Swimming against the tide: Local mum’s brave battle to cross the channel

Swimming against the tide: Local mum’s brave battle to cross the channel

Renee Wirth, her swim coach Elena Nesci, and her duo partner and best friend Tegan Engler.

In just over a week, Byford local Renee Wirth will deliver on a promise she made to herself to cross the channel in the 2024 Rotto Swim.

With hundreds of people completing the iconic swim each year, it might not seem from the outset to be that big of an achievement.

Renee has swum it herself on four separate occasions as part of a team and then a duo.

But this year, she has had to overcome enormous physical, mental and emotional barriers to even get this far.

After the very traumatic birth of her daughter at the end of 2022, Renee questioned whether she would ever be a swimmer again.

Despite being a committed athlete, and swimming upwards of 20km a week during the peak of her training, Renee was forced to stop all exercise when she reached the 16th week of her pregnancy, due to hypoglycaemia and a very low iron count.

“That was devastating – in my head I was going to be one of these women who exercise right through their pregnancy,” she said.

Her best laid plans were stolen from her again during her labour.

Mia was born via emergency c-section when nothing would budge her after three hours of pushing.

“A caesar was not part of the plan – I was meant to have a natural birth, and they were meant to put her on my chest straight after – it was meant to be magical,” Renee said.

“Her heart rate dropped, and mine escalated to 200bpm, so a decision had to be made to operate.

“But the emergency c-section went haywire. The spinal block didn’t kick in and I could feel everything.

“I was shaky and cold. And when they got her out, she wasn’t responsive.

“I lost a lot of blood and was traumatised from the experience. My C-section scar is a bit of a botch-job because of how she was stuck and how they had to cut her out of me.”

And it got worse.

“Because I was in a public hospital, my husband wasn’t allowed to stay with me. And Mia was a very unsettled newborn,” she said.

“I was so scared and vulnerable and I had no family, no husband to support me through my first nights with her. That experience has really impacted me.”

To add insult to injury, Renee contracted a postpartum infection during her fourth trimester.

And, perhaps inevitably after such a rough initiation into motherhood, Renee developed severe post-natal depression and anxiety.

Her GP’s advice for treating it was to resume gentle exercise, which she did at seven weeks postpartum.

Renee had always been a fish in the water, ever since a doctor had prescribed swimming to stave off her childhood asthma.

“I’d be in the water from sun up to sun down,” she said.

“I was quite weak academically, but swimming was the one thing I was really good at – it boosted my self-esteem. Squad night would come and I’d be alright.”

But when she attempted to swim after her birth, her physical and mental limitations overwhelmed her and she could only manage a couple of laps – which is still a couple of laps more than most postpartum women.

“I remember coming home and saying to my husband ‘I don’t think I’m a swimmer anymore’,” she said, becoming emotional as she recalls those dark times for her.

“I was lost – trying to navigate being a new mum, the only thing I had left that was just for me was being a swimmer, and now I wasn’t even sure if I had that.”

But after watching her best friend and Rotto Swim duo partner Tegan Engler compete in the 2023 event, Renee felt pangs of longing for the water.

“I decided then and there that was going to be me next year – my heart was set on it. And I vowed to fight for that part of myself,” she said.

“The way swimming makes me feel is indescribable – I feel empowered, strong.”

Little by little, with the support of her husband Ash, her mum, sister, her coach Elena Nesci and her ESwim training squad, Renee got her fins back.

It’s been anything but easy; she’s had to juggle being a mother, her return to work as a teacher, the start-of-daycare sickness cycle, and very early morning training sessions up to six times per week.

“Swimming is an exhausting sport, but I have to put Mia first. So, my recovery isn’t what it used to be,” she said.

But over the course of a year, and through sheer determination, Renee has grown to become the fittest and fastest she’s ever been.

And in December she competed in her first 10km open ocean swim event since Mia’s birth.

“I couldn’t believe I’d just done that, how far my body had come. I just started crying,” she said.

“It was a really big milestone for me – only a year before I was sitting there depressed wondering if I could ever do this again. The human body really is incredible.”

Her depression is just a memory now. And Renee is excited about the future: “I can’t wait to show Mia photos of me doing this when she’s older.”

“The mental journey to Rottnest has been huge, but I did it to prove to her that we can do anything we put our minds to,” Renee said.

“I’m incredibly proud of myself.”

Renee has agreed to share her story with the Examiner because she hopes it uplifts other women battling with all that motherhood throws at you.

“When you feel like you’re the only person in the world up at 2am, it’s hard. And I’m open about my depression and anxiety because I know it can be a very lonely, dark place to be in,” she said.

“I want people to feel like they’re not alone. It’s ok. But that we also need to be active in our own recovery.

“There’s no limit – you can do it!”

Renee, Ashley and Mia Wirth.