I’ll never forget Sunday 22 February 2015. It was the day I lost a great mate during the Big Bay Swim in tragic circumstances – a swim he had completed many times before and was doing for fun, partly due to my nagging.
Charles was only 51, turning 52 this coming weekend. He was the fittest guy I know, always eating the right foods and putting everyone to shame with the sheer number of km’s he managed to punch out in the pool each week – a fair portion of it being butterfly! He was an incredible athlete, swimming from a young age in South Africa, giving ironman triathlon a go for a number of years, and then returning to the pool as a masters swimmer with great success. He loved open water swimming and was always at the pointy end of the field. Those who ever trained with him will remember his monster kick which was easy to follow in the ocean even when the water quality was poor. He always gave 110% to his training and racing.
His passing makes no sense and leaves a huge hole in many people’s hearts. I never came across anyone who didn’t like Charles – which was no small feat given that he was a local laws officer with Council and was known to hand out the odd parking fine from time to time, always doing so with a smile on his face despite occasionally being abused whilst doing so. He was kind, generous and always had time for those around him. He loved his family dearly and had never been happier since marrying his beautiful wife Thea almost a year ago to the day. I was lucky enough to share that day with them and still grin when I see the photo of the two figurines atop the wedding cake, a perfect replica of a photo shoot they had done the Valentines day before which featured in The Age newspaper. Charles didn’t stop smiling all day – see photo below.
On Sunday, Charles picked me up to go to the Big Bay Swim in high spirits. I had seen him at training the previous morning and asked him what he was doing there given that he was racing later in the day. In true Charles form he was putting in a lazy 3-4km before going off and racing flat out over 1.2km. As it turns out, the warm-up must have worked as Charles had a great swim and almost beat Frank Christian (his friend, training partner and biggest swimming competition) home as the photo below shows. Charles was pretty chuffed with his efforts and looking forward to another good race across the Bay. I have to admit I was a bit worried he might beat me, even though I had chosen to rest the Saturday to be fresh for Sunday.
In the car I told Charles about my plans to swim across Port Phillip Bay and he was genuinely excited for me. I told him about the three guys who were going to attempt the swim and that two of them were South Africans. Charles asked who they were and as it turns out, Charles competed against one of them, Steven Klugman in his younger years. Steven was kind enough to send me the photo of the podium from the South African National titles when he was second and Charles was third in the 200m butterfly – thanks Steven. What I love about it is it shows Charles being the first to congratulate the others – no surprises there!
I loved the conversations we would have during the long drives to and from the swims. I think there was only one swim this season that I didn’t go to with Charles and despite my private frustration at his insistence to stick to the speed limit which usually added 15-20 minutes to the trip, I absolutely loved sharing swimming stories and critically reviewing our race performances on the way home.
On Sunday we got to the race early as usual and had a warm up. Charles was his usual self, offering advice to Kendra (one of the young guns in the female age group who swims with us at Doncaster) and chatting with everyone he recognised. As we huddled together on the start line, he wished me all the best and I reciprocated. I knew Charles would be right on my feet the whole way!
As it turned out, I had the race of my life, leading from start to finish. I dared not look behind in fear that Charles would be right there and overtake me with that powerful kick but when I finished, he was nowhere to be seen. Several years ago Charles and I both swam off course and I just assumed either this had happened or he had been caught up in the pack at the start. It wasn’t until Thea came over with a worried look on her face that I realised something was not right. Within minutes, it became clear that Charles had been pulled out of the water by the lifeguards and brought back to the finish line for treatment. Despite the best efforts of the emergency services staff in attendance, they couldn’t bring Charles back. I feel for the two young lifeguards who did there best to save him – they were devastated.
The whole day still seems like a bad dream. How could things change so quickly from having a laugh and joke at 10am to watching Charles be taken away by the police at 1pm? It just doesn’t make sense. He had so much life left in him and its just not fair that he wasn’t given the opportunity to fulfil his potential. They say everything happens for a reason but it is really hard to figure out what that may be in this instance.
This Friday night, Charles would have been picking up yet another open water swimming series title for the long distance swims. The photo below was from a couple of years ago with myself and Peta Harvey. There will be a small ceremony beforehand where we will be floating a wreath out and I’m sure there will not be a dry eye in the house.
Swimming at Doncaster will never be the same again, nor will racing over the summer in the open water.
Charles. You may be gone but you will never be forgotten. You died doing something you loved and you will be forever in my heart. Like all your friends, I wish I could have spent more time with you but am grateful for the time we had. When I got home on Sunday I gave my family a big hug. I thought Thea’s words were absolutely perfect – “Hold your husbands and partners close today. Love them and tell them you love them. Live your lives fully and don’t sweat the small stuff. You truly never know how long you have them with you”.