I had no idea of what would come of entering the 4K Swim Oxford event in September 2015. If I had known – would I have done anything differently?
In May of 2015, I began my open water training, driving to my local swimming lake regularly on Sunday mornings. I’d often see a few familiar faces there, training for Blenheim Triathlon; there were few open water venues where people could train for the swim eight years ago – a few more now. But as the triathletes I knew only needed to do one lap of the lake, I’d go to the lake on my own rather than have someone hanging about while I swam further. None of them liked the swim much and I didn’t know anyone else who did. A lonely swimmer.
I began by going round and round the lake, just pushing beyond the distance of my regular pool swims and getting used to a wetsuit. By the time the triathletes stopped coming, event over, I had progressed to going round and round and round the lake, and long before September, was happy to go round and round and round and round the lake. Four times. Four kilometres.
So the distance was OK but without fail, for all of those first swims in May, I’d return home feeling cold, not really losing the chill until early afternoon. And I was all set to give it up because the swim made me feel very dizzy and nauseous. I read up on this – it’s quite common. For me, the cure was a neoprene cap. I also acquired neoprene socks. Well wrapped, I was definitely not a very hardy swimmer.
The 4K event, I remember little about. Although I was confident I could do the distance, it was extremely cold that early in the morning in September so, fair-weather swimmer that I was, I was very anxious. And not having participated in any sports events before, I was pretty uncertain that I should be there. I didn’t know Darrin but he seemed to manage to chat to everyone and, after a few words from him, I felt like less of an imposter.
Being a lonely swimmer, I had turned up on my own. I latched onto a couple of vaguely familiar faces to be nervous in company. Then I swam the distance, was met by my family, and ate cake. So far, so uneventful. It’s what happened next that took me by surprise.
I must have swapped numbers with the vaguely familiar faces because in October, they messaged to invite me to join them for a swim at the starting point of the 4K.
Swim in the river – in October?! Me?!
I said I’d come and see, and bring my wetsuit in case I felt brave enough to get in. I did. The cold hurt my hands – a lot. But we went back every week, soon armed with neoprene gloves, gradually gathering more and more swimmers to form a small pod. And that’s how it began.
I swim ‘wild’ most weeks, at least once.
I realise how lucky I am most weeks, at least once.
I have swum through every winter and I recover from the cold quite quickly – I marvel at this change.
I ditched the wetsuit after that first winter and never use it for dips (just events).
I have swum with icicles. It was beautiful.
This winter, I ditched neoprene boots and gloves.
I have countless new swimming friends.
I also have countless WhatsApp groups with swim-related names.
I have converted four old friends to wild swimming, a couple all year round.
I have had had numerous fantastic day trips and holidays based around wild swims.
I have hundreds (thousands?!) of photos of rivers and swimmers and it makes me smile to revisit them.
I have swum the Swim Oxford 4K six times, the 6K the one year they did it, and the 10K twice. I’ve also done the swim-run a couple of times. Darrin still finds time to talk to us all and I’m definitely not an imposter at the events now.
So I’m no longer a lonely, event-shy, fair-weather swimmer. I’m perhaps, even, quite a hardy swimmer (although I still need neoprene on my head). And I’m a much stronger swimmer. But there’s more than that.
When I was a child, I used to gaze at open water and wonder what it would be like to swim in it. I fantasised about swimming in it. Not just on holidays, but at any time. I thought that would be amazing. And now I do – and it is.
So would I have done anything differently? For decades, I didn’t swim in lakes and rivers when I could have done – what a waste! But I won’t regret those decades. Instead, I will be grateful for the organisation that woke me up, stopped me dreaming about swimming in open waters, and gave me the confidence to jump in – as well as finding me the friends to do that with.