The Rottnest Swim is a 19.7km open-water swim from Cottesloe Beach to Rottnest Island. Playfully nicknamed the ‘Rotto Swim,’ it is one of Western Australia’s most iconic events and one of the biggest open-water swimming events in the world.

In 2018, not long after her 60th birthday, she attempted her 20th Rottnest Channel swim and first ever solo crossing. Read about her long-term love affair with the Rottnest Swim, the mental challenges involved in long-distance swimming, and how to cope when things don’t go according to plan.

My name is Trish Dooey, I didn’t grow up in Western Australia—in fact I grew up in Ireland—so I’m not by nature a swimmer. But I got into Surf Life Saving in 1994 when I joined a surf club with the view to bringing my children, as Nippers, to learn a little bit more about water safety and how to save themselves and look after themselves in an aquatic environment. From there, I was asked to do my Bronze Medallion which is a proficiency certificate that would then enable me not only to assist with water safety but also to do beach patrols. From there, a friend who had done her Bronze Medallion with me said, ‘Trish, let’s do the Rottnest Swim,’ and that’s how I started doing this.

The reason why I did the first swim was because it was a challenge. Someone threw out a challenge to me and it was something I had heard about the previous year, it was something new that I had never done before and really hadn’t thought very much about. But because I was mixing, at that point, in a kind of swimming environment, and because my friend was interested in doing it and happy to organise everything—find a boat and get things moving so to speak—I thought, yeah that will be a great idea, it will be a sense of adventure—and so I said, ‘yeah I’ll give that a try.’

I think until you do something like this which is unique in the world, I don’t think you can appreciate just what’s involved. The first year I did it, I think there was something like 666 swimmers, which was relatively small. We didn’t have technology, we didn’t have timing straps, we didn’t have online applications. It’s hard to imagine now, looking back 22 years later, how important technology is in every aspect of life—not just this particular swim. So it really was an adventure and at that time there wasn’t strictly a limit on how many people could take part in the swim. The whole thing was just a bit of an adventure and seeing if you could do something and it instilled in me a sense of—I suppose—camaraderie, and most people will say that, it doesn’t matter how good or bad of a swimmer you are. That’s the big thing about the Rottnest Swim, you have wonderful people sharing the day. No matter what walk of life they’ve come from, this one thing has brought them together. So that was really the first time around and to be honest after that I thought, yeah I’ve done that now, and the same lady said, ‘but we’ve got to do it again now that it’s the next year,’ and I said, ‘No, no, I’ve done it.’ So we ended up doing it six times together with different team members. I just got the bug.

Sometimes we need to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones and maybe rattle the boundaries a little bit and see what it takes. Very often you don’t know what you really can do until the circumstances arrive.

Funnily enough, even after four or five of those team swims, I didn’t even think about doing a duo. Because by natural progression, you might have a team of four and then maybe a team of two. I remember thinking on a couple of occasions, this is really good, it’s great to think that I can do this but there is no way I would ever do a duo, and I got into that because another team member who joined me for a swim suggested I do a duo. And I said, ‘Why are you asking me?’ and she said, ‘I know you won’t give up.’ So there was another challenge for me and we did try that one. Unfortunately, I pulled a calf muscle two days before the swim and I was very, very upset and disappointed because I was letting my partner down. Serendipity intervened and the event was cancelled that year. So, of course I thought, oh phew I have dodged a bullet, but then the following year the same partner said, ‘Well we’ve got to do a duo now, we didn’t do it the time before.’ I kind of got renewed vigour and we did succeed in doing a few more duos after that.

Trish preparing to swim. She is putting on her goggles.

All up, I’ve done the swim 19 times since 1996. I’ve done 10 team swims, a team means a team of four people, and I’ve done nine duo swims, which is obviously two people, and the idea is that when you do that, you do it in relays. This will be my 20th swim and my first solo swim, which I would never have considered 22 years ago. Although I’ve done lots of swimming over the years, I had never swum 10 kilometres in one go until a month or two ago. I had to do a qualifying swim, so again that was still an unknown—as late in the day as this. To achieve a physical first at my age is something. Sometimes I wonder am I crazy to do this? But I’m feeling quite excited to be able to have a go at it anyway. Sometimes we need to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones and maybe rattle the boundaries a little bit and see what it takes. Very often you don’t know what you really can do until the circumstances arrive and obviously the mental thing is just as important as the physical aspect of doing something like this. I suppose that age is not really significant either. No one is ever really too old to do the swim. But given that the time has passed and I am able to maintain enough fitness—there must be something in this mental training or muscle memory or something in your state of mind that tells you, ‘yeah I can do this.’ Where is, if you haven’t had that experience, maybe it might be different. So I thought I would give it a try. Again, it’s going where I haven’t gone before. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’m happy to take defeat or failure if it happens. I’ll give it a try.

Every swim is special in many ways, partly because the conditions do change from year to year, partly because you’re working with different people, and it really is fun. In 2016, my son agreed to do a duo with me. That was very, very special, given that there is over 30 years age difference. He was quite happy to do that with me, so it was a very special time. He had never done it before. He is a fit young man but not particularly a swimmer but he did some training while on FIFO work up north. He obviously did the right thing, so that was a real thrill to think that he went out of his way to do something like that with me. Not many mothers and sons can boast something like that. Every swim is special in some way, and at the end of the day, putting your feet underneath you and feeling the sand under your feet on Rottnest Island is always a big thrill

Trish attempted her first solo crossing in 2018, but was unfortunately pulled out of the water just short of the 13km mark due to a shark sighting. When asked for any retrospective thoughts, she said the following: 

“Be prepared for the unexpected: you never know what’s in store with open water swimming. Sometimes the physical challenge isn’t the biggest one. The mental challenge of dealing with something that didn’t go according to plan, that I had absolutely no control over, was far greater in many ways, but the overwhelming support that I received from family, friends and training partners has given me the encouragement to pick up the pieces, learn from the experience and move on.”


In 2019, Trish reattempted her solo crossing and was successful. Trish says:

“I was back at Cottesloe, all greased up and hoping for a third strike. Thankfully, it all went well, and this time I completed the solo swim in 8 hours 25 mins! But of course, it’s not [just] about swimming; it’s about so much more, most of it in the cranial department.”

Copyright © 2018 Trish Dooey

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