Dec 26, 2016
Eighteen-year-old Cameron Keith is likely the best Australian marathon swimmer you’ve never heard of. Neil McMahon caught up with the Queensland phenomenon to find out what keeps him forging ahead.
“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 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.” ￼
SEE ALSO: Is Mitch Larkin the New Ian Thorpe