Health and Fitness: Sunrise at Merewether Ocean Baths has a therapeutic affect for many swimmers and non-swimmers

GOGGLES ON: Brydie Piaf has captured scenes of sunrise swimmers at Merewether Ocean Baths. This is one of the images which forms part of her exhibition on at Newcastle Region Library. Picture: Brydie Piaf
GOGGLES ON: Brydie Piaf has captured scenes of sunrise swimmers at Merewether Ocean Baths. This is one of the images which forms part of her exhibition on at Newcastle Region Library. Picture: Brydie Piaf

The Merewether Ocean Baths has long been my favourite place to work out and that is for a couple of reasons.

There is a variety of options – stairs, hills and sand sessions. The setting is always amazing. And then there is the customary post-work-out plunge into the baths. There is nothing like a bit of “salt therapy”.

So I was instantly intrigued when I saw there was an exhibition at Newcastle Region Library at the moment documenting The Sunrise Swimmers of Merewether Ocean Baths.

Early most weekends, as it turns out, Newcastle photographer and storyteller Brydie Piaf is also down at the baths.

She has combined her love of the ocean to create a book and exhibition about people who greet the sea before the sun each day.

The result is a collection of portraits, seascapes and stories about the regular early morning swimmers of the baths. It is a celebration of the people, and of the saltwater life.

When I spoke to Brydie last week she told me it started as taking photos at sunrise just over two years ago.

“For me it was a way to reconnect back to a city I hadn’t lived in for a couple of decades,” she told me.

“I would quite often go down there at morning times with a camera and would just go in for a swim and the project just evolved from that.

“I’ve got three young kids, so during the week it’s not possible for me to get down there. But sunrise time, Saturdays and Sundays, I’d be down there. By being there all of the time I got to know all of the regular swimmers and I got to know why they were there.

“For some people it’s a physical thing, they’re exercising. For some people it’s a social side. For some people it’s mental health. There’s a whole bundle of different reasons.”

Brydie Piaf has an exhibition on at Newcastle Region Library documenting The Sunrise Swimmers of Merewether Ocean Baths.

Brydie Piaf has an exhibition on at Newcastle Region Library documenting The Sunrise Swimmers of Merewether Ocean Baths.

Brydie describes it as “my time out” and I get it because it is the same for me and many others I know. There is something soothing about seeing the colours of the sky and the water right before the sun pops up over the horizon in the mornings.

I have convinced a group of my closest friends to do a 22 kilometre trail run/walk through the Blue Mountains in May and in preparation we have been getting up at dark and training in the early hours.

There has been whinging, crankiness and a few no-shows but when we see the sun rise everyone agrees forgoing a sleep-in has been totally worth it.

And the swim post-workout is the icing on the cake.

“Some people have been there for a lifetime,” Brydie told me. “My oldest lady is 89 years old. Why did they keep coming back. I wanted to tell their story a little bit. 

“Some people it’s a way of connecting to the community. Some people it’s a way of beating that depression … a decrease of stress and lots of endorphins happening when you’re swimming.

“Some people it’s a physical thing, it’s just less harsh on the body. A big group of ex-soccer players get down there regularly, the Seals.

“It’s amazing down time.”

Through the project, Brydie has become one of the regular lap swimmers, encouraged by those around her.

“I was always swimming, but not doing laps,” she said. 

“Always at the end of the project I had hoped I would start doing proper laps freestyle and in the last five weeks I’ve gone from not being able to complete one lap without looking like I’m drowning to last weekend I did 20 laps, so I’m super happy with that.

“If an 89-year-old lady can get into the water in the middle of winter well then so can I. So it’s all about pushing past these mental barriers people put up.”

The exhibition is on until April 17. As part of the exhibition there is a Meet the Photographer/Storyteller session to chat with Brydie about her work. It is on from 11am to midday on Friday, March 9.

She is also holding a community Sunrise Swim at 6.30am on Saturday, March 17 at the baths and is encouraging people to get along and join in an experience which has become part of her weekly health routine.

Upcoming Fitness Events

Community Sunrise Swim, Merewether Ocean Baths, March 17 at 6.30am: As part of Brydie Piaf’s The Sunrise Swimmers of Merewether Ocean Baths exhibition on at Newcastle Region Library, a free community swim is being held. No bookings necessary, just turn up and celebrate the morning with a dip. 

Live Life Get Active, Monday-Friday, 9.30am, Charlestown Swim Centre: Free 45-minute cross training, boxing and yoga classes are being held Mondays to Fridays at 9.30am. Find out more or book your session at www.charlestownsquare.com.au/what-s-happening/live-life-get-active-fitness-classes.

Autumn Workouts Week #1

Autumn is a great time to get moving. While the days are still warm for a while yet, the mornings are getting crisper. Try this session: 

Part 1: 10 squats, 10 push-ups, 10 biceps curl with shoulder press, 10 alternating lunges, 10 dead lift with row and triceps extension. Run 400m. Rest 90 seconds. Repeat twice

Part 2: Set up a short shuttle run, around 20m. Run hard for 30 seconds, rest 30s; run hard 60s, rest 60s; run hard 90s; rest 90s; run hard 60s, rest 60s; run hard 30s, rest 30s.

Part 3: Finish with 5-10 minutes of core work then stretch. Add a warm-up at the start.

Renee Valentine is a writer, qualified personal trainer and mother of three. r.valentine@fairfaxmedia.com.au.