It is icy. Fourteen degrees Celcius, to be precise - far too cold for the average human being. But Maura Sandersoff, UCT's Properties and Services architectural technician, is no ordinary human being.
Clad only in a bathing suit, cap and goggles, and with no wetsuit to protect her from the extreme cold, she dives into the icy Atlantic ocean, starting a challenge she set for herself a year ago: to do the Robben Island Swim. On 22 February, she accomplished this rare feat in just over three hours.
The 7.5km swim is well known as one of the hardest, most extreme long-distance open-water swims in the world. But something is spurring Maura on - money raised from her swim goes to Splash, part of the Big Bay Events Swim Trust, geared to teaching water safety to disadvantaged youth.
What makes this swim even more heroic is not that she is doing it for charity, but that Maura is an amputee, having lost a leg at age 16 after contracting osteosarcoma (bone cancer).
"I swim because I can. It is a sport my disability allows me to do," she says.
Maura has always loved swimming, and has been doing open-water swimming for a number of years. "A turning point came when one of the swimmers I look up to offered me the physical support I needed to be able to take part in the sea swims," she says.
She applied to do the Robben Island swim a year ago, but only upped her training last October. To prepare mentally she gathered insights from fellow swimmers. "I fed off their experiences," she says.
It took a long time for Maura to get used to the icy waters. "This time last year I was still wearing a wetsuit and used a fin. Then, slowly, I started to try the cold water with a few hypothermic moments. It took a few swims at Clifton to acclimatise."
Out there in the wild ocean, Maura didn't come across any sea creatures, bar a few seals. However, she did encounter a big ocean tanker that came a bit too close for comfort, and she says this was pretty overwhelming. "For a while it looked so far away, and then all of a sudden you are close to it and wonder if they can see you."
Lots of things went through her mind as she swam that Friday morning, "but mostly what kept going through my mind was how privileged I was to be able to accomplish this swim."
On the sidelines away from the support boats that followed Maura, providing back-up and food, were her husband Charles and her two children, son Charles (29) and daughter Kaerin-Ann (30) (both UCT alumni).
"My husband was glad when it was over. He wanted me to promise I wouldn't do it again, but I haven't promised anything yet," says Maura with a broad smile.
In fact, she may do it sooner rather than later - but this time with her son, who is keen to accompany his mom on her next venture. But since her husband may read this, Maura is saying nothing ...
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