Swimming has always terrified me. The fear doesn’t stem from the act of swimming itself but from being undressed like that in front of others; scars from years of being bullied for being overweight. I feared their laughter, their derision, their silent judgement, I guess in a small way I still do.
While at school I would avoid swimming at all costs, coming up with every excuses to miss classes; I had an ingrowing toenail for about two years. When I ran out of excuses I would simply just hide until the half hour had gone by. As soon as school was over I knew that I could now choose to get into the water or not, so I simply chose not to.
Hiding from something like that left a void of knowledge similar to my inability to ride a bike that I wrote about a few months back. A simple childhood skill that went left undeveloped. I knew that I could just about swim, a few attempts at facing my fears in the past had shown me as much. But it was more like avoiding drowning than actually swimming.
But at the start of this year, long before self-isolation and lockdown became everyday words, I decided that I need to face that fear once and for all. My partner is a long distance swimmer of incredible ability and yet I shied away from joining in on that part of her world because of these childhood scars, but no more I told myself. I made my mantra for the year “be brave enough to suck at something new”, and vowed to face my fears head on. I know that the kids who pointed, laughed and pushed me to the ground have long forgotten these moments, but I know I never will. So just the act of being in the changing rooms let alone swimming sparked panic and fear as those scars effortlessly tore open. Even when swimming in the pool I could feel eyes watching when there were none. My subconscious and self confidence struggled with every stroke, but I carried on.
After a few sessions I could swim breaststroke fairly confidently but frontcrawl was a complete enigma; too many moving parts, too much thinking for my simple runners mind of one step in front of the other until I got tired. I wanted to try and master it but then lockdown came and the idea of swimming became all but a faded fantasy.
As the tightened grip of lockdown eased, the local swimming lakes opened up and my partner encouraged me to carry on my swimming in an entirely new environment. I thought it would be a back to basics sport but open water swimming has more gear than running does with; tow floats, a dizzying variety of wetsuits and hats that must be a certain colour or you risk not being able to swim! Thanks to my working relationship with the brand 2XU I had help with selecting the right wetsuit and size for myself. As soon as it arrived I quickly and awkwardly slipped it in on and was surprised by how comfortable it actually felt and how successfully it sucked in my lockdown lumps. I enjoyed wearing it so much I actually wore it for the next half hour and even had a coffee and replied to some emails while wearing it, much to the confusion of my neighbour walking past. Wearing a wetsuit meant I no longer have to worry about the self confidence issues that I am plagued with. “I do not have to fear the glares anymore”, I told myself as I awkwardly tried to peel the wetsuit off before my next zoom call.
So I had the gear but still very little idea and as we drove to the lake for my first session I was nervous beyond belief. It was like I was a kid again, the sharp fear of standing out from the crowd crackled through me. Luckily I had my partner with me, to put it lightly she’s experienced in the world of open water swimming completing her third 10km swim just last weekend. She calmed my nerves and explain every step of the way, making the darkened waters a little clearer.
Due to covid there were no changing facilities on site, so with the car doors as privacy I attempted a strip tease in reverse; slinging off my clothes and pulling on my wetsuit, limbs everywhere, as I desperately tried to get ready as quickly as possible. After signing in and throwing my flip flops on the collected pile, like the world’s worst game of snap, I was in.
As soon as I began to swim in the lake it felt like a revelation, like an entirely different sport. The actions were the same, the movements similar but it was a world away from the world I had carried fear of for so long. The cold waters of that lake washed away scars I thought permanent.
I wasn’t quick, my jarring and uncoordinated breaststoke meant I was probably the slowest on the water but it didn’t matter. In the vast open water of the lake there are no comparisons, no awkward overtakes or that dread of holding others up. You simply move to the side if you are slower and experience the raw beauty of swimming in nature.
I managed 800m on the first session but honestly, I was sold within seconds. Swimming no longer meant bullies, judgment and the dread of inferiority but beauty, adventure and freedom. As I walked out of the water trying to attempt my best James Bond impression but probably looking more like the creature from the blue lagoon I couldn’t wait to get back in again.
I was sold, I was healed, I was an open water swimmer.