Just after Christmas, I swam in the ocean for the first time since, well, I actually can’t remember when.
For most people, swimming in the sea is a rite of the Australian summer.
We pad barefoot along the sand, sea breeze fanning our cheeks, with a knowing grin that it’s finally time: summertime.
Feeling the glory of waves splashing and soothing our hot skin, cooling the sun’s bite. It’s a delightful homecoming.
So I have found out.
For many years I stared into the big blue and wondered what it’d be like to slide into the ocean. With a neuromuscular condition, going for a swim in the ocean is more of a logistics operation, with blueprints, diagrams and multiple personnel, than a quick summer’s dip. So the dream was often put aside with the hope of maybe one day.
But this summer it happened.
Being on holidays on the north coast and with the helping hands of my family, I wasn’t going to let this chance slip by.
I was seated in an accessible beach wheelchair – practically a deck chair with a polypipe-like frame, netting for a seat and all-terrain wheels attached and modified, and with multiple beach towels squished around my body to support and hold me upright. I felt a bit like an online shopping order packed with a generous amount of styrofoam balls.
I eased on to the sand with the help of my uncle, and other family members jostled around. We made our way down the beach, the entourage treading along the tide while the wheels flicked sand on my feet, at first coarse until gradually feeling natural on my skin.
With the sea breeze pulling stronger, I wondered if the sea would gulp me whole.
With my cousin on one side, my dad on the other, they lifted and carried me towards the water. We began laughing as the first bracing sting of cold water hit, then another. And we couldn’t stop laughing, even when waves splashed hard – my cousin soon taking the position as bodyguard against the surf in an attempt to stop the next crashing blow.
Each wave that rolled in and out was a tug on my body as if an invitation to stay. It was both comfortable and freezing. Moving my arms in the water I was shocked when I touched the bottom – I’d never actually felt the gritty, soapy, sandy floor before.
As I floated, I felt like a guest in a new world. Free from gravity I could easily look up, without kinking my neck, to the sky and let my mind drift.
Journalist and author Julia Baird has described her daily ocean swim as a time to feel small, to think and be in awe at something unfathomable.
As people make their way down to the water this summer, and in others to come, there’s some still only imagining what it’d feel like to be carried by the tide.
While accessibility to the ocean and beaches is largely dependent on the physical environment and really isn’t within our control, there are other elements that are in our power to change.
Accessibility, at its best, means that people of all abilities have equal access. This means inclusion of people with disability in education settings and the workplace, true representation on boards, in the media and in leadership across Australia, but it also means having greater access to enjoy our favourite pastimes like swimming at the beach.
Local governments, councils and various committees are improving beach accessibility by purchasing helpful equipment such as beach wheelchairs or rolling out accessible mats that stretch from sand to sea. And then there are lifeguards who can be kind and happy to help when possible. But without my family to support, I’m not sure that I would have been able to have taken part in this rite of the Australian summer.
On our way back towards the main beach, still cold and drying, with sea salt crystals on our skin flickering in the sun and sand in places you thought it’d never be, a lifeguard stopped us and asked what it was like. Almost lost for words I replied, “the best thing ever”.
I’ll always remember that December at the beach, my family and that summertime swim … and will probably keep finding traces of sand in the most random places.