(Published by South China Morning Post on 11 January 2018. This is my full draft).
Water is Lauren Tininenko’s element. She started swimming at the age of five when living in Australia with her family. They since moved back to Arkansas in the US and little Lauren made it straight onto the swimming team in second grade and later to the sprint team of her university in New Mexico where 50 m freestyle became her specialty. Tininenko didn’t get her enthusiasm for sports from strangers but neither her, nor her keen triathlete father had imagined that she would one day become the first foreign woman to swim from Mainland China to the Island of Hainan – at 25 years of age.
Lauren Tininenko in second grade, back in Arkansas, USA.
Photo: Lauren Tininenko
Early December 2018:
Tininenko has to wake up at 3.30 a.m. in order to go on a boat, then a car, then another boat that will take her to the start of the race: the 24 Km Qiongzhou Strait swim. It does cross her mind that she may be about to do something crazy but Tininenko is a girl with a mission. She has signed up for the 20-mile (32,18 km) crossing of the English Channel in June 2019 so this unique training opportunity in China was not to be missed. The race is not an ordinary one. She will, in fact be swimming alone. Her competitors will be the people who have already done the challenge before her.
The route – from Boshegang in Guangdong Province to Shashanggang on Hainan Island. Photo: Google maps
Her friend, a kayaker who has accompanied swimmers like her in the past, gave her the choice between two dates where the tide would be low and with no time to waste, Tininenko chose the earlier date: December 4th 2018.
The crew reaches the start point, the beach of Boshegang in Guangdong Province at 4.30 a.m. and by her side are Tininenko’s close friend Marissa Tosoni, the organizer, members of the media, an interpreter/medical staff and a local fisherman who will be the boat driver. The event is being live streamed and some 140 people are watching as Tininenko’s team go aboard the boat that will be sailing in front of her during the crossing. All eyes then turn to the young athlete as she enters the pitch dark, open water at 5 a.m. on the dot.
Lauren Tininenko roughly six hours into the swim with the supply-carrying kayak by her side.
Photo: Marissa Tosoni
What got her here?
It was a teaching job that made Tininenko take the plunge (pun intended) and move from New Mexico to Shanghai in 2016. Sports had always been an integral part of her life but she nevertheless made the conscious decision to take a break from sports while settling in in Shanghai. “But the two-month break made me miserable” she recalls. “It felt so wrong not to be doing any sports and I was going crazy” she continues. It quickly became apparent to Tininenko that a life without sports was unrealistic to say the least so she started looking for opportunities (mainly triathlons and trail races) and could breathe a sigh of relief when she realised that she was surrounded by likeminded sports enthusiasts in Shanghai.
Lauren Tininenko crossing the finish line of the Dishui half Ironman earlier this year.
Photo: Official photo, Dishui half Ironman
Fast forward two years and Tininenko is now the main coach of a swimming team with 50 members. The group trains twice a week at the Kenipo pool in Shanghai. Tininenko may always have been a hard-core swimmer but she is not someone to take a challenge like the Qiongzhou Strait crossing lightly. In the months leading up to the race, she not only intensified the training sessions at the pool but also tried to get into open water as much as she could. “I would go for a drive outside the city as often as possible and literally jump in as soon as I saw a lake. My ideal distance for open water swim trainings is around 14 km” she explains.
Members of the Shanghai Xiaolongxia swimming team which was founded by Tininenko.
Photo: Lauren Tininenko
Feeding the body and soul while swimming
Back to December 4th 2018. Lauren Tininenko’s initial thought as she jumped into the water at 5 am was that the water had the perfect temperature – roughly 22 degrees Celsius. Despite having had almost no sleep, she felt good. Her safety was assured partly by the accompanying crew on the boat, partly by a kayaker that stayed by her side the whole time. Tininenko was at no point allowed to touch the kayak but she could communicate with the kayaker who held the food and water she had brought. He spoke no English so using her limited Chinese, Tininenko would yell “shuĭ” (water) when it was time to drink or eat. Although it is impossible to consume proper meals while swimming, she would get on her back or tread waters while eating the granola bars and energy drinks she had brought with her. “I’ve noticed that I don’t get hungry during swims but I know that I need to be eating to keep my energy up”. She had filled her energy deposits with Chinese food the night before the race. “I don’t worry too much about carb loading before races but it has actually become a tradition for me to eat a nice, fat pizza from Pizza Hut the evening before” she giggles. However, there was not a Pizza Hut in sight in the small town where she started so Tininenko went for some family-style Chinese food – which she loves.
During the swim, Tininenko burnt around 2000 calories while her total intake of calories was around 600 calories only. Not a lot of fuel for the body – but how about filling the mental energy deposits? “When you’re on your own for several hours, disconnected from the rest of the world, your mind inevitably starts to wander” Tininenko explains. “But I’m not so much about the big emotions when I swim. My thoughts tend to be rather practical and down-to-earth” she says. During the Qiongzhou Strait swim, she mainly thought about what her friend and the crew might be doing on the boat and about what she could do and see after reaching Hainan Island. She also wondered whether her family was watching the live streaming of the event and she even broke into song on a couple of occasions. “I sang some Christmas songs and some upbeat songs such as the Justin Timberlake song “Señorita”. We used to listen to that song during training at university (where we had underwater speakers) so it brought back good memories” she says. Singing also kept Tininenko distracted from the surprises of the ocean. While the water wasn’t clear enough for her to see any fish, she could see trash floating on the water and felt stinging from “undefined little creatures”. “I had asked about jellyfish because I did another swim in the ocean in Huludao, China where there were jellyfish absolutely everywhere, and my crew leader said that they’re out in the summer but not there in the winter”.
The strait is a shipping channel and at one point, Tininenko had to pause for about a minute to make sure a large shipping boat saw the boat and crew coming. “We encountered other fishing boats too and some started going alongside me, just out of curiosity and to take pictures and videos after my boat crew explained to them what was going on. It was like they were getting free front row seats to some event” she laughs. Prior to the swim, Tininenko’s confidence had been boosted by good wishes from friends and family and one particular message helped keep her moral high. “My sister had sent me a message the night before the event. It read “remember you have been training for this your entire life”. It’s like an internal joke between my sister and I. We grew up swimming so whatever swimming challenge we take on, we can safely say that we have been training our whole lives for this” she smiles.
So close and yet so far
After seven hours of swimming, Tininenko started to wonder how long she had to go – but having always been conscious about not getting into a downward spiral of thinking, she kept focused and did her best to ignore the increasing pain in her shoulders. “For the last six kilometres, the kayaker kept telling me there was only one kilometre to go. I’m not quite sure why but I think he was trying to encourage me – but at that stage, I just wanted to see land” she recalls.
Finally, at 1.30 pm, after 8 hours and 25 minutes of swimming, Tininenko spotted the small harbour of Shashanggang - the official finish of the race. Exhausted but happy, she almost got stuck in the muddy seabed when she was finally able to touch. The water in the small harbour was too shallow for the accompanying vessels so enter so Tininenko was taken by paddleboard back to the boat where her friend and the crew were waiting to celebrate her accomplishment. Apart from feeling very hungry the first week after the swim, parts of Tininenko’s body also felt signs of exhaustion. “My shoulders hurt badly for about a week. I was initially worried that I might have damaged them but it turned out they were just very sore” she says.
Done and dusted: On the beach in Hainan island with the crew.
Photo: Lauren Tininenko
Why would you swim for over eight hours straight, cycle until your legs burn or run for hours and hours on muddy mountain trails? While Lauren Tininenko never asks herself “why am I doing this?”, she completely understands why other people frequently ask her that question. “What I do could potentially be dangerous” she says. “In the case of the Qiongzhou Strait swim, I suppose a lot could have gone wrong because I hardly knew what I was getting myself into when I signed up for this, since my contact from the start could not communicate with me in English and things don’t always translate right. Dehydration was also a potential danger”. But Tininenko is not one to sit around and question everything. She goes for it. “I knew my crew would do a good job and that I’d have a friend there to help me out as well. I remember other people being worried for me when I told them about the crossing - but I never was” she explains.
Over the years, Tininenko has come to the conclusion that she’s on a quest to see how far she can push herself. And when she embarks on a new adventure, she takes with her the support of my family and friends “and not least the inspiration I got from my coaches at university, Kunio Kono and Joaquin Chavez. The latter assured me that we humans are capable of so much more than we think – and I always keep that in mind” she smiles.