From Dereham Otter to international swimstar - Julie Isbill's amazing journey

Julie Isbill

Julie Isbill, originally from Dereham, is writing a memoir of her extraordinary adventures in the ocean. - Credit: Submitted

An open water swimming star from Norfolk is writing a memoir of her encounters with sharks and perilous crossings.

It comes as Julie Isbill, originally from Dereham and now living in Perth, is inducted into the Australian Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. 

“It feels pretty special to be recognised among the other swimmers that have been included,” said Ms Isbill, who in 2017 completed the prestigious Triple Crown of swims by traversing the English Channel, Los Angeles’ Catalina Channel and a circuit of New York’s Manhattan Island. In 2018, she crossed the Cook Strait between the two islands of New Zealand. 

Julie Isbill, pictured upon completing the Cook Strait

Ms Isbill completes her swim across the Cook Strait to reach New Zealand's South Island. - Credit: Submitted

Ms Isbill said that her induction had encouraged her to start writing about her extraordinary life in the ocean.

“Literally just this week I’ve written 22,000 words,” said Ms Isbill, who works as a doctor.

“I’d always thought in the back of my mind that I’d do it, but you’ve got to be in the headspace, you’ve got to give it good time.”

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Her story is certainly compelling. 

From the age of six, Ms Isbill swam for the Dereham Otters, and later the Norwich Penguins. During Sixth Form, she worked as a lifeguard and taught swimming at Dereham’s pool.

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“I used to train five days a week and race one day a week,” said Ms Isbill. 

“It was a massive part of my life and I’ve pretty much always done it ever since, in one form or another, whether it be just for social contact or for a bit of fitness,” she added. 

Julie Isbill, pictured after swimming the Catalina channel.

Ms Isbill pictured in 2017 having just completed a swim of the Catalina Channel, off the coast of Los Angeles. - Credit: Submitted

Having moved to Australia in her twenties, Ms Isbill got her first taste of long-distance open water swimming by attempting a route just north of Sydney: Bondi to Watson’s Bay. 

“I was excited but scared, having never done anything like that,” said Ms Isbill, whose father, Martin Creary, swam for England but passed away when she was six.

“I was scared of sharks then,” she said. “I’m not really now - I mean, I think of it, but I accept that I’m more likely to die driving my car and I don’t think twice about getting in the car.”

“I got my head around it by saying to myself I would either survive and this swim would be for my dad, or I would get eaten and go and join him.”

To her surprise, Ms Isbill came first among the women that day. 

“I guess it was in my blood, in my genes,” she said. “I felt I’d won for him and I didn’t even dream that I’d win… It was just great.”

In 2008, Ms Isbill established - “by accident” - an enormously successful swimming group called Bold and Beautiful in Manly, New South Wales. 

It began when she took some friends out for an early morning swim to improve their technique. The next morning, a few more friends showed up, then more and more as the days went on. 

“The rest is history,” she said. 

Ms Isbill pictured with the Bold and Beautiful swim squad

Ms Isbill pictured with the Bold and Beautiful swim squad. - Credit: Submitted

“In 12 years, there’s never been a day when a group of swimmers haven’t turned up,” she said.

“There’s now over 22,000 swimmers that have ever swum with us. Pre-Covid, during the summer, you would easily see 350 people swimming and 600 people on a nice day on the weekend. It’s just crazy.”

Though she has since moved across Australia, Ms Isbill still oversees the group and is proud of its continuing success. 

“The thing that I’m most proud of is the fact that it’s grown so huge but it still has the ethos of how it started out: which is that it really is for everybody and anybody and it’s not competitive.”

For Ms Isbill, nothing compares to being in the ocean. 

“I can swim in the pool and I still feel great but it’s not the same as having gone in the ocean.” she said.

“There’s something really special about being in somebody else’s territory.” she added. “It’s saltwater: you’re buoyant, you’re supported, you really feel that you’re in nature…

“There’s no better way to start the day.”

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