In 2020, after the end of lockdown, Dave Berry was just looking forward to taking part in social sea swims again. In 2022, he completed eight marathon swims in one year and won the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association’s ‘Male Swimmer of the Year’ title. What happened in-between? He talks to Niall Meehan about “stumbling” into challenges – and the importance of never giving up once you get going.
The easing of Covid lockdowns in 2020 gave many the opportunity to emerge into a changed world. For Dubliner Dave Berry and his wife Siobhan, it meant the freedom to once again go out together and enjoy social sea swims. “I just loved going for swims and taking photographs in the sea,” he says. “I work in the media but I loved the idea of doing something that was different.” This evolved into a habit that would lead to 404 consecutive days of swimming and a self-imposed challenge to swim 1 million metres in a year. “I had a target and that was all I cared about,” says Berry, a TV director by trade. “Just that goal. I didn’t plan it, it just sort of happened to snowball.“ Siobhan was not too surprised about what was to unfold over the next 18 months. Describing him as someone who doesn’t do anything by half, she adds: “literally from what he eats, to his training, to what he talks about, he is always trying to achieve more. His personality is to take something on and give 150%”.
Unlike many long-distance swimmers, Berry was not a competitive swimmer as a youngster. “When I was about 8 years old I was in Trojans Swimming Club, and when swimming became twice a week my Mum said, ‘well you can swim now, so that’s the end of that’” he says. “And that was the end of my training. Then I just swam and dipped on holiday. On one holiday, I turned 40 and I realised I was in danger of becoming the Dad bod, so I joined a gym. On the first or second day I swam two lengths of the 50m pool and I was chuffed with myself. A girl swam up and said ‘off you go’, I said ‘no, no, I’m done’. I was happy that I did 100m.”
It was perhaps inevitable that the initially satisfying 100m swim would become a bit longer. Berry signed up for a 4km swim at Glendalough, a lake in County Wicklow, which he had 18 months to prepare for. “Then I started doing the Leinster Open Sea (LOS) swims,” he says. “If you do 9 or 10 of their swims you qualify for the Liffey Swim (a 2.2km swim of the tidal section of the River Liffey in Dublin), so I did that in my second year of LOS.”
A relay swim of the North Channel (a strait between Northern Ireland and south-western Scotland, considered one of the toughest crossings in the world) followed in early 2022, which meant training during late 2021. During this time, Berry completed two ice kilometre swims (skin swims in water under 5 degrees). “During winter some of the people I was sea swimming with were going up to Lough Bray or Glendalough, “ he explains.”I was able to do them because I had acclimatised, I had been swimming all the time. They were challenges that I stumbled onto, most of what I have done has been stumbled onto.”
“…most of what I have done has been stumbled onto”
Early in 2022, after his initial challenge was ended by catching Covid, Berry was by his own admission “a bit lost”. He saw what others were doing at the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association (ILDSA) and decided then to “go for it”. He was lucky to get a slot for the Catalina Channel and that became his goal. But then a week or two later, he decided to see if he could also get an English Channel slot – and he did. All his other swims fell into place without much planning. The three Kish Lighthouse swims were all decided only 48 hours in advance as weather windows opened. His first major solo swim of 2022 was Fastnet Lighthouse to Baltimore, Cork (2 June, 21km).
“Fastnet is still my favourite swim of the year,” he says. “It’s beautiful down in Baltimore, the swim is really interesting. You have a sense of movement. That swim was 20km, the most I had swam before that in the sea was 7km. That gave me the confidence for Catalina three weeks later. When I got out of the water I was delighted I had done it, but 10 minutes later I was dissecting it — how can I go faster, how can I make the feeds quicker. I’m a perfectionist, so I’m never satisfied.”
Berry freely admits to being obsessive. Whether it was woodwork as a schoolboy or sailing as a teenager, he would pursue it until he had perfected it and then move on. However, with swimming he may have found his match. “I don’t think I will ever leave swimming,” he says. “ I don’t think you can ever be a complete perfectionist at it. Like Sarah Thomas, she did a four-way English Channel swim, that is just bonkers. And a two-way of the North Channel, equally bonkers. That’s what the human body can do in an extreme situation. I don’t have the youth, I know my body can’t go there. But I look at what someone else does and go ‘yeah, I can do that’. I have always been that way. And half the time you have to learn it yourself. That is the challenge for me now — how do you make yourself a better swimmer?”
“…the hardest thing in life is starting any project. Don’t overthink it: if you feel it’s right just keep going at it. I was so nervous before some of the swims, but once I had done 100m I was in my element, water passing over my body.”
Fergal Somerville — who has swum the English Channel, North Channel and Bristol Channel — and who believes there is no such thing as a typical long distance swimmer, sums up Berry’s attitude as “good old Dublin indignation. All you need is some fucker to say ‘you can’t do that’”. For his part, Berry describes the swim process as a physical and mental challenge to simply not give up. When pressed that there might be more to it he replies: “sometimes I’d love to think that I am a bit more complicated than that, but… the hardest thing in life is starting any project, but once you get going you keep at it. Don’t overthink it, if you feel it’s right just keep going at it. I was so nervous before some of the swims, but once I had done 100m I was in my element, water passing over my body”.
”I do suffer through pain,” he adds. “On the Galway Bay two-way swim (26 July, 23km) I swam across in three and half hours. On the way back we met some dolphins and swam around with them. We ended up too close to the coast and got caught in a current and it meant I had to swim incredibly hard for five hours to get back. My shoulder was injured from before, but I kept swimming through the pain as I was willing to suffer to finish. Because it was my first year of swims I had to prove to myself that I could complete them. If I was in that situation again I would probably have got back in the boat and said one way was enough, I dragged that injury around for about five weeks.”
“I just love being in the water, I love the challenge of how long can I go, will I last that long? Mentally I am stubborn enough to compete and keep going. So the question is how do I make the body better, to last longer. The perfectionist in me now is trying to swim more efficiently. On the Catalina swim — my first really big swim — the biggest thing for me was the pressure that was put on me, I put that pressure on myself. I tend not to tell too many people about the swims, unless it’s a big swim, then there’s a WhatsApp group. I don’t have the tension and the stress I got on the first few swims any more. The energy that before went into ‘oh god, what am I doing, can I do this?‘ now goes straight towards the swim.”
Does it follow then that the English Channel swim (3 October, 42km) was easier than the Catalina? ”It was the easiest swim of the year for me,” he says. “I got over on a Saturday after 12 hours of travel. I had a day of rest and eating and when I got in I felt no pressure on as I knew I had it in me. I had completed swims of similar size, the water temperature was good, the jellyfish weren’t anything major. The last hour and a half was hard, I had to swim extra hard to get through the current, but I think everyone has to do that. When I got out of the water I was running up the beach, I had energy. When I got back to the hotel that night I didn’t want to have a beer, I had beers after one of my swims before and it just kills the body. As much as you want to celebrate, you have to eat well, hydrate, eat well for the next three days. You have to help the recovery. I did a 20km swim 10 days after the English Channel because I wanted to test where my body was”.
In trying to pinpoint the characteristics that give Berry his edge I wonder if it might lie somewhere between confidence and arrogance? “Funny words, but I know what you mean,” he says. “I think it’s cockiness. Being able to do it myself without having to listen to anyone else. I direct TV and I am working on the soccer world cup at the moment, so I have to communicate with 20 or 30 people in the studio — but when it comes to swimming it’s just myself and my voice, and I own this little world. Swimming with just your own voice is just brilliant. Some people do yoga and are able to meditate – this is my meditation. It’s something magical.
“I will be 48 in January, it’s the mental bit of it that keeps me going. I have a target of 120km in the pool and sea for this month, I need it to keep up my fitness, because it is so hard to maintain. When I did the Catalina swim a lot of people said what a great year for you, but I looked at it and thought why would you train that much and not do two or three? I took it to an extreme this year and did eight or nine marathon swims, because I had the fitness.”
One of the people Berry did listen to in 2022 was Stephen Redmond, the first person in the world to complete the Oceans Seven. Redmond was taken by Berry’s “amazing attitude and his ability to think things through and understand how difficult it is”. He placed him in the mode of a Tour de France cyclist, “with a calm confidence, the bugger!” Along with the genuine admiration I sensed a (very) slight hint of envy. Confirming a point already made by Berry that all open water marathon swimmers are different Redmond describes his own experience as the purest form of hell, “it’s like going into space, you let go of everything you know”.
Berry doesn’t look back much but when the bare facts of his 2022 achievements are put to him he puts it in context: “four years ago I jumped off the rocks in the Forty Foot and came up the ladder 15 seconds later and thought I was going to die it was so cold, so after this year I do realise I need to concentrate on enjoying my swims. After the English Channel my wife made me have people over to the house to celebrate and I did everything in my power to try and make it not happen”. Towards the end of 2022, Berry received three nominations for the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association annual awards, ultimately winning Male Swimmer of the Year. “It is different when your peers and other swimmers vote for you, you do realise what you have done. Although I am still kind of uncomfortable about it being about me.”
From the hints that Berry has given about his plans for 2023 – including 40km and 45km swims – he will have to get used to the limelight. Both Fergal Somerville and Stephen Redmond anticipate more progress, while Siobhan Berry probably won’t be booking any holidays, although “we already have amazing memories because of Dave’s swimming”.
1: North Channel winter relay team – Ireland to Scotland, the first to swim the North Channel in winter, Jan 14th
2: Fastnet lighthouse to Baltimore, Co.Cork, 21km June 2nd
3: Catalina Channel, Catalina Island to mainland LA, USA. 12hrs 6min, 33km, June 28th
4: Galway Bay two-way, (over and back) 23km, July 26th
5: Kish Bank Lighthouse to Seapoint, Dublin. First to swim this route, 19km, August 22nd
6: Kish Bank Lighthouse to Greystones, record time of 4hr 2min. 21km September 12th
7: English Channel swim, England to France, 12hrs 35min, 42km, October 3rd
8: Kish Bank Lighthouse to Lambay Island, First to swim this route, 20km, October 13th