Anyone who knows me knows I love swimming. Most of my colleagues think I’m obsessed and most of my friends are swimming buddies. What is less obvious is that I am not actually very good at swimming, or, shall we say, I am only just learning to swim properly at the age of 33.
I can proudly remember getting my 5 metre badge just as I started school, but from there it was all going nowhere. Swimming lessons at both primary and secondary school consisted of “get in here – swim over there” with absolutely no consideration for those of us who were terrified out of our depth or could barely attempt to doggy-paddle. Certainly there was no instruction as to actually how to swim. And thus I hated the thought of even getting in the water until I was out of my teens.
For no other reason than socialising, I joined my college water polo team at university. I was a hopeless player but at least I have always been able to throw a ball. What did happen, however, was that I finally got over my fear of being in the water. Thanks, Paula. Through water polo I met another dear friend, Valérie, and we swam together in the years that followed, both at university and beyond.
By the summer of 2010, I was fortunate enough to work in close proximity to London’s Hyde Park, and some wonderful colleagues (Spike, Jools, Louise) got me started in the Serpentine. It was just one of those things you had to try. It was £20 a year, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, and it was liberating. A quick holiday trekking in Afghanistan (yes, really) and I came back wondering about the next challenge. Slowly Louise & I swam throughout the autumn, as the pond weed dissipated, and the golden dawns shone and warmed our mornings and the water reflected the colour of the falling leaves. The water temperature dropped, and we kept going. We had fallen in love with the world of outdoor swimming. Goodbye heated chlorinated tanks: this was our passion. We got to know each family of swans and geese and were even able to distinguish the herons, the embodiment of concentration as they watched the water for their catch.
Before we knew it, the water had frozen over, we walked over snow to the pontoon, and immersed ourselves in the little open water that there was away from the ice. We had become winter swimmers. Together with another colleague, Nuála, we spent the following seasons entering winter swimming competitions in Slovenia’s Lake Bled, in Tampere and Helsinki in Finland, and in Tallinn, Estonia’s beautiful capital.
Swimming is a very social thing and can open up a world of possibilities. By early 2013 I had reached a point where I wanted more than just socialising: I wanted to actually be good at what I do. Not the best, just good enough for me.
The Serpentine is full of wonderful, inspirational people and that Easter the legend that is Nick Adams ran a training camp for aspiring long-distance swimmers. I was by far the slowest in all the sessions, but I knew already deep down that I have the determination to persevere. It was here I met the equally amazing Sal, who invited me to Jersey and gave me some proper lessons: almost the first I had had since I was a toddler. Thanks to you both for setting me on my way.
I am also a member of the South London Swimming Club, which does lead to somewhat of a conflict with galas against the Serpentine, as I literally don’t know which swimming hat to wear these days. The home of the SLSC is Tooting Bec Lido, funnily enough in South London. In the summer of 2012 I had had a couple of lessons there with Dan through Swim Trek, and it had helped spark my interest that there was more than just pootling around in the ‘fresh’ water of London town or diving into the short and snappy winter swimming trips. By the summer of 2013, there was much talk of Channel swimming; specifically relays. I had been invited to join one team but am not ashamed to say I pulled out when I realised that the rest of the crew (none of whom was Serpentine or SLSC) were not in tune in the same way I was with the enormity of the challenge, the respect needed for the water, and the essential camaraderie and preparation as a team which was to get us all to France.
Quite by accident, as one does over a post-Serpentine breakfast one morning, my friend Dani asked me to fill the last space on a relay team for late summer 2014. I wasn’t a good swimmer, I replied. I would be slow. I couldn’t swim properly, I said. Dani said it didn’t matter. He knew I was already getting better since I’d actually started having regular lessons. Not coaching, but lessons, with Dan. Being a winter swimmer, and somewhat stubborn, there was no question that I’d give up once in the water, especially as part of such a fantastic team. Jaki, Henry, Volker, Alan, Dani: I can’t wait for this autumn. But these past 12 months (& more) haven’t been just about popping over to the continent one day (or night) the scenic route. They’ve been about friendship, fun and lots and lots of learning. It’s the journey that counts.
Why am I writing all this? Well, Dan asked me to 🙂 and he deserves a lot of the credit for where I am today. He’s seen me change in the past two years from someone who could barely stand putting her face in the water (heads up breaststroke only) to someone who kicked ass in a 12C 2-hour relay qualifier (thanks Suzie and Ranie for that one!), someone who turns up to group fitness sessions twice a week and is still last in the lane, but getting faster, and someone who has worked hard and consistently and little bit by little bit is actually learning front crawl. So for anyone reading this, if you think you’re too old, you think it’s too late, you aren’t relaxed and can’t breathe in the water, just stop, and think again. It’s been one of the most exciting journeys of my life to date to fall in love with something that used to terrify me, and to think that one day, I might even be good at it.
FitandAbel note : For those budding adult swimmers take note of Charlies final sentences – her story is inspirational but also very achievable for the many adult non swimmers out there who think maybe they would like to take part in an open water swim adventure of some description one day. Dan Abel