Tony Kelly (with special thanks to Rebecca Lister)

It was a smaller field than usual – 10 all up. But that’s covid for you. Pre-pandemic the Lake Daylesford Classic, ‘Australia’s highest uninsured open water swim’, as the organisers like to call it, was attracting 100+ and growing. This time it was a more informal affair with no starting whistle, timekeepers or prizes. Regardless we all left as a group to complete the 1.2 kilometre course. Without effort I found myself at the head of the pack. Greg, who first introduced me to open water distance swimming 15 years ago, was 3 or 4 strokes behind my right shoulder. The pack 3 or 4 behind him. Off to my left I could see Tim swinging out wide towards the edge. Tim, who once competed in the Munich Olympics with the Canadian swim team, is a beautiful swimmer. Every stroke effortlessly propelling him forward.

My wife Rebecca and I returned to Daylesford nearly 12 months ago, 15 years since we last lived here. Like many with remote working the new norm we could keep our city jobs while living in the country. We landed back in town at the start of yet another state-wide lockdown and what would prove to be a cold and wet winter and the town closed in on itself.  When we lived here before we had kids in the school, Beck hosted drama classes and established a theatre company. I ran for public office, was on school council and worked at the community health centre. Now we eked out an existence working from our home offices, looking out at the rain and fog. And on our rare forays downtown we’d scurry into the shops, masks on and eyes down, barely engaging with anybody. All was familiar yet alien.

I was surprised to find I was still in the lead when I reached the pier that marks the end of the first leg of the course. I was also surprised at how warm the water was. The first year I swam the Lake Daylesford Classic I did it in a wetsuit and came out shivering. So much so I won the ‘cold water swimmer’ award.  Set at 650 metres above sea-level Daylesford is a cold town. School swimming carnivals are more exercises in hyperthermia management than displays of swimming talents with blue-lipped kids wrapped in blankets huddling in groups while parents dash to the shops for emergency supplies of chips and hot chocolate. Given the high number of students who can barely swim, the most popular event is the one where the poor goose-bumped students swim across the pool width-wise anyway they can. No formal stroke required.

But this summer was different, the heat had been consistent and enduring and often Rebecca and I would meet Greg and Tim and other regular swimmers Al and Sam for late afternoon swims, these sometimes bleeding into picnics as the evenings grew long and soft.  Tentatively we were finding our place again in the town. Small towns are clannish with layers of connections going back generations and for us after a 15 year absence we doubted at times that we would be able to make our way back in. After our initial joy and excitement of moving back there were times when Rebecca and I would look at each other, alone again on Friday night, and asked if we’d made a terrible mistake.

With a barely perceptible nod Greg signals the start of the second leg. Again, without effort I find myself in the lead. Breathing bilaterally on every third stroke I first look to my left and again I see Tim swinging out wide effortlessly backstroking close to the shore. To my right the lake, undisturbed by wind, is smooth and sparkling in the morning light. I’m arrested by the beauty.

We pull up at the second pier for another breather. Tim, with his soft Canadian accent and warm smile, quietly checks in on everyone. We joke that he could swim the lake twice in the time it takes the rest of us to do it once. As the chatter dies down Greg again gives the nod, and we move off as a group for the final leg. Rounding the boat house, I find myself still out in front of the others. I’ve lost sight of Tim, no doubt he is off back stroking out wide or looping back to check on his flock. I glance over my left shoulder and see Greg’s orange cap bobbing up and down 3 to 4 metres behind me, the others further behind. Ahead is the beach and the finish line. I have visions of “Calling all Angels”, the play Rebecca put on at that spot one summer years ago. It was a grand whole-of-community affair with actors coming across the water in boats, fire twirling and a house-band.  I drop my head and reach forward in full stretch, easily slipping back into a steady cadence, pivoting my body left and right with each stroke.

The town has changed, there are more luxury cars prowling the streets and the explosion of ‘spa retreat’ short-stay accommodation has forced younger, low-income residents out into the surrounding countryside. There appears to be less cultural and political activity in town. Our friends are older, many have started the slide to retirement, some are already there. Some are frailer, touched by death and illness, and their worlds are narrowing. It’s easy to conclude that the vibrancy of the town we knew 20 years ago has been lost.

As the leaves turn and fall to the ground marking the descent into winter there is no escaping we too have changed. We are older and death and aging has not left us alone. What we once wanted from and bring to this town has also changed. What that will be time will tell. What we do know is that next month marks the 1 year anniversary of our return and we’re going to throw a party. Call it a housewarming, a return to town, an emerging from lockdown party. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is I have new story to tell, about the time I swam the Lake Daylesford Classic and beat an Olympian.


Tony Kelly is a Daylesford writer, lawyer and open water swim enthusiast.