Day 2. 14 degrees of Bliss…

Tuesday 11th October 2016

Last week, I’d arranged to go for a swim with my friend Jenny at 9am today. Jenny is the friend who got me into cold water swimming a few years ago. We met on Twitter, and in person for the first time in the dry-side changing rooms at Brockwell Lido, my local pool. We met while getting undressed, as if old mates.  Her husband and my wife knew each other from way back, it wasn’t as if I was meeting a total stranger in a changing room for the first time.  Actually, it was.

I warmed to Jenny from the moment I met her. She is sparky and cool and she could swim in VERY cold water.  Photos of her on social media, with red, raw skin from Tooting winters, made me want to have a go.  I pondered it for a while, researched cold water swimming the way I research everything before committing myself. I’ve been for charity dips in the Lido, once when it was below 0 and a diver had to break the ice to let us in.  But that was a quick drip, no more and I screamed the entire time.   This was different.

I would stand in the Lido reception during the cold months and watch the winter swimmers, how brave, how cold, how can I do that?  I want to do that.  A swimmer said, it’s addictive, once you start you won’t stop. Yeah, right.  I watched as they rushed from pool side swims into the sauna and steam room, giggling, energetic, happy.  I was a little bit jealous.  I wanted to be brave and I hated not being able to at least try something, succeeding where possible.  Some people swam with heads above water, some were in wetsuits, others in regular swim wear, bodies submerged, arms moving up and in and down and around.  I wanted that to be me.  But I didn’t want to be cold. I admit I was scared.   Everyone I mentioned it to said I was mad. You’ll catch a cold – my mum.  You’re nutty – my dad.  You’re crazy – everyone else.  If you want to do it, just do it – my wife.

I bought a wetsuit. A shortie wetsuit, which I loved (and used at the above mentioned icy charity Lido encounter).  It was easy to put on and take off, it was comfortable and I didn’t look like an overstuffed pepper.  Then I hired a full wetsuit and ended up keeping it. Clever marketing, I am a star consumer!  Since wearing it several years ago and discovering that taking it off took more effort than the actual swim, I decided that I would swim without it. Also because once I fell over trying to get out of it and had a fit of laughter, eventually asking a lifeguard to help me.  Both wetsuits have been in our loft for a couple of years. Little did I know that I would be needing it in May 2017.  Everything has its use…eventually. But now you can understand my wetsuit dilemma.  If the water on the day is above 14 degrees I do not have to wear one…

Cold water is cold.  It’s stunningly invigorating and is addictive and that first dip, every time, takes away my breath.  Everything everyone ever told me about it was right.  It’s hard, but there are many things in life that are harder.  The only way in for me is to submerge myself immediately and start swimming.  Autumn 2014 was the first year I started cold water swimming.  Last year in October I had surgery, so I couldn’t winter swim, this year I am ready for whatever the temperature drops to.  I am acclimatising to the drop in water temp.  YOU HAVE TO ACCLIMATISE YOURSELF. And when it happens, when my skin is covered in water, cold water, clear water, I am reborn.  Me, the water, the sky, a bird flying past.  Nothing else.  My skin tingles for hours afterwards, I am woken up, coughs and colds are kept at bay.  It’s good for you, really, it is.  The best thing is that other swimmers don’t care whether your head is in or out, whether you do 1 or 12 lengths or run in and out.  Some people do the same amount of lengths as the temperature of the water…today it was 14 degrees, I admit I didn’t do 14 lengths, but 10 or 12, I lost count. 500m at least.  My sprint triathlon swim is 400m.

It was totally blissful, the best swim of my year, strokes of warmth where the sun came through, partially blue sky, few people, cheery lifeguards saying they wouldn’t do it, to which I responded, I hope you would if I needed you.  Since working with a scientific swimmer (for an hour at our Fun Palace, but that’s for another time), I noticed that something had shifted for me today, even Jenny commented on my lovely stroke.  No one has ever said that about my stroke before.  I wasn’t out of breath, I could have kept going. Given that three years ago I couldn’t do one length of freestyle in a 25m indoor pool, my progress has made me proud.  Because you see I am not a natural swimmer, I like land and mountains. I have learned to love the water.  I have learned to love the sea.  Did I tell you that my wife is a mermaid?  She glides along, she is beautiful to watch, she is my soul and my spirit in and out of the water. She is always beside me.  She is strong and confident and happy in water, happier in salt water, like all mermaids.  She taught me to breathe properly, she taught me how to do breast stroke, about 12 years ago in a pool in the Canaries.  I  kept practising and eventually I got it.  Far from the days of my school pool in Swiss Cottage in London, with wire baskets where our clothes were kept and chlorine that I can still smell and taste and the echo of children having fun but not being taught how to swim properly.

As with most things, once I had mastered breast stroke, I wanted to do freestyle. Breaststroke was hurting my lower back and freestyle would not.  But I couldn’t do freestyle, I would get out of breath fast and really struggle and hate that I couldn’t do it the way I wanted to do it.  I watched other swimmers, I watched my mermaid, eventually I managed half a length but no more, for weeks and months, I was struggling.  I couldn’t understand swimmers who just kept going, without stopping to breathe.  I wanted that to be me. But it wasn’t happening and I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t happening.  I bought aids, a pull buoy to keep my legs afloat so only my arms did the work.  That was easier.  I bought flippers, to help my stroke.  Easier again, but not natural.  And once you get used to swimming aids, when you revert to life before them, it’s harder.

For a Christmas present to myself 3 years ago, I booked a three hour swimming boot camp, in an indoor pool where you are filmed from every angle.  I was the only woman, with two triathletes and one man who was worse than me.  The instructor said, we’ll film you doing six lengths, just keep going.  I couldn’t even do one length. At the post swim one-to-one via Skype a week later, I realised, from watching myself on film, that my legs had been working far too hard and where they should have been straight they were bending at the knees.  And that wasn’t the only problem.  I watched that film a dozen and more times, made notes, made the changes necessary, had one lesson at the Lido, I was improving, slowly.  But that wasn’t good enough, I wanted to learn bilateral breathing – that is breathing on both sides.  In our friends’ pool in the south of France, I took a swimming book and read and swam, read and swam, ingested a great deal of water while trying to breathe on both sides, and I did it.  I also taught myself to do tumble turns, not very well, but I can do them.  Sort of.

Back in the Lido my freestyle started to improve even more.  I could do a length of freestyle and a length of breaststroke and so it went on.  Until something changed. Whether the gym work to increase my upper body strength or the pilates for my core or yoga for flexibility, or running since April, I remember a day, last year, when I swam freestyle and kept going as if my mermaid tail had fully formed.

Today was just like that.  Cold to start, but once in, warm, deliciously warm, warmer in the water than out and I could have kept on swimming.  I focused on a line in the floor of the pool then crashed into someone (sorry) because I was concentrating so much and was swimming the wrong way.  I didn’t stop once (apart from the crash), I was happy and proud and then I realised that in May, the water temperature will probably be exactly the same as it was today.

Next time it’s running…


3 thoughts on “Day 2. 14 degrees of Bliss…

  1. I don’t use this word lightly, but you’re utterly inspirational. Especially about overcoming your fear of the cold water. I really must stop being a wuss, waiting for the Sydney water to get over 20c!

  2. Hi Shelley, I am very admiring your bravery and will power. I had 5 years of running in my 40s, then switched to cycling when I was 50 and more recently swimming. My first and only triathlon a couple of years ago was baby, baby compared to the one you are doing. Like you, I did it on my own terms not to be competitive but to just to ‘do it’. At my own pace, but also competently. I felt a huge sense of achievement. This is what being alive and staying alive means for me in my middle and later years… looking after my health and fitness and being up for a challenge. Go girl!

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