Rondebosch resident tackles Robben Island crossing for charity

Team Shine, from left, Trudy Coetzee, Carrie Mashek, Dr Jacqui Dornbrack, Julie Fischer, Maurita Weissenberg, Claudia Stanfield and Hanli van Aswegen.

A Wynberg-based literacy project will benefit from the funds raised by a Rondebosch woman who decided to challenge herself and swim to Robben Island.

Julie Fischer, a finance manager with Shine Literacy, has always been a water baby. Swimming competitively at school, surfing with her six brothers, life-saving and scuba diving, sport was put on hold as life continued with study, marriage and children.

Married to Mark for 25 years, watching him trail-running and mountain biking, she tried both but did not enjoy them. Five years ago she joined a swimming school and rekindled her love for the water.

Two years ago her coach at the time, Claire Amner with Swim Smart in Claremont, asked her if there was anything she wanted to do with swimming or was it just to keep fit.

“Half heartedly I said I might do the Robben Island crossing one day. She said it was totally doable,” says Julie.

Then in August last year Claire and Julie went for coffee to discuss her training plan. Julie’s aim was to do the crossing in April this year.

“Katie Ledecky just happened to be swimming the 800m freestyle while we were chatting,” says Julie.

The seed was sown and her training began in September 2016 when she did her first cold water swim at Camps Bay with the Sunday hot chocolate swimming club. “These swims take place every Sunday morning at Camps Bay. They’re enjoyed by people from all walks of life,” she says. She picked up many tips on these cold water swims such as using Prestik as earplugs, double swimming caps, and baby shampoo on goggles and Vaseline on your body – although she has never tried this.

Shivering, I asked about ice cream headaches, she laughed saying she does suffer brain and ear freeze, but points out that what most people ask about are sharks.

“Sharks aren’t the worry … it’s the jellyfish and the blue bottles that you need to watch out for,” she laughs.

During fitting in training around her job, family and social life, she met Kerry Kopke of Sea Point while swimming laps around Silvermine dam. “Kerry motivated me to swim for a cause.

“She told me swimming for a cause gives you another reason to swim, helps when the going gets tough and you know that others will be benefiting from what you’re doing. That’s when I decided that I would swim for Shine Literacy,” says Julie.

Shine Literacy’s fundraiser Hanli van Aswegen set up an activist page on GivenGain and now they are well on their way to helping dozens of children learn to read.

Kerry had recently returned from Ireland where she had been living for about one year. Julie had planned to do the Robben Island crossing during the Freedom Swim open water event on April 8 but many people advised her to wait and to do her own crossing. The Freedom Swim is held annually to mark Freedom Day, which is commemorated on April 27.

It was a good decision as the race was cancelled halfway through. The water was a chilly 10 degree with big swell.

Windguru watcher Ms Kopke recommended three days later, Tuesday April 11. It was the day after Julie’s birthday.

“It was such a memorable first crossing, swimming with Kerry and seals, Claire Amner in the boat encouraging me and Darren Willars of Big Bay floating alongside in his dingy,” says Julie.

The water was 14 degrees Celsius and mirror-like, with picture perfect views of Table Mountain. The final stretch was tough but being mentally prepared and seeing her son Daniel, 17, swim out to the final buoy helped.

“Swim mamma, swim,” he called. And she did, making the 7.5km crossing in three hours and seven minutes, husband Mark and other sons Chuma, 12, and Simon, 15, family and colleagues there to greet her.

Asked if she has any swimming heroes, she said Arafat Gatabazi. She met him on one of the Sunday swims.

“I was really taken by his story. It inspires me,” she says. Arafat fled the Congo in 2012 and lived at The Homestead in Woodstock. On Saturday June 28 2014, Arafat – having only learned to swim a few months earlier through a swimming and upliftment programme offered by the Homestead – completed the 7.5km swim from Robben Island to Bloubergstrand. Julie says he is now coaching others at Long Street swimming pool.

“I love swimming in the ocean, with nothing around me. It feeds me. All I have to do is swim. It’s absolute bliss. I’ve found my happy place,” smiles Ms Fischer.

Shine Literacy is a non-profit organisation that seeks to create a culture of reading in South African schools, homes, workplaces and communities, thereby improving literacy outcomes for young children from low-income communities. Their vision is a nation of readers. In 2017, their programmes are in 66 schools across four provinces, collectively providing literacy support to 4 500 children every week.

To support Julie’s fundraising campaign visit https://www.givengain.com/ap/swimforShineLiteracy/

Shine Literacy is always looking for additional volunteers. Contact them at 021 762 4320, or learn more at www.shineliteracy.org.za