As I am about to turn 70, I can reflect on the fact that I’ve been a swimmer of sorts for about 65 years. I learned to swim at the age of about five (in my final ‘test’, I panicked so much I had to be rescued!); I was a completely unremarkable member of the swimming squad at school but, as a young adult, I was a keen body surfer on Sydney’s fabulous beaches. But I was never an especially good swimmer; in fact, I doubt if I ever did any good in any race as a youngster, let alone win one. I guess I didn’t have sufficient natural ability or the will to train harder, or both. Probably I didn’t see any point in mindlessly swimming up and down a pool. I continued to swim frequently as a young to middle aged adult but it was mostly as a training adjunct to running.
Then, 30 or so years ago, I was holidaying with my family at a small coastal town in northern New South Wales when I noticed a couple of people swimming out from one beach, around a headland, and in through the surf at the next beach along the coast, a relatively modest distance of not much more than one kilometre. I wanted to do just that. So I spent the rest of that holiday swimming out from the first beach in progressively longer distances battling with a variety of anxieties: deep water, sharks and other nasties underneath, and distance off shore, telling myself that the only thing I had to fear was fear itself (misquoting FDR’s famous words), or something like that. By the end of the holiday, I had done it! When I swam in through the surf at the second beach, I passed a surfer sitting on his board. ‘Where did you come from?’ he asked. ‘New Zealand’ was my jesting reply. But I was hooked. I was over the moon with this simple achievement and the sheer beauty of being ‘out there’ and I have never looked back. Stupidly, a couple of years later, I did this swim at night, using the navigation light at the end of the breakwater as my first sighting point, then a lighthouse as my second, then the lights of the surf club to guide me through the surf into the beach. It was also good but it was a foolish thing to do and I wouldn’t do it again nor would I recommend anyone else to do it.
About ten years ago, a faulty ticker forced me to retire from ‘proper’ work and I turned to doing what I love: swimming. For the next few years I earned a very modest income teaching and coaching swimming, training surf lifesavers and pool lifeguards and sometimes taking others on swimming tours to exotic parts of the world. I tell all my swimming friends and students that real swimming is when you break the confines of a pool (breaking the ‘tyranny of the wall’ I tell them), rid yourself of the stench of chlorine on your body and in your hair and get into the open water. These days I swim three or four times a week with a few mates at local beaches where the water temperature never drops below about 16 degrees C in the middle of winter (and that’s quite cold enough thanks). I still conduct learn-to-swim instruction, mainly for adults, as well as pool-based swimfit and technique training and open water training but at a less frenetic pace these days.
I have had some modest swimming success, not by the lapsed time measured on a stopwatch but in the simple achievement of getting to a destination, in a number of distance swims in exotic locations around the world. I have swum in many of the world’s seas and oceans – all very gently and always taking the scenic route – including the Swedish, Finnish and German Baltic Sea coasts, the North Sea, the Irish Sea, the English Channel (no, not across it), the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and, closer to home, various seas of the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans. I have also swum in lakes in Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia and Germany when I lived in Europe for a while (one swim in Germany was too late in the swimming season which brought with it a dose of hypothermia!). In 2014 I did the Hellespont in Turkey (aka the Dardanelles) – alas along it, not across it due to atrocious weather conditions that year – which gave me the idea to take like-minded aquaphiles on swimming-based holidays to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia. And may there be many more! Swimming above the Arctic Circle in Finland (in summer!) is one goal as is swimming across the Straits of Gibraltar in a relay team. And I wouldn’t mind actually getting across the Hellespont one day.
Why do I find open water swimming (OWS) so good? Without trying to be too lyrical, it is because in the open water I am at one with nature, embraced and supported by ‘mother’ water and with no need to follow a silly black line or having to turn every 25 or 50 metres. Once I am warmed up and ‘in the zone’, I feel that I can swim forever … almost. In fact, I joke with those new to OWS that I need to set the alarm on my watch to remind me to stop. Distance swimming in the open water is a real meditation; in fact, I often recite some mantras to myself, sometimes with my eyes closed (which my swimming friends call my ‘Zen Swimming’ in a derogatory manner. It’s quite interesting to see where you end up after a spell of having your eyes closed!). OWS is also a good exercise in brain training – you really can teach yourself to swim in a straight(er) line using quite real brain training techniques. Of course, if conditions are cold and rough, it’s not as good, but one needs the occasional bad day to appreciate the good ones … probably. And nothing tastes quite as good as a post-OWS coffee.
Just remember that you don’t stop swimming when you get old; you get old when you stop swimming.