My earliest memories of water are standing beneath a frozen Niagara Falls, sailing around the Statue of Liberty and boating with my family in the Lake District. Then, in later years there were swimming lessons with orange armbands and a soggy bag on the coach back to school. I don’t remember being scared of water during these times, just in awe of it. I’m also not sure when the nightmares began, but re-occur they did and over many decades: 1) in the back seat of a car being driven through a beautiful landscape straight into a lake, unable to open the door against water pressure 2) watching the fast approaching swell of a tidal wave paralysed with fear 3) lying in a Roman bath built on the top floor of a tower- ceiling lowering down to juice us!
Pool rescue, poo & pubes
I went on in my conscious state to associate swimming with feelings of entrapment and being out of control. For most of my life I avoided the deep end of an indoor pool and had never experienced the sublimity of gliding through open water or the joy of freestyling out into the sea. In my 20’s I worked as a personal trainer at a health club. While my colleagues were busy diving and towing heavy bodies to the side of the pool to gain their national lifeguard qualifications, I hid on the balcony above- my stomach churned just watching. Other things that made me want to vomit were the prospect of other peoples pubes sticking to my feet on poolside or from the changing room floors, and the thought of poo pellets floating into my mouth while I tried not to sink.
For the occasions I did manage to self-consciously wriggle into a swimming costume and not drown, I gave myself a ‘swimming name’. Joan. As in Joan Collins, full hair and makeup with imaginary fag and martini in hand, head always above the water- thoroughly dysfunctional inefficient and misaligned. Joan loved the hug of the water but couldn’t unfortunately hug it back. And in this manor she continued (for around 3 decades) trying every other type of physical activity to avoid swimming.
So swim forwards badly about 30 years and an event occurred that would kill off Joan (and her martini and fag hands) and give rise to a new kind of aquaholic, more fishlike and slippery than ever before. But to get to this point in my water journey, I had to go through a baptism of fire. Now bear in mind, that I am the woman that clings onto a hot water bottle like it’s a buoyancy aid, in the middle of summer. Why I decided to try paddleboarding for the first time just as the boating centre was closing for winter I have no idea. But over the water I flowed, cocky with all my years of developing core strength and stability through teaching and practicing yoga. Five minutes down the river I found myself with what climbers call ‘sewing machine leg’ (or if you’re a musician, Elvis leg). And then there I was, flailing around in the cold water, making a noise like a dying swan while my husband took pictures.
Cold water shock is a normal and controllable, physiological response when entering chilly water and a natural part of open water swimming, sometimes even in the summer months. However if you are not aware or prepared for it, it can be very scary- and it was. BUT I did not die! After a few minutes of hyperventilating on my back (chest muscles constricting involuntarily) and gasping for breath, blood from my peripheries rushed to my core, bathing my internal organs with warmth to preserve them. My breath then stabilised and I was able to swim around a bit and plop back on my paddleboard. To feel warm in cold water is the most extraordinary sensation and a testament to the incredible efficiency and intelligence of the human body. Moreover, I now felt brave and in control. What started out feeling like a near-death experience became a joyous and exhilarating awakening as I embraced being in a large body of water on my own. It was so empowering and I was buzzing for days.
Swimming with a swan
About a week later when my friend Sally offered to introduce me to open water swimming, I snapped her fins off! I was curious to see if I could experience the same levels of elation again and was keen to get in the water properly this time. One sunny October morning with all the gear and no idea, I was driven to the Old Bathing Place on the River Avon. I wore a 3mm wetsuit and borrowed a tow float but forgot to bring a bright bobble hat. Our friend Sophia, hardcore in a semi cut off wetsuit with no sleeves, swim shoes or gloves came too. I felt overdressed for the occasion but was soon bloody glad I was. It was 3 degrees in the water.
Parked up in Fisherman’s Carpark we could see the early morning mist shapeshift over the river lit up by the rising sun. It was a beautiful day to be initiated but my thoughts soon wandered to how I was going to get out of my wetsuit in time if I needed a poo. My stomach was churning! There was no need to worry though as I had an excellent teacher who showed me how to get into the cold water inch by inch and control my breathing. Before I knew it my shoulders were submerged and off I fucked towards a bend in the river where a rowing boat appeared and nearly took my head off. I wouldn’t be forgetting my bright bobble hat again.
Meanwhile Sally was filming with her cool underwater camera and Sophia was swimming around like she was in the Mediterranean. Suddenly an enormous white swan appeared before us. Sally quietly instructed me to be very still in case it wanted to finish off what the rowing boat had nearly started. It was a primal and magical moment. To be so close to this magnificent creature in its natural territory was deeply moving. As it sailed away a line of ducklings paddled behind their mother on the other side of us. Immersed in nature, and in the moment, with 2 wonderful women who would become my swim buddies, I couldn’t be happier. Little did I know at the time, that what I learned that day, would help keep me afloat through the most difficult period of my life that was soon to come.
The life of an aquaholic doesn’t just mean drinking the open waters or the chlorinated pool, it means living and breathing the water too….and writing about it. I l also love reading about wild swimming adventures and the incredibly varied experiences of those who venture into blue spaces. I recently became an ambassador for Bluetonic, a charity that promotes wellbeing in, on and around the water and my dream is to travel and teach swimming to support my writing lifestyle. This includes being involved in voluntary drowning prevention projects that teach underprivileged children from coastal areas how to swim. The World Health Organisation stated recently that drowning is among the leading causes of death among people aged between 1-24 and the third leading cause of unintentional injury deaths, claiming more than 236,000 lives each year. I’m on it!
There’s also much work to be done locally. Whilst chatting at poolside before our swimming lesson, two women shared their stories of why they were there. One was held down underwater by a group of boys during her teenage years at school and had only just mustered up the courage to approach the water again. Another lady when a child, watched her younger brother drown while on a family seaside holiday. She too had avoided swimming for most of her life thereafter, but had returned to the water so she could share the joy of joining her own children in the sea. Funnily enough, my two books The Glass Puddle (Vole 2021) and Night Swan to Nigg (Cromarty Arts Trust 2022) are both themed around open water but were written before my initiation into the river. I’m beginning to think this wasn't just a coincidence.
Becoming a fish
I can now swim whole lengths under water (fuck you Joan! Fuck. You.) and I’m working on my technique all the time. I have learned that swimming is 70% technique and only 30% fitness and that taking fewer strokes to cover a greater distance is key. This is what revolutionary Total Immersion coach, Terry Laughlin teaches his elite athletes and to anyone who wants to swim quicker but also effortlessly. He also talks about fishlike swimming as opposed to human swimming which is what most of us have been taught to do. When I resumed swimming lessons after a long time, I was happily surprised to find that I progressed very quickly. I realised that all my years of teaching and practicing alignment, breath control, biomechanics and healthful movement through practices such as yoga, meditation and boxing were the reason why I couldn’t now recognise myself in the water. Joan had well and truly done one! Mimicking animals is what we do in yoga (there are lots of fish poses) and using your whole body like a whip to drive your arm, is what we do in boxing, and so becoming a fish has not been too strange a transition.
And so I get to the most difficult part of this post which is to share that my father passed away peacefully over Christmas after a difficult few months. Still very much in shock and drenched in grief, I continue to look forward to getting that hug from the water. I don’t know how I would have coped over the last 6 months if I hadn’t found this way of being weightless and hidden.
It strikes me that the stages of grief are similar to the stages you go through during cold water shock, from the initial gasp of disbelief, to what I am told, in time, will be a warm and happy feeling when I think about my Dad. Despite being a brilliant doctor, he was a great believer in medication rather than exercise but he did, I discovered in recent years, love swimming, was very good at it apparently. Just before he passed he recounted memories of his brothers teaching him how to swim in our beautiful family estate in India, one which comes with a river. And it is to a river he wished to return, a local one near to where he spent most of his life. Soon we will be submerging his ashes in a water ceremony in the River Avon where the flow and law permits it. And I’ll be able to meet him again, at the Old Bathing Place.