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Health and wellness

How 25-year-old became first foreign woman to swim from China to Hainan

  • Lauren Tininenko has been a keen swimmer and sportswoman all her life
  • After moving to Shanghai, she started coaching a swimming team and recently signed up for the cross-strait swim
PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2019, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2019, 8:42pm

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 the sprint team of her university in New Mexico where 50m freestyle became her speciality.

Despite this enthusiasm for sports, neither she, nor her keen triathlete father, had imagined that she would one day become the first foreign woman to swim from China’s south coast to Hainan island – at 25 years of age.

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On December 4, Tininenko awoke at 3.30am to travel to the starting line of the 24-kilometre Qiongzhou Strait swim.

She has also signed up for the 20-mile (32.18km) crossing of the English Channel in June, so this training opportunity was not to be missed.

The race is not an ordinary one. She will swim alone, her competitors the people who have already done the challenge before her.

The crew reached the starting point, the beach of Boshegang in Guangdong Province at 4.30am. By her side were close friend Marissa Tosoni, the organiser, the media, an interpreter/doctor and a local fisherman who was the boat driver. She entered the water at 5am.

Tininenko moved from New Mexico to Shanghai in 2016 for work. “It felt so wrong not to be doing any sports and I was going crazy,” she says.

Two years on, Tininenko is the main coach of a swimming team with 50 members that trains twice a week at the Kenipo pool in Shanghai.

In the months leading up to the event, she intensified pool training sessions and swam in 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 training is around 14km,” she says.

The water was the perfect temperature – roughly 22 degrees Celsius (72 degrees Fahrenheit). She was accompanied by the crew on the boat and a kayak that stayed by her side the whole time. Tininenko was not allowed to touch the kayak but she could communicate with the kayaker who held the food and water. He spoke no English so using her limited Chinese, Tininenko would yell “shui” (water) when it was time to drink or eat. She would flip on her back or tread water while eating the granola bars and energy drinks.

“I don’t get hungry during swims, but I know I need to be eating to keep my energy up,” she says. “I don’t worry too much about carb loading before races, but it has become a tradition for me to eat a nice, fat pizza from Pizza Hut the evening before.” As there was no pizza in the small town where she started, Tininenko went for some family-style Chinese food. During the swim, Tininenko burned around 2,000 calories but only took in about 600.

“When you’re on your own for several hours, disconnected from the rest of the world, your mind inevitably starts to wander,” Tininenko says. “But I’m not so much about the big emotions when I swim. My thoughts tend to be rather practical and down-to-earth.”

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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. 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.

While the water wasn’t clear enough for her to see any fish, she could see rubbish floating on the water and felt stinging from “undefined little creatures”.

“I did another swim in Huludao, China, where there were jellyfish everywhere. My crew leader said they’re out in the summer but not in the winter.”

The strait is a shipping channel and at one point, Tininenko had to pause to ensure a large boat could see them.

“We encountered other fishing boats, too, and some started going alongside me, out of curiosity and to take pictures and videos after my boat crew explained to them what was going on,” she laughs.

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At 1.30pm, after 8 hours and 25 minutes, Tininenko reached the small harbour of Shashanggang – the official finish, exhausted but happy.

Her shoulders hurt and she felt hungry for a week after the race.

People often ask why she would swim for over eight hours straight and subject herself to danger. These aren’t questions she asks herself; she just goes for her dreams.

“I knew my crew would do a good job and that I’d have a friend there to help me out as well,” she says.

She is on a quest to see how far she can push herself, and when embarking on a new adventure, takes with her the support of family and friends, and the inspiration from her university coaches who assured her that people “are capable of so much more than we think”.