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It was supposed to be a last adventure after her one month internship at a hospital in Bali, Indonesia, in 2014: a boat trip from Lombok to Komodo. But instead of snorkeling in the ocean, Els Visser and 24 other passengers ended up clinging to a wooden boat that had begun rapidly sinking in the middle of the night. With no communication devices or flares on board, she decided the next morning to swim to an island—nothing more than a little dot in the far distance.
At that time, Visser was a medical student who’d lived in a sorority house in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and loved to socialize with her big group of friends in bars and at parties. She jogged an occasional 5K, but she was far from a pro triathlete.
“I had to do something,” the 29-year-old says, looking back on her decision to leave the sinking ship. “I was cold and worried about hypothermia and dehydration. There was no cell reception, we’d hardly seen any boats since we’d left, and our trip was supposed to take four days, so there was no one out there looking for us. We discussed our options in the morning. Most people wanted to stay close to the boat, but I couldn’t think of anything but that island. So on an impulse, I started to swim.”
Visser had been on the swim team when she was younger, but that didn’t give her the confidence that she would make it. “The ocean is pretty unpredictable with the currents, the waves, and the swells. Staying with the wreck wasn’t an option for me, and with that island as my goal, I had something to fight for.”
Three women and one man decided to go with her, but in the big waves the small group fell apart very quickly. Visser and a woman from New Zealand swam for roughly eight hours before they set foot on the small desert island. “The last part was the hardest. The current got stronger, but we were determined to reach the island before sunset, which we did. I hadn’t been scared during the entire swim, but that feeling of getting out of the ocean and feeling sand under our feet, I will never forget that.”
Visser and her companion—surviving the first night by drinking their own urine—were rescued the next day. All but two of the other passengers were also saved. That fateful day in Indonesia in 2014 changed her outlook on life forever.
Visser soon found out that she had a talent for triathlon, finishing fourth overall in her first Ironman in Switzerland in 2017. After that result, she made a bold decision: Put her career as a surgeon and PhD candidate on hold. “My work as a doctor is very meaningful, helping cure people with cancer, but surviving a shipwreck made me realize that life can be short. Don’t wait to chase your dreams, life is now.”
In August 2017, Visser moved to Brisbane, Australia. A year later she won Ironman Maastricht in her home country. “We are aiming more on the full Ironman distance and, ultimately, competing for the top 10 in Kona,” says Cameron Watt, who started to coach Visser in December 2018. And she’s well on her way. At this year’s Ironman World Championship, she finished 16th. So far she has no regrets about leaving the medical world behind. “I get only one shot at life, and when I am old I never want to look back and think ‘what if?’”