Kerry-Lee Gockel, aka 'The Wingless Warrior’

14 March 2024

Meet Kerry-Lee Gockel, aka ‘The Wingless Warrior’

They say doing the channel crossing from the mainland to Rottnest Island as a ‘Solo’ is never solo. It’s a team effort with your training buddies, skipper, paddler, and crew on the day. But what if you’re a swimmer who, to even enter an ocean swim, requires assistance and a companion swimmer?

This year, the sold-out 2024 Euroz Hartleys Port to Pub with Hotel Rottnest is proudly hosting VIP guest Kerry-Lee Gockel, a Brisbane-based athlete also known as ‘The Wingless Warrior,’ born with no upper limbs through a condition called congenital amelia. Kerry-Lee says, “So often, my friends or people around me will say, “We forget that you have a disability because it’s just not a big thing.”

Recently nominated for the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) Awards in the category of Adaptive Performance of the Year, Kerry-Lee will be sharing with us how equally her determination, discipline, support network, and the unique nature of the swimming community has enabled her to participate in long-distance ocean swimming events.

Last year, Ceinwen Roberts, President of Port to Pub, competed in the Swim Around Keppel, a 20-kilometre open water swim around Great Keppel Island in Queensland. Ceinwen had already heard about inspirational Kerry-Lee and was following her on Instagram @thewinglesswarrior. Ceinwen says, “I saw her swimming with her husband and was amazed and intrigued by her. It was like a celebrity girl fan moment. And I was like, “Do I go and talk to her? You know, what do I say? Act cool.”

With the Port to Pub catchphrase being “A swim for all,” including a wide range in ages and abilities from elite marathon swimmers to beginners, Ceinwen wanted the Port to Pub community to draw inspiration from Kerry-Lee. She says, “I think when swimmers are out there and thinking, I can’t do this and this hurts and this is hard, you know, to put yourself in someone else’s position like Kerry-Lee’s and think, well, imagine how hard that would be.”

Outside of swimming Kerry-Lee works full-time leading projects in the Queensland Treasury, and with her husband Paul Gockel wakes up every morning at 4:15 am and goes either to the pool or gym for an hour. She says, “It’s very much an ordinary household. We have breaky, get dressed, and that looks a bit different for me, obviously, because that’s where I need the most help on a day-to-day basis. So Paul gives me a hand getting dressed and all of that kind of thing every day.”

Thinking back to the swim around Great Keppel Island, Ceinwen says, “She was in the seat next to me and I watched how she ate her lunch and I watched her texting with her toes. And I saw her gorgeous husband next to her helping her, and her helping him as well – because he’s got an incredible story, too. I just think it’s nice for people to take a step back and think of how other people get through every single day.”

Kerry-Lee was born in South Africa, to a family where the language around disability was always normalised. She says, “My parents have just been kind of quiet advocates along the way. It’s never been a big deal in our family. It’s just a statement of fact – Kerry-Lee has no arms.”

Initially with much resistance, Kerry-Lee was required to learn to swim from a young age. The whole family were into water sports; her Dad was a water polo player and had a natural affinity to the water. She says, “In South Africa, most people had pools, and we lived by the beach. So it was really important to my folks to make sure that I was water safe. And that’s why swimming lessons were a mandatory exercise.”

It wasn’t until she was in late high school that swimming became competitive when the school swim coach happened to be standing next to her sister. Kerry-Lee explains, “And he said, who’s that Terry-Lee that everybody keeps cheering for? And she’s like, no, that’s Kerry-Lee, my sister. Why don’t you tell her to come and join our squad? I’ll train her. And that’s how I got into some coaching and started to train hard. I loved training with James. All of a sudden, I had my sport.”

Kerry-Lee is competitive and had her sights aimed at the Nationals. She wanted to represent Queensland and was even looking at the Paralympics. But studying law and juggling work, she chose to take a step back saying, “It meant a lot to me at that time to get my degrees and become a lawyer. So that’s when I decided to pull back from competitive swimming.”

It was in 2005 when Kerry-Lee entered her first ocean swim, inspired by her coach James, who said: “You’re following this black line up and down all the time… why don’t you give open water a crack, and so I did my very first one-kilometre ocean swim.”

Her ocean swimming technique involves having a companion swimming with her. Kerry-Lee paints a picture: “I’m in the middle of the kayaker and my companion swimmer, the companion swimmer’s following the kayaker and I’m following them. I’m breathing bilaterally, so looking side to side. I don’t actually do my own sighting. When I do open water swimming, I rely on the person that I’m swimming with to set the course and I set the pace, so they swim to my pace, but I make sure that I stick close to them because they are the one setting the direction.”

Most of us take for granted being able to swim by ourselves, be it in the ocean or the pool, but Kerry-Lee cannot indulge this. As she explains, “I never go to the pool by myself. I can’t, I cannot put my cap and goggles on independently. Once I’m in togs, if I need to do anything, I’m not getting out of them with somebody else there. So Paul is always with me. When I commit to doing one of these big swims, he’s committing to it, too, even though he’s not swimming for 10Ks. And so I think that’s why so many, you know, all of us who do these bigger solo distances always acknowledge how much of a team effort it is, even though we are single-handedly covering that distance.”

Kerry-Lee says about her recent nomination for the WOWSER awards: “I was up there with some pretty big names in the world of open water swimming. It’s really cool that they’ve got these awards and acknowledge that there are many different ways that swimmers participate in this sport. I was actually really chuffed that as a swimmer who’s assisted, and not unassisted ever, that I was still recognised as an athlete for the purposes of these awards. And that just made me feel amazing.”

With Port to Pub being sold out this year, there will be more people than before swimming, with their own motivations and reasons to be crossing the channel. Ceinwen reflects, “In any situation in life, you need people around you, helping you, supporting you, including you, getting you through hard times, difficult times or easy times or great times. It’s just about that kind of support and the network and the community that we all need around us.”

Kerry-Lee says, “I think that anybody who comes just once to a community open water swimming group realises that they’re friendly, they are welcoming. People want you to experience the joy of being in the water that we’ve all experienced. So there’s this very enthusiastic, just come and try. I’ll stay with you, I’ll swim with you. There’s always somebody who’s willing to stick with a new swimmer and, you know, not hold their hand, but be there for support.”

About the community cohesion, Ceinwen says, “You’ll see it on Port to Pub day, you know, the family, the friends, the skippers, the paddlers, the support crew, the people dropping off the people, you know, this cannot happen without a community coming around to make it happen.”

Kerry-Lee has in her future the goal of swimming the Swim Around Keppel as a soloist in 2025, then aims to come back to WA for the 2026 Port to Pub as a solo. She says, “I’ve realised as I’ve got older that there are things that are always going to be impossible for me, but we can all explore and expand what is possible. For me, that’s been pushing the boundaries of swimming and testing those further distances.”

Kerry-Lee will be at Rottnest Island for Port to Pub. Please introduce yourself and share some swimming stories. Ceinwen, in excitement, says, “I want to show off our beautiful island and our Fremantle and our ocean in between and our people. I am really excited for our community to get around her.”

Kerry-Lee is the kind of inspiration one can draw on when we need to dig deep. She reminds us, “We live on a big island, we’re spoilt for choice and places to swim. I think swimming just enables you to explore some areas of this country that you probably otherwise wouldn’t. You know, not many people get to say they swam around Great Keppel Island and, you know, we all chat about the view of being in the water and looking up at the rocky landscape. It just gives you a different perspective of some of our greatest landscapes.”

Kerry-Lee’s limitations and the initial need for water safety may have been the conduit for her eventually choosing swimming as her sport, but one gets the feeling that she would have still been standing strong as our VIP guest, regardless of having been born with wings, or not. Although too modest to admit, she certainly does have a superhero vibe. She says, “It’s such an inclusive sport. Anybody can open water swim. There’s no such thing as your typical open-water swimmer. It doesn’t exist. I think it’s one of those sports where anybody can give it a go.”


Photos provided by Kerry-Lee Gockel @thewinglesswarrior and Clip Media.