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Open Water Swimming – Is it an addiction or an affliction?

Swimming in open water – what’s all that about?  River, lake or sea, why do we do it?  How often do we do it?  What, in the sweet name of Vaseline and chafe marks, is the sense in it?  These, and many other questions of a similar nature, abound in the nonplussed domain of our friends and loved ones (actually, that includes most of our chlorine  -‘The Scent of Champions’ – friends too). 

Most people who don’t swim outdoors struggle to understand why we do. Whilst we leap, enthusiastically into the brine or a reed-strewn lake on a cold, frosty morning (OK, some of us tiptoe in slowly but don’t spoil the image!) our loyal towel holders bemoan our stupidity and their own daftness for supporting us. Wrapped in coats and scarves and woolly hats, stamping frozen feet on unforgiving ground, they dream only of thick soup and hunks of bread, and the day when husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend regain their senses and stop this silly nonsense.

This non-comprehension does not abate as the weather improves. In fact, it is the opposite. Our hitherto loyal and supportive partners struggle to understand why quick dips in January lead, inexorably, to swims of one to six hours or more in the summer.  “Why?” they exclaim. “For what? For who?  Do you know you have three kids? What are their names? I wouldn’t call it dedicated. It’s more like an addicted affliction.  You are clearly an obsessed, afflicticator.”  That last word is made up but, by now, he or she could be distressed so don’t interrupt!.  

Do you think this will help?  A couple of years ago, at a Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation annual dinner, car window stickers were handed out.   The following phrase was written on the stickers:  ‘Channel Swimming:  ‘From the outside looking in you can’t understand it.  From the inside looking out you can’t explain it!’  

That doesn’t help?  They still don’t get it.  Hmmm – this could be a toughy! OK.  Sit your partner down, make them a hot drink and explain how wonderful they are in far too many ways to mention (I know, but you’re fighting for your open water lives here).  Hand them a copy of Outdoor Swimmer magazine, politely direct them to browse and retreat nervously as they experience what you hope will be a mini epiphany of understanding. 

The effects of this can be quite dramatic so be alert. Watch as they realise that open water swimming isn’t an affliction, more a way of life.  Let them see how, on each swim, you experience exhilaration, excitement and enlightenment as you search for, and find, that oneness with the water.  Illusive at first, when you get it, when you push through those barriers, the empowerment and joy are intoxicating. 

And that’s why you are a repeat offender. That’s why, swimming free and unfettered, un-constrained by the lanes and oppressive air of a pool, you delight in and crave this feeling of power and omnipotence. It’s why you come back time and again. You want that pain of the first few minutes as you adjust to the cold and get into your rhythm. You want the waves and tiredness – or waves of tiredness.  You want to be spooked by jellies and wayward swimmers. You want to know you have another hour to complete your swim that day. You want those things because you know what comes after. Towelling down, and thinking of food, you look back at your big pool and you laugh. You did it. You won that day. You overcame adversity and loved every aching, breaking minute and, yes, you are coming back to do it all again. 

And what about the friends you make, the friends for life?  Priceless.  You share the laughs, the tears, the oft-repeated stories, the camaraderie and they, too, get the brilliant dichotomy of an insular pursuit suffused with like-minded souls.      

Back to the nonplussed partner. Are they wilting? Is there a flicker of comprehension? Yes? Then it’s time for the denouement. “My darling, my sweetheart. Why don’t you try it too? You are a good swimmer, you beautiful/handsome mother/father of our delightful children. Come share the joy and wonder. Don’t worry about the bone gnawing cold, the open wounds from chafing, the ridiculous hat and goggle marks you get in the summer. Scoff at the privations, sneer at the doubters. Maybe you can train for a swim with me. We can do the Gibraltar Straits together, a Channel relay, a Lake Zurich relay. Why don’t you swim Windermere?  You will absolutely love it.”

“The children?” Don’t worry about the kids. We’ll have them cryogenically frozen. They’ll love it. We’ll stand them up on the beach in suspended, confused animation and re-energise them when we have finished training. Come share my joy. It will change your life. Say you will.”

All right, it’s still illegal to cryogenically freeze children, albeit briefly. But, you get my point.  Open water swimming – addiction or affliction?  No – more a reason to be. Spread the word.

5 thoughts on “Open Water Swimming – Is it an addiction or an affliction?”

  1. Finally fed my addiction with my first Dover swim of the year yesterday (and brought a newbie as well who’s inspired to come back). The feeling of retracing that all-too-familiar circuit past ducks, buoys, slopes and ugly brown buildings to The Wall and back was too delicious for words!

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