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Cameron Keith: our next marathon swim­ming star

“HOW LONG, how deep, how hard could I go?” That’s what Cameron Keith used to won­der when he started swim­ming. He’d throw bricks in the pool then dive for them. “Res­cu­ing, pick­ing up, seek­ing, pick­ing up bricks and bring­ing them to the sur­face – that was the start of ev­ery­thing,” he says. Soon, he dis­cov­ered he had a unique ta­lent in the wa­ter. He found he could go longer, fur­ther and harder than al­most any­body else.

By the time he was 10, Cameron was tak­ing on the adults in ocean swims off Cairns and, soon enough, was putting the vet­er­ans of the waves in their place. For a time, he held the na­tional record as the youngest swim­mer of the 1500 me­tres in the pool but it was at sea where he thrived. It’s where his as­ton­ish­ing men­tal dis­ci­pline – grant­ing him the seren­ity to keep calm and fo­cused when the rest of us would be fall­ing apart – drives his body to do ex­tra­or­di­nary things. Blind in his left eye since birth, he none­the­less sees him­self – and his path to each fin­ish line – very clearly.

No-one can fully ex­plain where it comes from. “I’ve seen marathon swim­mers and they’re nor­mally like an­gry lit­tle bull­dogs. They’ve got ter­ri­ble tech­niques, they’re feisty, they just fight through ev­ery­thing. Cam’s a take-it-easy kind of guy,” says his coach, Ben Eales.

“He gets lost in the ocean, he en­joys it, he can fo­cus,” says Cameron’s fa­ther, Alan. “He pushes the bound­aries to never give up. He can get through hur­dles, through walls.”

In­deed, Cameron may be the best Aus­tralian swim­mer you’ve never heard of. In 2014, when he was 15, he smashed the decades-old record for a swim only two other peo­ple had com­pleted at the time: the epic 27-kilo­me­tre slog from Green Is­land to Yorkeys Knob in Far North Queens­land. “Tough teen stings open wa­ter record”, blared the Cairns Post af­ter Cameron knocked al­most an hour off the record in his six-hour, 59-minute tri­umph and, with typ­i­cal aplomb, mul­ti­tasked by us­ing the swim as a fundraiser for The Fred Hol­lows Foun­da­tion, a kin­ship forged by his own par­tial blind­ness.

Two months later, he went to Hawaii and set about smash­ing more records, be­com­ing the youngest per­son to take on the 42-kilo­me­tre Molokai-to-Oahu chal­lenge, the long­est of the world’s seven great ocean swims. For 40 of those 42 kilo­me­tres, he was on track to not just com­plete an open ocean swim the equiv­a­lent of an Olympic run­ning marathon but also take the world record. Then the ocean changed, the cur­rent turned, the waves swelled and he spent two bru­tal hours cov­er­ing the fi­nal two kilo­me­tres.

He got there in the end, in 13 hours and 55 min­utes. He was, as ever, cool, calm and col­lected. “It did dis­ap­point me a lit­tle bit,” Cameron says of the world record go­ing beg­ging. “But I was just ec­static at the end to fin­ish it, to be the youngest in the world to do it.”

As Ben tells it: “He’s com­ing through this shore dump... all these peo­ple were on the beach. We could have sold sup­port­ers’ shirts, he was that pop­u­lar. And then he ran up the beach – just this nor­mal guy with skin peel­ing off him; his skin had burned that bad. It didn’t faze him.”

That morn­ing in Oc­to­ber 2014, He­len Keith was pac­ing about a hol­i­day apart­ment in Waikiki, wait­ing for news af­ter a long, anx­ious night: some­where out there, pow­er­ing through the waves in pitch-black dark­ness, was her son. And who knows how many sharks. “I wor­ried about the sharks more than any­thing,” she says. “But I al­ways knew he’d com­plete it.”

The Kei­ths came to Aus­tralia a decade ago from the United King­dom. Cameron was just seven; his sis­ter was barely six months old. The fam­ily had twice been to Aus­tralia on hol­i­day and de­cided to up­root, the catalysts be­ing life­style, op­por­tu­nity and, of course, the weather. They set­tled in Cairns. One week­end on the beach at Palm Cove, they saw the surf life­savers at work. Young Cameron was en­tranced. “He was al­ways fas­ci­nated by the life­guards,” says He­len. Noth­ing about the set­ting – the sun, the sea, the surf – was like any­thing they’d had in Eng­land and the Keith fam­ily saw this com­mu­nity gath­er­ing on the sand as an ideal way to find their place in their new home.

In those early days in Aus­tralia, through the surf club and the pool, Cameron made the Aussie mates who re­main his friends to this day. Surf Life Sav­ing Queens­land re­gional man­ager Col Sparkes says it’s one of the great joys of the iconic move­ment that it cre­ates and ce­ments lifelong bonds. “Peo­ple come into our move­ment and they meet peo­ple from all

“He pushes the bound­aries to never give up. He can get through hur­dles, walls.”

over the coun­try. These are friend­ships that you make and you’ve got them for the rest of your life.”

He­len agrees. “It just opened up so much for the whole fam­ily,” she says. “Com­mu­nity, friends – ev­ery­thing, re­ally.”

Cameron’s left-eye blind­ness, caused by cataracts, meant ball sports were mostly a non­starter. But in the pool or the sea, it’s never mat­tered. He re­fuses to see it as a dis­abil­ity – “ba­si­cally, I’ve never re­ally known any dif­fer­ent” – but he does be­lieve it helps ex­plain his men­tal dis­ci­pline. “It makes me a bit more de­ter­mined in that way; work­ing to get bet­ter.”

And get bet­ter he did, fast. By the age of 10, he’d com­peted in his first ma­jor ocean swim – a boy against grown-ups – and came third. He re­calls: “I thought, ‘Well, I’m pretty handy at this.’”

Handy, in­deed. He was ex­celling at sea swims and in the pool he would tackle the 1500 me­tres in a man­ner that amazed his coach. “At that age, most kids are just too scared,” says Ben. As Cameron ap­proached his teenage years, he threw him­self into a pun­ish­ing be­fore- and af­ter-school train­ing reg­i­men.

Cameron fin­ished high school at the end of 2015 and is now con­tem­plat­ing his future. He’s hoping to study phys­io­ther­apy and could aim for Olympic se­lec­tion or turn his en­durance tal­ents to iron­man com­pe­ti­tion. Then there’s an am­bi­tion that seems hard­est to re­sist: work­ing his way through the re­main­ing six of the world’s great ocean swims.

“That’s my goal but it doesn’t mean I’m go­ing to achieve it in the next two years. I might do one at the start of next year or midyear.” As he con­tem­plates that pos­si­bil­ity, he thinks back on his Hawaii swim. “It gives you con­fi­dence for things ahead.”

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