Open Water Swimming Annemarie Ward the remarkable story of an Irish swimming heroine

    “My feet were kicking jellyfish like basketballs, the strangest feeling as they bounced off my feet. Each sting I jolted wondering if it was a Lion’s mane or a Sea Nettle”.

    My mind reeling, thinking if the stings would stop me again? The fear as the tentacles trailed into my mouth – I would try to spit them out but my tongue was totally swollen”

    On Wednesday evening next, Ireland’s top sports stars – and the Irish nation – will know who has been voted as RTE’s Sports Person of the Year – the short list is quite impressive – Katie Taylor, Graeme McDowell, Grainne Murphy, Tony McCoy, Lar Corbett, Paddy Barnes, Tommy Bowe, Derval O’Rourke, and Rory McIlroy .

    Some are indeed very special, Tony McCoy, Katie Taylor and Paddy Barnes, for example have demonstrated their bravery and skills with World class performances for many years whilst most by their achievements in 2010 , deserve to be on that list. But surely someone is missing from this ‘short list’?

    Where is the name of Annemarie Ward, Ireland’s No 1 female Open water swimming heroine who has been nominated as one of the World’s top 12 under consideration for the coveted World award, someone of remarkable courage, who is in fact at the time of writing in 1st position in that worldwide poll? Remember too that Annemarie is a 44 years ‘youngster’.

    A certainty for a top 2 place in the world awards yet not even a mention in the Irish sports polls? How sad! So let us learn more about one of Ireland’s unsung sporting heroines of 2010.Let me take you back to the early morning hours (03.30 to be precise) of 2nd September when this Portnablagh, Donegal born swimmer reached the end of her majestic swim across the North (Irish) Channel between Scotland and Ireland, one of the toughest swims that face any competitor – the 1st Irish woman and 11th swimmer in history to achieve this.. Here, in her own words, she tells us her thoughts at that time and her recollections of the preceding hours:

    “A few hours into the swim, my feet were kicking jellyfish like basketballs, the strangest feeling as they bounced off my feet. Each sting I jolted wondering if it was a Lion’s mane or a Sea Nettle. My mind reeling, thinking if the stings would stop me again?

    The fear as the tentacles trailed into my mouth I would try to spit them out but my tongue was totally swollen.

    I still remember those words “You have to dig deep now!” when (supporting crew member) Derek told me after 8 hours swimming. The words rotate like a screen “dig deep”.

    “Can you see land?” a cry came.

    I hadn’t touched my goggles for 16 hours- in case of leaks. It was midnight; I hadn’t actually seen anything for hours. Derek was screaming “only a mile” but I was being pushed north again. Two hours later I had covered a half a mile, my brother Ryan got in the water to push the last distance with me to shore.

    Once we touched rocks at Donaghadee, I put my feet under me for the first time in 19 hrs. I was so relieved. Just relief. It was 3.30am. Once lifted back on the boat and wrapped in blankets, the stings started to throb. I kept saying “It’s over” and my body shut down.

    It’s hard to describe the celebrations, it was 4 a.m. –the crews were functioning for over 30 hours, there was no podium, no fanfare. No glitz, no glamour just bundle me into a sleeping bag. The logistics of getting so many crew together, their personal sacrifices, all for this moment.

    The friction burns from where the togs cut through my neck were bleeding. My tongue and throat were swollen and cut from the salt. I was too far gone to feel anything or even speak. It was very emotional to see the crews congratulate each other. The work that they put in-it was a perfect end to a three year battle. I rotated my arms but the team got me there.

    Two hours later we were back in the hotel. I snuggled into bed with a huge glass of red wine (it helps with the stings!)

    Later our ten crew members piled into my room and at 7 am wrapped up in blankets I toasted the North Channel. 3 years of effort. I didn’t want to close my eyes and miss a moment. The boats had to taken from the water for the long journey back to Donegal. My recovery took about a month just back to being able to take any exertion.

    It is only is now that I feel able to celebrate and this nomination is allowing us all to feel the achievement.”

    What I asked were her plans for 2011? This exceptionally modest lady, who works as a Disability Services Manager for the H.S.E in Donegal said:

    “My plans for this coming year are to not have any plans. Just to enjoy the swims. In 2006-I was part of the round Ireland swim team, 2007 I completed the English Channel, 2008-2010 I had 4 attempts at the North Channel so 2011 I might just go to the beach and build sandcastles! It is wonderful to walk to the beach and say I won’t bother today.

    Annemarie grew up by the sea in North Donegal and spent her youth on the local beaches with her six siblings and friends. Following a local charity swim she began to enjoy her life in the sea even more, regularly taking part in swims off the Donegal coastline in aid of charity and In 2006 she was one of a six-person relay team that swam around the island of Ireland, over 1300 km. That was the first time ever that a team had swum round a country –they left Donegal on 2nd July and arrived back at their point of departure on 25th August, 8 weeks swimming in total.

    So at a time when Ireland has so few ‘ real’ International sports stars why would the Irish media in general (including RTE and the National Press) virtually ignore such a star in their midst whilst giving ‘ blow by blow ‘ accounts (for weeks on end of Wayne Rooney’s scoring abilities ,(on and off the field) OR his outrageous salary demands to remain ‘loyal’ to his ‘beloved’ Manchester United? Yes there was some media recognition but in my view much less than was deserved. But then of course it was the weekend of the All Ireland Hurling final so little credence or importance was attached to Annemarie’s achievement.

    But then it is only of late that the fantastic achievements of Katie Taylor and Grainne Murphy have come to the attention of Irish fans – remember that there was no live coverage of Katie Taylor’s three World Championships – indeed the majority of Irish sports fans only knew her as a result of photo calls at Dublin Airport whenever she was greeted on her victorious return by a Government Minister. Even in 2010, the best on offer was a limited “online” video streaming of her final fight with a local commentary crew and deferred TV coverage with commentator Jimmy Magee in a Dublin studio.

    So whilst enjoying the 2010 awards let us also remember those unsung heroes and heroines like Annemarie Ward for whom there is no sponsorship, no Government or Sports Council funding yet who is acknowledged as one of the World’s top sports personalities even if uncelebrated, unrecognised in her native land (outside her fantastic friends and colleagues ).

    Annemarie again: “To have such a dedicated crew, Brendan Proctor, long-time friend and mentor, Derek Flanagan, the brains behind the marine co-ordination, the fabulous Team Delta (Gus/Owen/Joe and Ivan), Noel Brennan who swam with me and my brother Ryan at 6.a.m tirelessly. Last but not least my land based crew of Buela and Brendan.

    I rotated my arms but these guys got the swim in the water, guided me to Scotland .Giving up was never an option with us. This nomination is recognition of their achievement too.

    She deserves your VOTE in her quest to become the World’s No 1 Female open water swimmer of 2010. Vote here …… and remember the Irish men too and vote for them in the Men’s event.


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