The lure of open water

The endless horizon full of possibilities and empty of expectations. The relentless yet calming swoosh of the waves. The feel of cold water against the skin.

I have always loved the sea.

I can – and have – spend hours just sitting, looking at and listening to the sea. And I’ve taken almost every opportunity to get in and have at least a paddle, but preferably a proper dip with my head submerged. If I don’t, I regret it for days – perhaps years – afterwards.

Despite this, I live in West Yorkshire – 100 miles from the nearest beach. And until 18 months ago I couldn’t swim.

Well, I could swim, but not properly. I was excellent at not-drowning. I could spend hours treading water if I needed to, or snorkelling, or gliding underwater in a sort-of-but-not-really breaststroke.

In 2017 I found myself 16kg overweight, utterly miserable at work, and very unfit. I had dieted and exercised myself thinner before, a couple of times, and I was in danger of turning into a yo-yo dieter. Either starving myself or living off takeaways.

But my dad had recently been diagnosed with diabetes, and as his dad had also developed diabetes I realised that being overweight isn’t a very safe thing for someone with my genes to be. So this time I had to make the weight loss last.

I decided to swim.

And this time – rather than doing 10 lengths of my rubbish breaststroke and getting out feeling embarrassed – I decided to teach myself to swim properly.

One of the best things about working at a university (though it took me three years to realise it) was having a swimming pool on campus. I was having a tough time on a badly managed project, and having a swim every day in my lunch break helped me switch off, calm down, and focus on something else. I would come back to the office with fresh solutions, rather than walking out in frustration.

So swimming wasn’t just about losing weight and getting fit – it quickly became an essential part of getting through the day.

A couple of days after I got into the pool for the first time in years, a Facebook page for my local area shared a post from Go Tri offering free open water swimming sessions at Roundhay Park lake.

I immediately signed up.

I think I was grinning from beginning to end. I got cramp, I was exhausted, I swallowed a LOT of lake water. I couldn’t do front crawl to save my life, but thankfully I wasn’t the only one.

Elated and exhausted with my friend Penny at Roundhay Park

I was hooked. That evening I signed up to do the Great North Swim at Lake Windermere – thanks to Facebook algorithms now showing me endless sponsored posts related to open water swimming.

In June, I would be swimming a mile in a lake I’d previously only ever considered going out on in a boat.

I needed to get better.

I watched endless videos on front crawl technique, and found the Total Immersion technique particularly appealing.

I spent an evening reading Total Immersion blog posts, and the next day – having only managed half a length of front crawl before – I swam 40 lengths of my university pool non-stop. It wasn’t fast (I’m still not fast) but it was incredible. I had read and watched something, and then successfully applied it in practice.


What is Total Immersion?

It’s a style of front crawl that emphasises efficiency and endurance over speed.

You know when that person in the lane next to you is doing crawl, and you’re getting splashed in the face every time they kick past you? Well there’s none of that with TI.

Get your core balanced, keep your head aligned with your spine, and focus on your breathing. You’ll hardly need to kick at all to glide through the water, which means you use less energy, which means you can swim for longer.

Read more on the Total Immersion website.


Every day I swam, and every day I improved.

By spring I had lost those 16kg (oh, there was a lot of calorie counting involved too!), and I was feeling great. I was itching to get out of the pool and back into the fresh air. But I was scared. Apart from that Roundhay Park session I’d never swum in a lake or a river, only the sea, and that was still 100 miles away.

But thankfully I wasn’t the only one wanting to get in the water.

One sunny Saturday morning at brunch, my friend Katie mentioned she’d just been on a Go Tri session at Roundhay Park.

“Oh my god, I did that in August. Do you want to go swimming in a quarry with me?”

“Yes!”

“Tomorrow?!”

“Yes!”

“I’ll pick you up at 7am.” – not a sentence I ever thought I would say to anyone about exercise of any kind.

From then on every weekend that either of us wasn’t off swimming in a lake or sea somewhere, we would be at the Blue Lagoon near Pontefract.

I did my mile swim at Lake Windermere, and another at Loch Lomond (Katie opted for the two-mile race there), and then summer was over.

The season ended for me on the last weekend in September, when after 90 minutes in the water my feet were in agony from the cold.

The drive home was miserable, as I realised it would be six months before I’d be back in the water for a proper swim. Lots of people swim all year round, even breaking the ice, but I’m not there yet.

I did go for a wonderful Christmas Day dip in Ramsgate, followed by a hot chocolate at the Victoria Pavilion (that’s the world’s biggest Wetherspoons).

And how could I resist a New Year’s Day dip in the Wharfe at Otley?

I now find swimming in pools very boring, very noisy, and very warm, so I plan on getting back in the lagoon as soon as it opens – though with my neoprene socks firmly on this time.

I’ll also be swimming in the Danube and the Adriatic Sea in May, stopping at every swimming hole in Germany on my way to Budapest in July, and I reckon I’ll be managing a dip in the Pacific in August.

This year, like last, will be punctuated by swims. I can’t wait to get started. Roll on spring.

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