Sarah Ferguson — swimming for the glory of God and for pollution-free oceans

Saran Ferguson

Neziswa Kanju spoke to endurance swimmer Sarah Ferguson about the faith dimension behind her pioneering extreme swimming exploits to raise awareness of ocean pollution. In early April she completed the first 760km of her toughest challenge yet — the “One Ocean Swim”, a 1 500km swim from Durban to Cape Town, which she plans to resume in November.

Retired-national-swimmer-turned-endurance-swimmer-for-a-cause Sarah Ferguson has notched up an impressive CV of extreme swimming achievements, including a world record for being the first person to swim around Easter Island (over 65km), the first woman to swim from Umhlanga to Durban (17.9km), swimming solo to Robben Island (8km), swimming a distance of 8km at Cape Point in December 2015, completing the Elephant Coast Swim Series in July 2018 — covering 100km in 6 days, and her epic 760km swim in gruelling conditions without a wetsuit from Durban to Gqerberha (PE) earlier this year.

“All these challenges that I have taken and done have been God-inspired. They were bigger than me. They are not something I could have dreamed up on my own and it’s just been amazing how they’ve dropped into my heart,” said Sarah.

Her passion for swimming started when she won her first competition in Grade 7. Her parents saw her talent and registered her for more serious training. She excelled and through many events and consistent training rose through the ranks to ultimately represent South Africa in international swimming competitions.

Her dream was to represent her country at the Olympics like her role model Penny Heyns, but God had other plans for her.

“My heart was that I would be a good representative of God in my swimming. It was for His glory but along the way I definitely lost sight of that and was swimming for myself. I had my own goals and dreams.”  

Giving up her Olympic dream was not easy for her. It was not her decision but a leading from the Holy Spirit. She shares about that period of her life: “I always had the sense that I would keep on swimming until I couldn’t improve and so then in 2009 when I had a very clear calling by God to stop competitive swimming, it was very hard for me because I knew that there was more in me to compete.

“That was the hardest year of my life; that transition, my journey to retire because I felt I had more to give as an athlete but I knew it was the right thing to do.” 

Sarah was raised in a Christian home. She gave her life to Jesus when she was 6 years old and was baptised in 1997 when she was 15. She said: “I was very involved in youth at church. I had an active faith growing up. At varsity I was a youth leader. When I moved to Durban I led youth. My heart is definitely for youth and young kids.”

She said she fell in love with the ocean when she travelled to Hawaii. “My dream to start doing a bit more with my love of the ocean and something more meaningful with it started to take place.”

When she came back to South Africa she went through a dark period of depression as she didn’t have a concrete goal for swimming. She tried a few other sports but they didn’t give her the sense of satisfaction that swimming gave. She decided to pursue a career in open water swimming using her voice to educate the public about conservation.

Sarah in the ocean off Durban (PHOTO: iol news)

“Looking back at my life it amazes me how God knows you as an individual and if I look at all things that I loved growing up and the interests that I had, the dreams that I had I am now living that. It was a reminder that God knows you so well better than you know yourself. You might have an idea of what your dreams and goals are, often He has another plan for you that is way better.”

She now sees her mission as swimming for God’s glory and to serve mankind and God’s creation. “Everything I do I try and do as an act of obedience to Him. I think for me my biggest fear is not dying empty of potential and not using my God given talent for what I was put on this earth to do”, she says.

Talking about her half-completed swim challenge — from her hometown of Durban to Cape Town — she says it is mainly to raise awareness of plastic and chemical pollution of our oceans.

Founder of Breathe Conservation, an international non-profit organization that promotes and advocates for plastic-free oceans and aims to eliminate disposable plastic, she says that from the outset her plan was complete the 1 500km challenge in stages.

Starting in February, she swam the first stretch to Gqerberha at a rate of 20km to 30km per day, while dealing with rough weather, unexpectedly cold conditions and erratic currents, all of which took a physical and mental toll which was exacerbated by funds running low.

She said she took out a loan and used some of her savings to fund the campaign, but the constant financial pressure did affect the morale of her whole team.

Nevertheless, she was grateful for the sponsorship and community support that helped her to complete the first leg of the challenge.

“People were incredibly generous with donating food making us meals organising local communities to drop meals off; putting us up in their guest houses or personal homes or holiday homes or hotels. We were  incredibly blessed to not have to pay for accommodation once or food most of the times and that helped us get as far as we did but the challenges were immense.” 

Anybody who would like to contribute towards the “One Ocean Swim” which Sarah will resume in November can EFT directly to the Breathe account: account name: Breathe Conservation, account number: 6275 091 2901, bank: First National Bank, Branch Code: 250655.

Prospective title sponsors can email Sarah at info@breatheconservation.org

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