Why swim the world's most dangerous seas? For mental health - let Andy Donaldson explain

Meet the man breaking swimming records for mental health (2:28)

Andy Donaldson is looking to become the first person to complete the Oceans Seven challenge within one year. (2:28)

Editor's note: this story contains mentions of suicide.

After an unforgiving 15 hours and 52 minutes, Andy Donaldson was plucked from the treacherous Molokai Channel in Hawaii, and swiftly rushed to the hospital. His uvula had swollen to three times its normal size, and his breathing grew increasingly laboured.

"I told the doctor what we'd been doing," Donaldson tells ESPN. "His initial thought was that it was an allergic reaction and that I might have swallowed a jellyfish.

"Who knows what could've happened, it could well have been the case. There's every chance. We were getting sloshed around. There were a lot of things going on."

The Scotsman had just completed leg four of seven in his quest to conquer the formidable Oceans Seven Challenge -- a near-200km swim across the world's most dangerous seas -- aiming to become the 23rd person in the world to complete the feat.

His purpose: to raise money and awareness for mental health, honouring his grandfather who had depression, by representing research charity the Black Dog Institute.

Perth-based Donaldson set British records for the English Channel and the North Channel -- his opening two swims. He then earned his highest-profile accolade with a world-record time of 4:33:50 to swim the Cook Strait, the body of water between the two New Zealand islands. His Hawaii trip was his first to return home without an accolade, but its completion remains his proudest accomplishment.

Conquering the Molokai Channel -- a notoriously unpredictable body of water separating Hawaii's Molokai and Oahu islands -- represented the passing of the halfway mark. But what was merely a figurative milestone ended up being so much more. The experience was life changing.

"We had a target to get 10 hours and came nowhere near that," he says. "The conditions were a lot harder than expected.

"We would've been about 10km offshore, and this unforecasted storm came through. We knew the winds would pick up, but the weather forecast changed as we were out there, and it got a lot worse. The winds picked up to 25+ knots, so not far off gale force winds. No one should be out there.

"I'm actually happy it went the way it did because I wouldn't have learned anything if we just breezed through that one and smashed out a time. I wouldn't have been put in those situations where it's a real challenge. I think it's been the most valuable swim of my entire career."

Donaldson tackles the Strait of Gibraltar later in May before facing the 32km Catalina Channel and 19km Tsugaru Strait swims in June and July, respectively. If, as projected, he completes the challenge in this time frame, he will be the first person to ever complete all seven swims within 12 months.

A big win sparked big ambitions

Raised in the UK and a graduate of Loughborough University, Donaldson became accustomed to success in the pool, until the weight of pressure grew heavier and his love for the sport diminished.

These issues have been brought to the forefront of elite pool swimming, with Olympic gold medallist swimmer Kyle Chalmers and eight-time world champion Adam Peaty both publicising issues with mental health, citing the pressures of success.

Donaldson too struggled with the demanding environment, while he also felt himself losing his grip on the sport he loved. After a lengthy hiatus and a move to Australia, it wasn't until his early adult years that he embraced the open water. There was a newfound freedom about being with the elements, away from the shackles of pool lanes.

With that presented an opportunity -- the high-profile Rottnest Channel swim. Donaldson had poured his recent years into chartered accountancy but took to the sea with ease to not only win the 19.7km race, ousting members of Australia's national swimming team in the process, but also raising $9,000 for mental health charity the Kai Eardley Foundation.

"It made me think, you know, maybe there's an opportunity here to do it again on a bigger scale and to use swimming as a vehicle to help others," he says. "So that was really the genesis for going on to do this Oceans Seven challenge.

"Coming off the back of Rottnest, I thought: let's aim quite high. We set some pretty big goals. We're trying to do it in a year; no one has ever done that before.

"Also, to try break the record for the fastest accumulation of time. I thought if we did that, it might gain some traction and increase the exposure to the real purpose behind it, which is to raise money and awareness for mental health."

Donaldson began his challenge in August 2022 and immediately matched his ambitions with various accolades in his opening swims.

The feat seemed to be off to a blistering start with the Scotsman on course to set a world record for his opening swim in the English Channel. However, conditions worsened on his voyage and swept him behind his projected time. He then finished just four minutes shy of the world record time for crossing the North Channel, his second leg of the challenge.

Donaldson maintains that his challenge does not revolve around setting world records, and the mere completion of each swim comes with its own seismic achievement. However, he is quite aware that such an accolade brings great exposure to his cause.

He fought back to secure a world-record crossing for the Cook Strait, New Zealand, in March. His record beat the previous time, ironically, by four minutes.

"It's pretty surreal to break a world record," he says. "It's one of those things you dream of as a kid and never really expect or believe will ever happen.

"Obviously with this challenge I wouldn't have set goals if I didn't think they were possible. With the English Channel, the world record is incredible ... halfway through that swim we were probably on target for it but all of the sudden the conditions changed, we got swept down the coast and ended up having to swim an extra three kilometres.

"I think we were only four minutes off the world record on that one. Then in the Cook Strait we were four minutes under, so you know to experience both sides of it, I think, is fantastic; you know you'll take something from it either way.

"I can't get ahead of myself. I don't want to rest on my laurels or get complacent. It's great that we've got this world record here up on the wall, but I'm still having my eyes on the next one. So yeah, we'll keep pushing."

The mental challenge of the Oceans Seven

It was 11:45 p.m. Donaldson stood poised in just Speedos before plunging into the 14-degree renowned shark-infested waters of the Cook Strait. The Oceans Seven challenge forbids the use of wetsuits, all while featuring some of the world's coldest waters.

Each leg of the challenge varies so vastly from the last. The Strait of Gibraltar represents the shortest distance in 14km, while the mammoth Molokai Channel stands as the largest feat at 44km. These distances alone stand a huge test of endurance, without the added implications of unfavourable conditions -- which were particularly notable in his Hawaii venture.

"I was thrown around like a rag doll in a washing machine. I just felt violently sick, getting tossed around," he says. "I was throwing up as a result. I'm taking on drinks every 20 minutes, but I couldn't keep it down."

Such is the nature of these lengthy voyages that Donaldson is often swimming in complete darkness. Unaware of his surroundings, "lonely," with his only guidance coming from a support boat, his source of encouragement as he navigates the tricky waters. But Donaldson is still at the mercy of what lies beneath.

He was twice stung by Lions Mane jellyfish, one of the most venomous of its kind, while navigating the North Channel. Its presence in the region is rife, and the threat was so severe that a designated "jellyfish spotter" was called out for the 34km swim.

Yet with all these factors standing in the way of his physical well-being, what Donaldson has found toughest is how the feat has challenged him mentally.

"When you talk about the mental aspect, with most sports, for example a football game, the players know which day, which minute the ref is going to be kicking off," he says. "But with many of these swims you're usually waiting for the weather and the right conditions.

"So, in the instance of New Zealand, I turned up at the start of February and didn't get to swim 'til the start of March. There's that mental aspect of hanging around and staying calm because any minute the organisers can call you up to do the swim."

He was pushed to his psychological limits in the Molokai waters. Intense conditions meant his pace reduced by nearly half, and his efforts to battle the elements at times felt like treading water. He channeled his mentality to take it one stroke at a time, and even though it seemed if the weather worsened he would have to give in, that was never an option. The motivation of his cause, raising money for mental health purposes, was too strong.

"I'd never experienced pain or adversity, both physically and mentally, like that in my life and here we were after 16 hours of battling having managed to find a way through," he says. "I was sitting there absolutely broken but at the same time, just so delighted with what we'd done."

'I'm trying to do all these swims for something bigger than myself'

"My grandfather, who was my biggest role model growing up, really struggled with depression, and I've lost friends to suicide," Donaldson says.

He does not need any external motivation in his quest for his record-breaking feat. He himself has had mental health challenges, but above all else, he is driven by seeing the effect it has had on those close to him.

Donaldson has raised over $19,000 for mental health research organisation the Black Dog Institute in this challenge alone. The charity is one of a kind in Australia, the only medical research institute to investigate mental health across the life span.

It has provided an additional fire. He is not only completing these swims for his own personal goals, after seeing people he was close to suffer mentally, representing the charity means a whole lot more.

"It's so key to have the right motivation," he says. "I've got my own wants to do these, I also want to do some good for charity, there's a big reason why we're doing it, to represent the Black Dog Institute. In those moments, that's what I'm thinking of. I suppose bigger purposes, things that are bigger than yourself, I believe that's how you come through those toughest moments."

Donaldson recalls the pain of his Molokai swim. With his body giving up, his cause was the only thing keeping him going. Physical torment would not deter him from honouring his biggest role model, his late grandfather. Donaldson's focus never deterred.

"As soon as I got back on dry land and could have a shower and process what had happened, I was just overwhelmed with this wave of emotion," he says. "It was this massive challenge of adversity that became one of the most meaningful moments of my life.

"There were certainly moments I thought of him [his grandfather]; he's been such a big role model in my life. Someone I'll always look up to, always aspire to be like, to become like. It's amazing the impact that some people can have on your life, even when they're not around."

Just days before heading to Gibraltar to tackle his next leg of the challenge, Donaldson is still feeling the effects of his Molokai venture. Physically and emotionally drained, he has no time to rest. With three swims left to complete set out in a two-month time frame, the challenge gets no easier.

Having completed his opening four swims -- including the three longest of the challenge -- in 37 hours, 38 minutes and 47 seconds, Donaldson is on track to clinch the record for the fastest accumulation of time across the seven channels. The record currently stands at 64 hours, 35 minutes.

But whether he achieves that or not, his ultimate goal of raising money and awareness for mental health has already been attained.

"The better we can understand mental health, the better equipped we are to help people," he says. "With it being such a big issue in this day and age, I think that's one of the most important things we can support."