The far western New South Wales grazier Brendan Cullen lives a long way from a swimming pool. His Kars station is 60km south-east of Broken Hill.
In 2016, he decided to swim to help with his depression. Cullen began making use of any body of water. He used dams on his property and tethered himself to a wall in a plunge pool or drove the 60km to the Broken Hill YMCA.
The Menindee Lakes can go for years with barely a puddle during dry times, the same droughts that had put so much mental strain on Cullen in the first place. Luckily recent rainfall had filled the lakes so that provided a decent 15km swim, though once he had to pull up when a fish swam into his mouth.
Then three years ago, he set himself the goal of swimming the English Channel, a distance of some 30-40km.
“I did a marathon of work leading up to the swim [but] at no point did I ever do a 35 or 40km swim,” he says. “But I put a lot of kilometres into my training, especially in the last couple of months, I was doing 30-40km a week.”
Last weekend, the 49-year-old crossed the open waters of the Channel, battling tough conditions including 4.5 knot tides, jellyfish and fatigue to complete the swim from England to France in 17 hours.
“When I jumped in at Dover, I was thinking this is pretty rough, I hope this dies off. It did a little bit, but not much. I could see the boat getting knocked around and I was thinking this is going to be a hell of a journey,” he says.
Then at the 13– to 14-hour mark, in a spot known as the “Channel swimmers’ graveyard”, he hit a strong tide which took him away from France.
“You can see it on the map and Mike Gregory, my coach, said this is when your training comes in, this is when you have to start digging deep.”
By this point, the sun had gone down. Cullen was losing sight of France, which actually helped because it was no use looking up. He had been taking Panadol and ibuprofen every four hours and knew he had been in the water for 15-plus hours.
“I tell you what, the last couple of kilometres were pretty hard, even though the water was much calmer as you come inside the bay,” Cullen says. “Physically knowing that I only had that far to go, it sort of made me relax a bit and then I thought I don’t know if I have got it in me to get there.”
But then he dug deep, having come so far. Cullen says he was never going to give up – “no way in hell”. When he finally got it done, the relief was palpable. Not just for his own enormous effort but the support of his wife, Jacinta, eldest daughter, Emma, and sister-in-law, Julie.
“It’s those moments, when you catch up with your loved ones. They’re so special. When I hit the shores of France, I opened my cage and I reckon I blurted my eyes out for about two minutes and dropped to my knees and just thought my god, we are here,” Cullen says.
His family wrapped him up and took care of him. He lay on a beanbag with no idea of time, as physically exhausted as he has ever been in his life.
Now, he is taking time to slow down, swimming for the joy of it and spending more time with his family.
Cullen is also a Lifeline ambassador. Scott Hammond, the chief executive officer of Lifeline Broken Hill Country to Coast, says Cullen’s journey resonates with so many as it inspires and encourages people to take the first and crucial step to seek help and support.
“Something that Brendan does so well is his mental preparation – that just shines through, not only his swimming but what he does to support our communities as an ambassador for Lifeline,” he says.
“It’s a mirror of who he is whether he’s in the water or out of the water.”
Otis Filley is a freelance journalist and film-maker based in Broken Hill.
In Australia, support is available at Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 and at MensLine on 1300 789 978. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org