Cold water swimming at any age. Lessons from my 80 year old mentor.

Last weekend my friend and mentor Dr Otto Thaning became the oldest person to swim the 7.5km from Robben Island to Cape Town at the age of 80.

I’ve been asked by many people, what’s his secret?

First some background. I met Otto in my first year at law school. My father was in a care home with Alzheimer’s. Otto stepped in and guided me during this difficult period of my life. In my time spent with Otto in and out of the water I’ve come to love and respect him deeply.

Otto is a superb swimmer. In his youth, he was the captain of one of South Africa’s provincial swimming teams. He swam freestyle and backstroke; he was a sprinter.

Interestingly, he’d never swum in the ocean. We trained together and when he was 50, we broke the record for swimming around Robben Island. We also swam across Lake Malawi and the English Channel.

These are the qualities I believe make him such a superb swimmer, and one who can defy the ageing odds:

1 Efficiency

Otto has the most efficient stroke I have ever seen. Not surprisingly, he’s been working at it for 72 years!

Just look at this video I took of him swimming Robben Island with Martin Goodman. His stroke is so calm and relaxed.

2 Hard graft

But he also trains super hard. In the past three months, he has done 6 sessions a week. The science is clear: Our ability to withstand cold drops significantly with old age. Otto is not a huge fan of the cold, so he has had to work doubly hard to acclimatise himself to the cold Atlantic.

3 Genetics

Otto is a massive guy – which is why I call him the Great Dane. His size really helps in the icy cold water. But Otto would be the first to admit, that some people live longer than others – it’s just the luck of the genes. His father was the Danish consul general to South Africa and lived to 79. His mum lived to 95.

4 Heart

As a cardiac surgeon, Otto has always been very conscious of his health. He worked with pioneer heart surgeon Dr Christiaan Barnard. He has never smoked, and I have seen him drink a beer on only a handful of occasions. He also maintains a healthy weight.

5 Consistency

Finally, Otto has swum every week, without fail, for as long as I have known him. Consistent exercise is the essential key to ageing well.

After the swim last weekend, I went and gave Otto a huge hug. “You know, I’m going to break your record one day,” I teased him. He turned to me and said, “Good luck Lewis! That will be in 2049 then.

That really puts it all in perspective.

Pics credit: Ryan Rapaport and Simon Pocock

Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans. He was the first person to swim the 528km length of the English Channel.