Sarah Ferguson, the inspirational open water swimmer and founder of Breathe Conservation, was diagnosed with coronavirus 10 days before a countrywide lockdown was declared in South Africa. This is her story and poignant advice to others.

“This is an unprecedented time in our country and the world,” wrote Ferguson in a recent open letter to fellow South Africans. “It is hard to really fathom that we are part of history in the making. This is a time where we are forced to stop and slow down whether we like it or not.”

Roller coaster

“For me it has been a bit of a roller coaster waiting for initial results, to being officially diagnosed positive and then dealing with the stigma attached to that – the emotional and mental toll as well as the physical symptoms. It is such an anomaly and so unknown that there is a lot of fear associated with the virus. This is understandable, but fear never helps anyone and so in this season of the unknown and world firsts, it is courage and hope that I choose to pursue. I choose to see the good in the bad and trust in the bigger picture.”

For Ferguson, Covid-19 also meant slowing down from her busy life as a record breaking endurance swimmer and founder of Breathe – an environmental outfit which works for a plastic free ocean.

“We aspire to be pioneers by aiming high and eliminating rather than reducing plastic pollution in the ocean and the world around us,” reads the Breathe website.


In support of this mission, Ferguson has tackled a number of courageous world-firsts.

In March last year, she became the first person to swim around Chile’s Easter Island – a Unesco World Heritage site famed for its archaeological sites, including nearly 900 monumental statues (moai).

Known to its people as Rapa Nui, the volcanic island is one of the most remote inhabited places in the world. Yet it is in peril because of plastic pollution – the island is in the midst of a giant oceanic pollution gyre – and growing tourism.

The last person who tried to swim round the island, gave up after 26 hours. Ferguson swam continuously, completing the circumnavigation – a total distance of 63,5 km – in just over 19 hours and 8 minutes.


The achievement brought her relentless attention  and a Guinness World Record.

Numerous speaking engagements and newspaper, radio and magazine interviews followed.

She has been asked to be part of book projects and taken part in panel discussions. Lizzy SA and Footprint USA have signed as sponsors and an agent has come on board to help grow Breathe as a brand.

She won an award at the Footprint sustainability summit in Arizona, worked with John McCarthy to publish a book on the Easter Island swim, held meetings to capitalise on the success of the swim, and began working as a brand ambassador for Plastic Oceans International and Plastic Oceans Chile.

Easter Island (2) Sarah Ferguson book
TRUE STORY: Swimming Easter Island tells how eco-warrior Sarah Ferguson reached across global, cultural and political boundaries to unite people in her swim against plastic pollution.

Along the way, Ferguson got to meet  Michael Phelps in Arizona and other “incredible change makers” and influential people in the field of biochemistry, plastic pollution, film, conservation and packaging.

She was invited to be a keynote speaker at the Virgin Atlantic conference in the UK, and was due to help a school swim around Mauritius, travel to Chile to speak at another conference and go to the Olympics in Tokyo as Team SA’s physiotherapist.

Then Covid 19 struck.

“2020 will never be the same,” wrote Ferguson. “With our forced lockdown, we face a new reality after this. I hope and trust that this lockdown has allowed you and your families some much needed time to stop, rest and reflect on what it means to live deeply and tread lightly. To reassess your own goals and dreams and focus on what is important and what matters.” 


“For me it has allowed me time to process the past 18 months and learn to be OK with being unproductive for 21 days. I have had little mental or physical energy to invest in anything and it is really hard for me to wake up in the morning and get out of bed with nowhere to go and nothing specific to do. I am allowing my body and mind that time of nothingness. As a goal-setter and doer it is hard, but I also know that my mind and body will thank me for it. It is long overdue.”

Ferguson said she had been forced to recreate a routine to cope well with isolation, and had mentally prepared herself to be homebound for as long as was necessary.

She put out a challenge to others to do the same.

“Do not feel guilty for being unproductive,” said Ferguson. “This is a crazy and unprecedented time for all of us. Focus on what is in front of you and what you can control. Be grateful for this forced time with family and friends. If you are alone, use technology to connect with loved ones and restore relationships. Think of what and who is important in your life and cultivate that.”

Be grateful

“Use this time to allow your body and mind to rest and reflect so that whatever we are faced with next you are ready and rested to tackle it with all of your energy. Life is going to look different after this. Different is not necessarily bad. Think of how good this has been for our global warming (lowest recorded CO2 emissions since WW2) our marine and wildlife. You can hear the birds chirping and see them roaming in the streets. Be grateful for the small things. Allow yourself and kids to get bored. Limit your screen time as a welcome distraction. It thwarts creativity. Get outside (if you can) and spend time lying on the grass or in the pool or watching the wind blow the leaves on the trees. Make cloud art and be silly. Stay in your PJ’s all day.

“Think of how you can reduce your waste and recycling in this time by doing art with kids, repurposing as much as you can. We are forced to use what we have and limit our time out at the shops. This is the opportunity to change habits to be more environmentally sustainable. So hang in there. Here is hoping that you can still live deeply and tread lightly despite these crazy times.”

Roving Reporters was advised today (March 14) that Ferguson has won her battle against coronavirus. “She has, just a few days ago, tested negative – so she is now 100% healthy,” said her assistant, Jenni Peterson.


ENDURANCE: Open-water swimmer  Sarah Ferguson has recovered from Coronavirus. As with her record-breaking swims, she had to dig deep to keep going. Picture: Woftywild


BANNER IMAGE: Sarah Ferguson with safety officer and support kayaker John McCarthy on the Philocaly swim on the KZN North Coast last year. Picture: @linda.ness.pix


Now read… How Ferguson braved KZN’s wild waters but found few sharks

Click on the image below to read more stories in our series of Coronavirus Chronicles