event.
“I wanted to set myself something which was both a goal and a challenge.”
The Auckland Ocean Swim ticked both of those boxes so Abby entered, and to her surprise was placed second in her age group. That success fuelled her competitive spirit and reignited her love of swimming.
For the next two years, Abby has won her age group in the highly competitive series. The seven event Ocean Swim Series includes Legends of the Lake (Rotorua), Sand to Surf (Mt Maunganui), King of the Bays and the Harbour Crossing (Auckland).
This year Abby is defending her age group title at the NZ Ocean Swim Series before embarking on her greatest swimming challenge yet, a 22 kilometre swim in Samoa (without a wetsuit) and under official rules which include not touching a support boat when feeding etc.
Surrounded by a supportive team which includes her mum, Joanne and partner Samuel Walsh, Abby estimates the cost of participating in the Samoa event will be more than $11,000 which covers the entry fee for the inaugural event and the cost of a team of four people.
Each swimmer must have a supporter designated as the swim director on the boat to accompany them. The swim director (Peter Armstrong in Abby’s case) will call all the shots in relation to the operation of the swim, the swimmer, kayaker and navigation of the boat from Upolu to Savaii. Supplied boat skippers are not swim directors and are there to provide a vessel for the swim.
“As any marathon swimmer knows, it is a team sport. No swim of this magnitude could possibly be accomplished without a team of skilled, motivated individuals all working together. Two of the team are kayakers who will take turns to plot the path for me to follow – they will also coach and encourage me to the finish line and help with feeding. One person will be on the boat to act as the swim director.”
As the longest ocean swim race in the Southern Hemisphere, Abby is aiming to be the fastest woman.While her goals are high, she is humble about her achievements.
“I’m just an average swimmer and hardworking student looking to do something amazing and promote a cause I strongly believe in.”
Currently studying a Sport and Exercise Science Degree at Wintec, Abby hopes ‘to gain the knowledge and experience needed to inspire and enable athletes, especially children, to be the best they can be’.
She currently works with two top Hamilton swimming clubs, including some of New Zealand’s best up-and-coming swimmers, to develop dry-land strength training and injury prevention.
“I get great satisfaction in coaching individual athletes and swimmers who give one hundred percent to everything they do, whether it be competing in a triathlon or in a 200m swimming race for the first time.”
Abby is dedicated to perfecting her swimming technique; “it’s what I focus on when I’m swimming hundreds of lengths” and it’s really important to preventing unnecessary injuries.
“Injury prevention is an important part of training, which is particularly hard on a swimmer’s shoulders.
“My motto is that everything in life is achievable, if you’re prepared to put in the hard work.’
With just a few weeks’ training until she leaves for her April 7 Samoa venture, hard work will be the key focus of Abby’s daily preparation.
You can follow her journey on Instagram @theaverageswimmer or support her at givealittle.co.nz/cause/theaverageswimmer