THRIVHER INTERVIEW: Dr. Julie Isbill

Updated: May 21, 2018


Thrivher Achievements:


  • Became a Doctor of Medicine 2016

  • Founder of Swimming School: Pacific Jules

  • Founder of Ocean Swimming squad: Bold and Beautiful

  • Female winner Bondi to Watson’s Bay Swim 2005 & 2006 (10 km)

  • Winner of the Ocean Swims Distance Tally in Australia 2006-2007 season

  • Rottnest Channel Solo Swim 2006, 2007, 2008 x 2, 2009, 2010, 2016 x 2, 2017 x 6 (19.7 km)

  • Rottnest Channel Solo Return 2015 (39.4 km)

  • English Channel Swim 2016 (33.8 km)

  • The Catalina Channel Swim 2015 (35 km)

  • Manhattan Island Swim 2017 (48 km)

  • Cook strait Ocean Swim 2018 (26 km)



Thrivher Dive

I can’t start the day without: A swim in the ocean

Best read of all time: Life of Pi by Yann Martel and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Non-negotiable: Swimming and Sleeping

Most random job: Picking tomatoes and aubergines

Mindful habits: Swimming

My biggest fear: Spiders

Go-to for fun: Swimming… Well, it’s all I do! (as well as being a doctor)





THRIVHER MOVES:


Did you always know what you wanted to do as a career and did that influence your studies?

I had always wanted to practise Medicine, as far back as I can remember. Unfortunately, by the time I was finishing school I had a boyfriend, which really took my attention away from my studies and I didn’t get the grades I needed to study Medicine.


I began a Higher National Diploma - if I could get enough credits during the first year I would be able to transfer directly onto the second year of an Honours Degree course to then pursue Medicine. I did very well in my Honours Degree, but decided I really needed to start earning some money, so took a position in a hospital undertaking skin cancer research and decided not to continue with medicine at that time. From there I got a job at GlaxoSmithKline doing data management; designing databases for clinical trials.



What was the next most defining point in your career?

I moved to Australia, after a couple of years in similar fields of work to what I’d been doing in England, I still yearned to practise Medicine.



What finally drove you to go back and study Medicine after so many years?

I was running Bold & Beautiful (The voluntary ocean swimming group I founded) as well as my side business; Pacific Jules (Swimming Coaching), to bring in some income and make it all possible. But I really felt I couldn’t simply swim every day for the rest of my life! The only other thing I really wanted to do was Medicine. It was unfinished business – it was still a dream, so I had to give it a go.


It was unfinished business – it was still a dream, so I had to give it a go.


By that point, my Degree was more than ten years old, so I had to do another Degree to meet the entry requirements. I studied a Master’s Degree in Health Communication at Sydney University and then later studied for the GAMSAT (Graduate Medical School Admissions Test), but didn’t tell anybody in case I didn’t pass! Fortunately, I did pass, so I applied and was offered a place to study Medicine. I am now a Doctor at Fiona Stanley Hospital in Perth so the early ambition for my career was finally fulfilled in January 2017.




You founded the incredible ocean swimming group ‘Bold & Beautiful’, which now sees hundreds of people swimming the 1.5km to Shelly Beach and back every morning, how did that begin?

It all happened by accident. On Boxing Day in 2008 I was having coffee with a friend and we were discussing getting into Ski Paddling, but first she needed to work on her swimming. I offered to take her for a swim the following morning. We met at Manly Beach and she brought a few friends along for good company. I managed to get them across to Shelly Beach. It took about an hour with lots of screaming and swearing, but when they finally got there they were ecstatic. They had planned to walk back, but after a little persuasion they swam back and when they finally finished, they were so over the moon at their achievement they wanted to do it all over again the following morning! We met again the next day, but this time, there were nine of us and we just kept growing! After a fortnight, there were about thirty of us meeting each morning.


It took about an hour with lots of screaming and swearing, but when they finally got there they were ecstatic.


It’s been over nine years now and we’ve never missed a day. It’s kept evolving and now there are over 17,000 individuals who have swum with Bold & Beautiful and it is common to see over two to three hundred on any given morning.





Were you always passionate about swimming?

Well, I think it is in my blood. My biological father swam for England when he was younger, but tragically his coach was killed in a road accident and my Dad didn’t swim again after that, which was really unfortunate. Dad died when I was only six years old. After he died my Mum took me on holiday, where I spent the entire week in the hotel pool. By the end of the week I had learnt to swim. Mum then enrolled me in lessons, but I quickly outgrew them, so then joined a squad and competed in pool races until I left for boarding school aged twelve. As a teenager, I began lifeguarding and teaching swimming at the weekends and during holidays and I continued to do that whilst at University on a casual basis.


After he died my Mum took me on holiday, where I spent the entire week in the hotel pool. By the end of the week I had learnt to swim.


When I moved to Australia I took up swimming again, but after I was involved in a big car crash, unfortunately sustaining a few injuries I had to take several weeks off work and couldn’t do anything at all. Eventually my doctor said I could start swimming again so long as I didn’t kick my legs, due to a significant knee injury. I jumped in the ocean, and that’s when I met Michael (my partner) and started ocean swimming.




What inspired you to start taking Ocean Swimming more seriously?

I watched from afar, some friends take part in the Rottnest Ocean Swim in 2005 and I decided long distance ocean swimming was something I would like to try. So I booked a place in the Bondi to Watson’s Bay swim that very night – I was really scared! It is such an iconic swim, but the conditions at the time were very rough and I was really worried about the sharks. I rationalised it all to myself by thinking that if I could achieve it, that would be awesome; but if I died, then I’d be with my biological Dad and I honestly would have been happy to see him.


I rationalised it all to myself by thinking that if I could achieve it, that would be awesome; but if I died, then I’d be with my biological Dad and I honestly would have been happy to see him.


Not only did I manage to complete the swim, but I actually won the race (female section)! It was that experience that really inspired me to start taking Ocean Swimming more seriously.


I swam Rottnest in 2006, I was hooked and continued to compete in many more ocean swims. One year I actually won the distance tally for the number of kilometres swam in official open water events in Australia in a calendar year, and won a trip to Vanuatu! After that I more or less stopped competing in the ocean events, partly because of the cost but also because Bold & Beautiful was born, so I was swimming in the ocean every day anyway.



You’ve taken part in many marathon swims around the world, do you have any favourites?

They’re all so unique. It’s just incredible to have been able to experience them. I suppose the English Channel in 2016 was a particularly significant one, because it was my first official marathon swim and it was back home in England. I swam through the night and it was absolutely freezing. It was such a memorable experience and it definitely opened the door to more of these marathon swims.


The Catalina Channel swim was another real favourite. That was another night swim, during which a whale came up from underneath me for about twenty minutes, it was absolutely incredible! I was pretty scared – it was pitch black, with no light pollution at all except the explosive biophosphorescence in the water – then all of a sudden, I noticed this big white patch in my peripheral vision. I thought it had to be a whale, I couldn’t think what else it could be. Suddenly the light disappeared but then came back up from the depths, literally right underneath me – another foot or two and I would have been lying on it! Initially I was really scared and for a split second I thought about jumping onto the kayak, but I didn’t because that would have disqualified my swim. It was an incredible experience.


It was pitch black, with no light pollution at all except the explosive biophosphorescence in the water – then all of a sudden, I noticed this big white patch in my peripheral vision.


Later, during that swim, at dawn, I swam through quite literally thousands of Bait fish. There were dolphins leaping in and out of the water, fish flying around and birds everywhere! All feeding on the masses of small fish. Then a sea lion came right through the middle of it, swam right underneath me, rolled over and looked me directly in the eye and then leapt completely out of the water! It was such a spectacle to witness. Catalina was certainly my favourite in terms of marine life experiences.


There were dolphins leaping in and out of the water, fish flying around and birds everywhere!


Another particularly special one for me was the Manhattan Island swim. I’d never been to New York before, so when I got there I was completely overwhelmed. It was amazing to watch the skyline throughout the whole swim. The water however was absolutely filthy. It was particularly disgusting because it had rained heavily the night before, so all the debris from the roadsides and gutters had been washed into the water. I tried not to swallow any - of course I ended up swallowing more than usual! I was lucky not to get ill afterwards! Despite the water quality, swimming around this famous island felt so magnificent and such a privilege.



What is your biggest fear before you do one of these swims?

I’m truly scared of big surf - if it’s a shore break and the surf is really crashing onto the shore, the water can hold you down and I really don’t like that. But when you are out in the ocean, it feels different - I feel relaxed and I don’t feel like it’s going to hold me, I feel like I’m in it. I just roll with it and I’m not scared at all.


During my English Channel swim, the conditions in the water were rougher than anticipated. I set off at 4pm and I remember swimming alongside my boat, thinking it was such a pretty colour blue, but then I took another breath and suddenly the boat was red! I realised I was actually looking at the keel (the bottom of the boat)! The waves were so big that one minute I could see my team standing on the deck and the next minute all I could see was the keel of the boat! It was so rough. I was swimming down the face of the waves and catching the runners, trying to make the most of going with the flow, but then I would end up being thrown beneath the water and I remember wondering how deep I would be thrown down on the next wave. It was crazy for about six hours. Then it finally settled down. Other than that, I wouldn’t like not to finish a swim, but again I’m not desperately hung up on that. My Mum always used to say to me that it’s better to try and fail than to never try at all, and I really do believe that.


I would end up being thrown beneath the water and I remember wondering how deep I would be thrown down on the next wave.


How do you manage to keep going for all those hours in the water?

However far I am in, I just think to myself that if I were to stop now, it would be unfinished business and I’d only have to start from the beginning and do it all over again! So it’s easier to keep going than the thought of starting all over again.



What has been your biggest challenge to date?

Cook Strait was challenging. It’s typically really hard to get a start because the currents don’t do what they’re predicted to do. Finally, I got a window, after a desire to attempt this swim for 12 years. After swimming for three hours the tide finally changed - I had to seize the moment and swim as hard as I could for an hour to make as much progress as possible in the slack water before the tide took full momentum. I then returned to a steady pace that I could maintain for the rest of the day. My team on the boat then told me I had possibly only an hour of slack water before the tide changed again and I had 4.5km to swim in that time or I could get sucked away with the tide and it could be all over. After swimming all day in ~15degree water I had to give it everything I had, I couldn’t let up. I had to continually really go for it to ensure I wasn’t caught up in the next tide that would pull me back. I had just one moment to make it, so I gave it absolutely everything I had. It was becoming a very risky situation for me, but I desperately didn’t want the chance to slip away. I don’t know where I pulled out the extra energy from, but I dug deep and I made it! It turned out that I actually had 4.5 Nautical Miles to go!!! Nearly 8 km. There were some ‘naughty’-cal words said about this later. But we got there!!!


The sense of achievement was incredible because there are no guarantees with the Cook Strait swim and that’s what makes it such a unique and amazing experience.




Is it the extra challenges involved that draws you to the tougher swims?

Yes, if I feel it’s something I could achieve, I want to try it. I’m not afraid of failing, so I don’t have that holding me back. If I really thought I couldn’t do a swim or I believed my life would be in danger, I wouldn’t do it.


I’m not afraid of failing, so I don’t have that holding me back.


Who has been your biggest supporter?

100% my partner Michael. I always have Michael on the boat when I do my swims and I trust him implicitly, so I don’t need to worry about my safety and I can just focus on the swimming. We both agree nothing is worth dying for and I know he wouldn’t let me die! He was also so supportive and encouraging when I was starting up Bold & Beautiful. He has always supported me in whatever I wanted to do.




THRIVHING AND KICKING:



What’s the next Ocean Marathon on your list?

I’d love to do Molokai - Hawaii, the Irish Sea – Ireland to Scotland, Tsugaru Channel - Japan and I’d love to do Gibraltar Strait. I’d also really love to do an Ice Mile – I think I could do it, so why not?



What three personality traits do you possess that have contributed to achieving your successes?

That’s difficult. I suppose I’m stubborn, maybe tenacious too, and definitely adventurous.



If there was one piece of career or life advice you wish you’d been given in your twenties, what would it be?

I would say not to overthink things. If it’s something that you really want to do, overthinking may hold you back. So, just do it!



For other women reading this who want so much more from their career but haven’t made any killer moves yet, what advice would you give them?

If it’s a dream, it won’t go away, so just do it. But if you’re not going to do it, make the most of what you are doing and turn it around, so you can embrace that and make the most of it.



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