I am a swimmer – check out ‘Badass Mermaid‘ – and it is pretty much the only sport I have ever done. At school I was OK at squash, but not tennis. Netball bored me to tears and a smack in the face with a hockey stick put me off that too. I still have nightmares about my cross country running trials. I was the one at the back limping along, drenched through to the skin, blue with cold, splattered in mud and holding the stitch in my side. Running was not for me, which became even more apparent when I joined the Army.
So swimming is my ‘thing’. My brother, sister and I were in the local swimming club. We swam most nights after school, before school, at weekends and during holidays. We swam for miles. And this was back in the day when we did no other exercise other than swim. We didn’t go to the gym, we didn’t stretch, we didn’t have water bottles poolside, our warm-ups involved jumping in and swimming 20 laps. We just swam.
My brother was the kid that broke swimming club records and later went on to complete an Ironman. My sister was also a very strong swimmer, breaststroke especially. Unfortunately, she was born into the year that contained the elite swimmers. All the girls she had to swim against were awesome. She didn’t do a bad job at competing but it was an unfair time to be in her age-group. She is the middle child though, so if it was going to happen to any of us, it was going to happen to her.
I, on the other hand, had very little competition, and I still never won anything. I was a steady swimmer. I could keep up but I was no Sharron Davies. I once entered a 50 metre butterfly race. 2 laps long and I lost by 1 lap. I got the silver – because there were only 2 of us. I was up against Theresa – she really did put the fly into butterfly.
A few years ago I was encouraged by a friend to enter an adults swimming gala. I didn’t do too badly in most of the races, until it got to the backstroke. I used to be quite good at it back in the day, but not on this day. I was slow, I messed up the turn and I had that awful pity applause as I came in miles behind everyone else – it was mortifying.
But I was (and still am) a stylish swimmer. My teachers used to ask all the other students to get out of the water and stand on the side of the pool. Then they would make me swim up and down to demonstrate how to do the different strokes properly. Style and grace I had, speed and endurance I did not.
Swimming led on to other sports. Octopush was one of my all time favourites. (Yes it has an ‘H’ on the end. To this day I struggle to say octopuss without it.) If you have never heard of Octopush you should really look it up. Invented by SCUBA divers as a way of keeping fit during the winter season, it can best be described as underwater hockey. I may not have been keen on getting hit in the face in regular hockey, but that was nothing compared to Octopush. It is supposed to be a non-contact sport, but it is more comparable to ice-hockey with the pushing and shoving – except it’s played underwater!
And finally a few years ago I qualified as a SCUBA diver, something I have always wanted to do but never had the chance before. I’ve still not had chance to do a great deal of diving, but I love it when I do. I especially loved meeting this little cuttlefish in Tenerife a couple of years back. It’s the only time I’ve been diving outside of the UK so far.
For now though I mainly swim in a warm indoor swimming pool. I recently signed up for the Diabetes UK Swim 22. The challenge is to swim 22 miles over 12 weeks – the distance across the English Channel – and it has brought back memories of those swimming club days. I would like to tell you about in the next couple of blogs.
I grew up in Pembrokeshire, South Wales, surrounded by the most beautiful beaches (in my opinion) in the world. As kids, we spent summers swimming, fishing, and building sandcastles, so it’s no surprise that I love the sea and enjoy swimming. Our parents, immigrants from the Midlands, (about as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK) spent hours and hundreds of pounds taking us to swimming club, teaching us to swim when we were young, and later, competing and travelling Europe with the club. I was never particularly good, my brother and sister were much better than I was, but I loved swimming and in later life, I took up Octopush and SCUBA diving.
I didn’t do a great deal of swimming for a very long time as an adult, but have always loved the sea and miss it when I’m away. So now that I travel back and forth from Liverpool, I make a point of stopping for a swim on the beach at Aberaeron on my way home. It’s cold, it’s always cold, but it’s invigorating. A friend ran a half marathon on the Wales Long Course Weekend this year, and asked if I would do it with her next year. You know how “Joey doesn’t share food”? Well Tracy doesn’t do running! So I said I might give the swim a go instead. Then we just need to find someone to cycle a hundred miles or so and we have a Long Course team.
With this in mind I checked out Open Water Swimming in Liverpool and found a local watersports centre that opened for open water swimming twice a week. Perfect.
Until I got there. I am such a wuss when it comes to doing anything new. I sat on the dock side watching the swimmers for over half an hour, unable to pluck up the courage to walk into the building. Nothing badass about that, right?
So, did I get in the water? Well, actually yes, I did. The only way to do it in the end was to stop thinking. I got a grip, blanked my mind and just got up and walked. Before I knew it, I was in the reception asking about swimming and taking on board the directions given to me by the very helpful receptionist. I found the hut where I had to pay, she told me how this all worked and where the changing rooms were. Before I knew it I was in my cozzie, at the water’s edge with goggles, hat and float ready to jump in.
A very nice lady was also on the edge waiting to get in. I asked her ‘Can you tell this is my first time?’ She looked like a seasoned pro so I was sure I was in safe hands. She said, ‘Don’t worry about the jellyfish, they don’t sting.’
Jellyfish? What jellyfish? Oh my God, there were hundreds of them. She bent down and scooped one up to show me they don’t sting, before telling me that they actually do have a small sting, but she’s never felt one. Marvellous. Badass Mermaid – my aunt Fanny!
After releasing the jellyfish back into the water, she asked me what was written on my swim hat. When I told her it was the Sport Relief mile that I swam a few years ago, she looked down her nose and said she only swims a minimum of 3km at a time. She’s a long-distance swimmer. Apparently, a mile is not a long distance in the open water swimming world. Well it feels like a bloody long distance to me. In the pool the longest race we ever had was 800 meters and only the really good swimmers ever considered swimming that distance. I was not one of the really good swimmers.
Anyway, enough chit-chat, it was time I got wet. It would have taken an age to gingerly step in bit by bit, so I decided to bite the bullet and jump in. Whoa! That was fresh – about 17 degrees. Goggles on and off I go. And that’s when I put my face in the water and find that it’s black. I stick my head in again and I can’t see anything. It’s completely black. To be fair it looks black from the dockside but I thought it was just the way the shade fell on it. Apparently not. Is it really deep? It found out later that it’s only a little over 2 metres deep, so it’s not that. The walls are black and the sun wasn’t out, maybe that was it. I floated upright for a second and had another look and I could see my pasty legs dangling in the gloom. They had a a green glow about them, like a nuclear power cell from the Simpsons. I kept telling myself that the water is clean. They check it regularly, I know this.
I’m used to the open sea. Usually the sun is shining, the water is blue and crystal clear and you can see the sand beneath your feet. You might even be able to see the odd school of sand eels if you look closely. Have you ever been swimming on a Pembrokeshire beach? You should. But this was so far removed from that. Plus, of course, there were the jellyfish.
They were only small, no bigger than the palm of my hand. They are moon jellyfish, the clear ones with the 4 purple rings on top. When you see them in the black water, pulsing softly, they are beautiful. They really are. But when you’re swimming, trying to ignore them and you accidentally put your hand on one, oh my God. I tried to stop myself squealing every time I did it, but it was tough. They lure you into a false sense of security and then Bam – you’re surrounded. I don’t mind the feel of them as they touch my arms and my legs. They’re soft and gentle and they really don’t sting, but, to my horror, I found they congregate in the shade.
The shaded area is half way around the loop so there is no way back but to keep going. There were so many jellyfish it was literally like trying to swim through jelly. They were bumping against my face, my chest, my arms, my legs. Every stroke was met with a handful of jelly. I am not one to panic in the water, years of playing Octopush and learning to SCUBA dive teaches you to stay calm, but even so, I had moments of real alarm and had to calm myself, take deep breaths and channel Dorey. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” I really was chanting this to myself over and over.
If you don’t swim in the sea, this may sound like a complete nightmare. Believe me it’s really not. You get used to the wildlife, even the eels snaking up the dock walls. Though I must admit, I am definitely starting to see the advantages of wearing a wetsuit.
But the feeling of swimming in cold sea water is so invigorating. It wouldn’t be the same in a wetsuit. Later when you step out of the water and enjoy a well-deserved hot shower and a cup of tea you feel on top of the world. You can do anything. You feel so completely refreshed after a dip in the ocean. When you learn to be one with the jelly’s, the bobbing along with your fellow swimmers is so calming. The salt water does marvellous things to your skin, and you can forget all your woes when you’re floating in the sea. Swimming is great exercise anyway, but swimming outside gets you a dose of vitamin D that you can’t find indoors. But you don’t even need the sun. Swimming in the rain feels weird in a really good way. Usually you’d be running for cover, grabbing wellies and brollies, but when your already wet it really doesn’t matter. Swimming in the rain is joyous. Trust me.
And when you know you can jump back into that freezing cold, black water, filled with jellyfish and enjoy it, that’s when you know you really are a Badass Mermaid.
Just a word of warning. Don’t go swimming in any old body of water. The cold can zap your energy in no time, quarries and reservoirs are dangerous places. Always seek out a certified open water swimming club or venue. Check out the NOWCA.org website for help and advice.