The vice principal of iCAN British International School, David Hunt, is coordinating the 17th annual Mekong River Swim. The event kicks off on Mar. 31 with up to 180 participants set to swim 700 metres across the Mekong River near Prek Leap Agricultural College in Phnom Penh. Photography by Conor Wall.
How did you become involved in the event? Have you done it yourself?
I first joined the swim back in 2008 whilst in my second year teaching at iCAN British International School. I’d been training our school swimmers and was looking for something to challenge them with. The Mekong seemed like the perfect challenge. However my principal, Lori, wasn’t so sure and convinced me to swim it myself first. Lori, our director Elain, and some of our students came along to support me during my first MRS, cheering and screaming the whole way across. From that moment on, entering a team of iCAN swimmers in 2009 was on the cards. My students trained hard to build up their strength and stamina, and were extremely resilient for a group of 10 year olds. Their magnificent efforts back in April 2009 were documented in AsiaLIFE.
Fast forward two years and I became much more involved, taking over behind the scenes of the event. Following a one year hiatus in 2010 when the event was unable to take place due to a lack of volunteers, iCAN contacted the previous organiser, Kristen, to say that as a school community we’d be happy to take over the logistics. With lots of advice and guidance from Kristen, iCAN, along with 60 volunteers from our school and the Phnom Penh community, was able to stage the Mekong River Swim once again in 2011.
What are the main challenges in holding the event?
As teachers we always carry out thorough risk assessments, and swimming the mighty Mekong certainly poses many risks to any inexperienced swimmers: current, swimming with a large group of people, weather, climbing the slippy bank after the swim, etc. We try and prepare for every eventuality through meticulous planning and liaise closely with medical experts, experienced swimmers and kayakers to make the swim experience safe and enjoyable for all participants and spectators.
Despite this, the logistics on the day are dependent on various factors including volunteers arriving on time, swimmers listening to and following safety announcements, environmental factors, roads being blocked en route to the swim site etc. Those participants who enjoy the experience the most are those who have prepared themselves for the swim. Swimmers who turn up on the day having underestimated the challenge ahead of them often struggle or have a less pleasurable experience.
What would you say to people who are a bit nervous about taking part?
Don’t! It’s very important for all participants to have done some training in the weeks and months building up to the event. There’s a real difference between swimming 700 metres in a swimming pool to swimming the same distance across a major river along with 179 other people and an unpredictable current. The second time I swam the Mekong in 2009, I swam with one of my students and we totally underestimated the strength of the current and ended up spending the later stages of the swim battling to get back up stream. It was exhausting.
What tactics or exercises could you recommend for people training for the event?
Swim regularly. It is vital that prospective participants build up to the distance and then some. By now I would have expected all participants to have already swum the distance before and be spending the final few weeks before the swim building up their stamina and swimming further. The Olympic pool here in Phnom Penh is a great place to train. Fourteen lengths is equivalent to crossing the Mekong and the pool is deep enough that you’re not tempted to stand up and have a rest midway.
Over the years has anything funny, amusing or memorable happened during the event?
Memorable — joining my four students as they swam across the Mekong at the tender age of 10. They never gave up. Funny or amusing — wondering which swimmers will turn up in fancy dress to put a smile on everyone’s face. And [it can be] sometimes scary. Last year a swimmer panicked and, rather than hold onto a flotation aid, decided he would pull himself up onto the long boat and in the process capsized the boat. Thankfully everyone, although shaken, were physically okay.
What’s the time to beat this year?
At last year’s MRS all the swim records tumbled and more swimmers than ever participated. Hope Tucker became the fastest junior swimmer at the age of 15 with a time of 10:23; Narak Kun was the fastest Cambodian to cross the mighty Mekong in a time of 8:56. Mary Carlson became the fastest female swimmer ever in 8:44, whilst Xavier Riblet remains the swimmer to beat by winning in a time of 7:10. Most people would have trouble jogging that distance in that time, let alone swimming it and Xavier has won the swim every single time he’s entered.
I always remember a couple of years back when some of the other elite athletes realised this and decided just to ‘chase’ Xavier across the Mekong. The only thing they hadn’t banked on was that the current had changed, so when they all got to the other side of the river they were about 150m upstream of the finish line and had to race along the muddy, squelching banks of the Mekong to cross the finish line and claim their time. They ended up exerting much more energy than they ever needed to.
What does it take to win?
Every swimmer that reaches the finish line on Mar. 31 will be a winner. And if you really want to know what it takes to beat Xavier, then I guess you should go ask him. Will 2013 be the year? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
Visit www.mekongriverswim.blogspot.com for the latest updates. Entry forms can be emailed to prospective swimmers (contact firstname.lastname@example.org) or collected directly from iCAN or K’NYAY Khmer & Vegan Restaurant.