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CHILDLESSNESS: The Roughest Waters of a Marathon Swimmer’s Life

My hands sliced through the pristine surging currents after making it through the most challenging part of my adventure: a hairpin bend with fast-flowing rapids, a steep and imposing rock wall to my right. My only hope was to get the line for my swim spot on and sprint like a madman to avoid a catastrophic collision. I was attempting to be the first person to swim the entire length of New Zealand’s powerful Clutha River, a five-day 256 km journey from Wanaka to the Pacific. That strategy worked perfectly, and less than twenty minutes later, I was now staring down the largest rapids I’d ever swim through. The rapids might have seemed daunting for most people, swimmers included, but I’d faced rapids before. The roughest waters of my life weren’t in a river or an ocean.

I’ve completed marathon swims and triathlons of all distances across the world. I’ve felt unbreakable. Although, I never was an elite athlete, I’m an accomplished marathon swimmer and Ironman triathlete. Only once, several years before I attempted to swim the Clutha River, I had found myself in the unfamiliar position of dropping out of a race. At the 50 km mark of the North Face 100 km ultramarathon in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia, my body shut down. I’d prided myself on always finding the strength to keep going in the face of overwhelming odds—including achieving my best ever triathlon performance days after being attacked by my alcoholic father. But in the North Face 100, I’d been broken. It was only my second experience in quitting. Just a few months earlier, I had abandoned ‘the race’ to become a dad.

Childless Ironman

Five years prior, after unsuccessfully trying to conceive for about a year, my wife and I begrudgingly submitted ourselves to the medical testing for fertility. Perhaps in denial, I never honestly considered that either of us could have a medical problem. I’d been a triathlete since age thirteen. I’d made a firm decision not to follow in my father’s footsteps. I didn’t drink, I didn’t do drugs, and I ate well. I believed I was a lot healthier than many men who seemed to have no problem fathering children. Yet when the tests came back, I was dumbfounded. I was infertile due to a hernia I’d had at age one. In an attempt to make light of it in the doctor’s office, I cracked the extremely regrettable joke that a marathon swimmer’s swimmers couldn’t swim.

My wife and I embarked on a journey to adopt children from overseas. Adoption in Australia is tremendously arduous, as a government-run process. Less than five domestic adoptions happen annually per state, and the waitlist for both domestic and intercountry adoption many years. At first, based on other country’s requirements for religion and the length of our marriage, we were only eligible to adopt children from Thailand. After the two-year process of being assessed by the adoption department, intrusive social worker visits, health checks and other hoops to jump through, we were accepted onto the waitlist for adoption from Thailand.

We went to Mongolia for a trekking adventure, had a trip to Thailand, I competed in triathlons and marathon swims, all while waiting for a letter from Thailand informing us that we’d finally become parents. We did eventually get a letter, but the news was devastating. Thailand shut down the intercountry adoption program.

Devastated, for the next few weeks, we went through the motions of work while trying to come to grips with childlessness. Then we received an unexpected phone call from the adoption department and found out that Australia had just signed an adoption agreement with Columbia, and we met the criteria. Completing the long and drawn-out assessments once again, we were accepted onto the Columbian wait-list. We were told it would be around 12-18 months. A year later, just as we were getting close to being allocated children, a federal judge in Columbia cited grave concerns about corruption within the system and shut the adoption program down. Just like that, after all the time, energy, money, emotional highs and lows, we were ineligible for adoption.

Over the five-year process, I’d harboured recurring reservations about the ethics of intercountry adoption. I often struggled with the morality of taking a child out of their own culture to raise them in another. My thoughts were always reconciled by knowing that somewhere there were children that needed love and that my wife and I had a lot of love to give.

The Only Endurance Test to Break an Ironman

Carrying the burden of childlessness and being forced to give up on the dream went against everything I’d ever thought about quitting as a marathon swimmer and triathlete. Just weeks after letting go of adoption, even before I took my first steps through the Blue Mountains, my spirits were shattered. I toppled over at the aid station, unable to take another step. The kind volunteers who looked after me as my wife came to get me must have thought that my heaving sobs were because I wasn’t finishing the race. They weren’t. Any other day, I might have kicked myself for quitting—I’d never quit a race in my life. But on that day, I couldn’t care less about the race. I was grieving the loss of children I never even had.

Eventually moving to New Zealand, I took on the challenge of swimming the 256 km Clutha River. As I made my way down the last few kilometres of the Clutha, I reflected on my life’s journey. I’d not only made it through the daunting wild rapids, dodged rocks, sprinted around whirlpools and escaped undertows and overcame mounting fatigue, I had navigated equally as rough of water years prior. I couldn’t help but compare to the journey to the adoption process, except for the glaring fact that I successfully made it to the end of the Clutha.

When the Covid-19 lockdowns stuck in March 2020, just a month after I swam the Clutha, I had the time to write a book. What started out as a project to document my adventures in marathon swimming and triathlon around the world, unfolded as a story of my father’s alcoholism, but more importantly, our failed adoption process, which was by far the most arduous feat of endurance I’ve ever faced. I thought that I had fully reconciled our childlessness in my mind, with all the miles in the water, on the trails and on the road, I’ve hammered out. But it became clear to me that childless will also ways be a scar in my heart.

I still feel some pangs of sadness when I see friends post photos of their kid’s birthdays, riding a bike for the first time or graduations. I can usually brush off comments that I sometimes get about not having children at age 45. I ignore people who give me unsolicited health advice about getting my sperm so healthy that I’ll not only have children but need a vasectomy to stop having so many. Fortunately, I’ve only ever had it suggested to me once that I’m ‘less of a man’ for being infertile. Occasionally someone I’ve met will comment that it was a selfish decision not to have children. Others, amid the daily grind of dealing with their child’s tantrums or paying for their braces, will say that I’m lucky to have the freedom of having no children.

Most people who are baffled that I don’t have children will inevitably ask if I ever thought of adoption. I used to get irritated by that question, though I’ve bit my tongue from quipping,

“Dammit! If only I’d met you ten years ago, and you could have suggested adoption! How did I never think of that?!” Now, I simply brush off those comments. But if I get the sense that someone might be genuinely interested, I can now say, “that’s such a long story that I had to write a book.”

Downriver Nomad: A Triathlete’s Adventures and Adversities into the Rapids

“I love this book. Such a deeply personal and poignant story about the power of swimming and its ability to transform our lives for the better. I was hooked from the first page.”  Jessica Hepburn, author of 21 Miles: Swimming in Search of the Meaning of Motherhood

The synopsis of my book, which describes my childlessness journey, as well as it’s endorsements and links to purchase can be found here:

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Amelia Warr

    Wow Rob, what an incredible heartfelt story. You’ve been on such a tough journey. I’m glad you found swimming helped you but I’m sorry for the ride you’ve taken.
    Thank you for such an inspiring read

  2. Monica

    This hits deep. I’m also childless due to infertility and my heart breaks on the daily. People lucky enough to have kids don’t understand how much it hurts to not have them. I will definitely be reading your book. Thanks so much for sharing

  3. Carla Pinkerton

    Wow! I think it’s pretty awesome to hear a man’s perspective and struggles on such matters. Love all the swimming stories.

  4. Vickram Natarajan

    Hi Rob… I feel your pain brother… I have had a similar experience too and had to come to terms with the situation…

    1. Rob Hutchings

      Thanks Vickram, glad you were able to come to terms…

  5. Deborah

    Dear Rob, I’m so sorry ????. Maybe fostering could help you and your wife to get closer to adoption in your own country? (if it’s available?… anyway, you probably looked up already…nonetheless, great outcome writing the book. Maybe you can really start a group of people who had same experiences and explain prospect father and mother have feelings….governments can’t just shut down programs, they need to consider adoption as priority …children get old and they need love ASAP not long waits then suddenly 18 years old not experience care.

    Hope you’re feeling better

  6. Floyd Spracklin

    I’m so proud of the journey you dared to take on. And especially the courage it took you to share it on the world stage. Wearing your heart on your sleeve isn’t easy. Your next steps will be equally vibrant. I look forward to your next chapter.

    1. Rob Hutchings

      Thanks Floyd, looking forward to writing more books…. you might have to start an editing company!

  7. Chris Stover

    Such a lovely introduction to your story, I’m compelled to read. The usual suspects writing this story are women.

    1. Rob Hutchings

      Yup, as far as I can tell it is uncommon for men to talk about it. I hope you enjoy my book.

  8. Julie

    Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing and helping us understand this kind of experience more. You have my respect

  9. Robyn Ackers

    Thanks for sharing Rob and beautifully written, we don’t often hear a male’s perspective on infertility…. we’ve been down that long road… most people don’t know how hard that journey is. So sorry you’ve had to go through this and didn’t get your family, that’s so hard. We were blessed with a different outcome but one never forgets – changed us forever and we never take anything for granted. I follow your swim adventures closely. If you’re ever in Northland come out for a swim with us (WHOS Whangarei Heads Ocean Swimmers) 🙂

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