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Swimming for life

If I had a daemon I like to think my daemon would be an otter. A rather slow inelegant otter but one who loves the water and is just as happy in the sea, a river, or a lake. Or in a warm tropical reef lagoon or an icy cold Scottish loch. I am especially happy in an exhilarating swoosh down a stretch of fast-flowing winter Thames!

So where does this deep connection to water come from? Possibly from my early years growing up in Malaysia as a toddler when apparently I could swim like a fish.

It certainly is not from my primary school’s tiny pool (the ‘Percy Puddle’) where I managed to forget how to swim but enjoyed floating around in the whirlpools we made. Nor from secondary school where we did about an hour a year of swimming and I just about managed to stay afloat, even somehow in pyjamas, was taught a terrible breaststroke and nothing much else.

Fast forward 20 years and 2 children and I found myself living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with my then husband and 2 children aged 3 years and 10 weeks. At least 15kg overweight I struggled with the heat and my self-esteem. So, I decided to try going to the pool and swimming. Not keen on an expensive elite grand hotel pool I found a local Khmer pool and started trundling up and down it in my sedate secondary school breaststroke. Amazingly this seemed to work quite well and, along with healthy lunches of rice and vegetables, I soon started to lose the baby weight.

The breaststroke got a bit dull after a while, so I started to try some front crawl/free-style. Although by now I could happily pootle up and down for 60 lengths doing breaststroke, I struggled to complete 25 m of freestyle without feeling like I was going to drown or run out of breath. At the same time, I had discovered the treadmill at the same club and had started a bit of jogging. Then someone suggested a triathlon which seemed like a good idea, but I did not have anyone to cycle with. So, I put up an advert in a local expat café ‘desperately seeking a cycling buddy’ and was contacted by a 6’6 Dutchman called Berry who wanted to cycle. Incredibly Berry was a speedy swimming fish in the water and was willing to teach.

We made a pact that we would cycle together, and he would start a swimming class for me, and a few others and we would enter a triathlon.

During the rest of our 8 years in Cambodia there were daily swims with the kids in the pool, and weekends swimming in the gorgeous bath-water warm tropical sea, or in the tidal river at Kampot, where I chased the boys in kayaks, or showed them how to blow bubbles through the phosphorescence after dark. I took part in swim races across the Mekong once a year and triathlons, starting with a short distance on a mountain bike and culminating in Ironman.

One memorable year the Mekong race organisers got the direction of current the wrong way round. Fooled by strong winds creating deceptive waves on the surface they told swimmers to swim diagonally across the river in the wrong direction. So off we all swam, carried by the current, and most of the swimmers ended up way down the bank from the finish line.

I did not win any of these events but won so much more than a trophy. I learnt so much about overcoming adversity, gained so many friendships along the way and got fitter than I had ever been in my life. And of course, I learnt how to get to the end of the pool swimming freestyle without feeling like I was drowning.

I learnt not to fight the water and to feel the flow of the water. With every dip in the river or the sea it felt like all my stresses and worries floated away with the current or the waves, like meditation in the movement and the water.

Then we came back to the UK. There were so many problems to deal with – I had a tropical illness that I brought back with me that made all my joints too painful to run, I was freezing cold, ALL the time, my marriage was falling apart and my work as a GP was not possible as I had been away too long, and it was difficult to get back into the NHS to work as a GP. I did the only possible thing I could and went back to the water. I found beautiful places to dip in Oxford – Port Meadow, Pixie Mead, Wytham. The cold water lifted my mood and reset my body’s thermostat.

Over the years I have been swimming in the Thames gradually more and more people have started swimming in wild water. Initially it felt like I was the only crazy doing it (although there were others of course I never seemed to bump into them unless it was a hot summer’s day when suddenly everyone wants to be in the water).

Elsewhere I have also found the variety, adventure, camaraderie and challenge that I thrive on by working on events as a medic – multi day ultra-running events in Scotland, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Spain, and in participating in some of these events too. Plus, a fabulous float/swoosh/swim in the Dart 10k.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been difficult, as it has been for everyone in different ways. I’ve carried on doctoring throughout the pandemic which has been both a trial and a privilege. My fantastic teenage kids got me through the first wave by having dinner ready for when I got home from work, by doing the cleaning and by generally being cheerful, plus again the cold wild water kept me going. Somehow the skin ‘stingles’ from dipping in water below 8 degrees give a sense of peace and lightness that makes up for the dark grey days of a British winter, even in a pandemic.

I love the awareness of my body and my physiology that dipping in cold water gives me, and the appreciation of human adaptability too. The need to slow down the breath as you gently immerse in icy water, breathing through the initial phase as the skin registers the temperature shock, then the discomfort of the first minute. Next the body starts to shut down the extremities, to maintain your core temperature as much as possible, and there is a feeling of calm and peace.

Depending on the temperature you might have 2 or 3 minutes, or ten minutes (about a minute per degree celsius as a rule of thumb) before you start to feel the beginnings of real cold and it is time to get out. It is always a good idea to get out before you start to feel properly cold. Once out of the water, the low air temperature and any breeze will continue to cool you. Your peripheries may start to allow some blood back in which will then cool and circulate back to your core and drop your central body temperature – the ‘afterdrop’ that cold water swimmers talk about.

The Lock to Lock 4k swim this June was the first event I’ve done in about 18 months or more. Training for it was haphazard and restricted by lack of pool access, lack of time, and a shoulder injury I have had for the last ten months. Darrin’s lovely email 2 weeks before talked of the beauty of the route, everyone’s lack of training and a philosophy of ‘just enjoy the view’. This convinced me to take part in any case, never mind the lack of training. I planned to swim skins but wimped out in the end, after watching the river temperature drop from 20 degrees to 16 degrees over 3 days of heavy rain before the race. Many were hardier than me and did swim skins, I am totally in awe of these gnarly folk.

I was lucky that a couple of friends were also swimming, and another friend who could not swim came to the start and the finish, which made it a social event too. The recent rain meant that there was a travelator of current to flow down so although my swimming over the years hasn’t got any faster or sleeker (I feel like an otter rather than look like one!) but I still feel like I am truly at home in any body of water, especially riding the flow of a river through what must be one of the prettiest stretches of English river, and especially ending up in the finish tent to the warmest welcome ever from the fantastic volunteer team, cakes and hot tea.

I don’t know where my next water adventures will take me, but I do know there will be more of them! Swim-run, anyone?

Laura Watson

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