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How Swimming Became My Solace

Some people feel at home in the water. My younger sister is one of those people, she swam competitively from a young age and would spend hours in the pool on holiday, emerging with pruney skin, while I would tentatively jump in, my hand clamped to my nose before bursting through the surface spluttering and quickly making my way back to lie in the sun and read a book. School swimming lessons filled me with dread, knowing I’d be put in the lowest ability group, struggling to even swim one length, but I never felt a sense of urgency to rectify this fairly crucial life skill. Which is why it probably came as quite a shock to my family when last year, I mentioned that I was going to learn to surf. 

I grew up in Devon, just across the border from Cornwall and close to some of the best surfing in the UK. I took minimal interest in this until I had moved five hours down the road to London. I was feeling particularly low after a long couple of months job searching whilst living out the dregs of an internship. I was working long days, commuting home and filling out as many applications as I could. The repetitive, futile nature of the conveyor belt of applications and hearing absolutely nothing back grinds your self esteem into the ground. I felt sluggish and un-fit and completely depleted with impending unemployment. 

I was spending any long weekend I had back in Devon, going to the beach with my friend Sarah. We drove through the long, hedge-rowed lanes in our tin-can cars, park on the sand, struggle into our wetsuits, rent our boards and wade into the ocean. It’s surprising how quickly you can learn not to hold your nose underwater when you’re being spun around in a wave and your primary concern is figuring out which way is up, and although I still wasn’t a strong swimmer, the safety of the board was a comfort. In the calm between sets of waves we’d sit on our boards bobbing with the small waves rippling underneath, dwarfed by the vastness of the cliffs surrounding us. After feeling both anxious and despondent, quantifying my worth by a list of ‘essential skills’, I felt removed from the hangover of those feelings and out of my head. The physical space of being in the sea felt overwhelmingly freeing. 

After my internship, I ended up in an admin job I hated. Every time I visited Devon, I dreaded returning to London, desperately trying to hold onto the feeling I had there. With the beaches five hours away, I opted for the pools and lidos of London. I peeled myself out of my house, bought some cheap goggles and went to my local pool. I was used to zipping myself into the cocoon of a wetsuit but in a swimming costume stood at the edge of the pool I felt entirely exposed in such an unfamiliar environment. After months of bad eating and no exercise, my body had changed and I was filled with the realisation of exactly how unfit I was. I edged into the pool and made my way to the slow lane. I must have only swum a few lengths but I left feeling lighter and content.

"A pool, which just six months before had felt so alien, restored a sense of familiarity. The lanes, the changing room, the chlorine smell, the locals who had been swimming there for years and the conversations of daily life reverberating around the changing rooms. "

For someone who had always struggled to maintain an exercise routine, I stuck to swimming. Length by length I noticed a tangible difference (although even now I can still only do breaststroke), my stamina grew and I could do more without needing to stop and catch my breath. The rhythmic breathing and solitude felt meditative. The water blocked out all the noise, my phone was locked away and all I could think about was moving my body through the water. Gradually I started to regain a confidence that had dwindled and swimming became my antidote to any feeling of overwhelm. 

London continued to exhaust me, so I made the decision to move home to save and spent the beginning of this year travelling around Sri Lanka and Australia with some of my closest friends. It started with a surf camp, that through the fault of the moon and it’s control of the tides, ended with me swapping most lessons to yoga. When we got to Australia, we sought out the local outdoor pool in every city and town we visited and in a period devoid of routine, we found one. A pool, which just six months before had felt so alien, restored a sense of familiarity. The lanes, the changing room, the chlorine smell, the locals who had been swimming there for years and the conversations of daily life reverberating around the changing rooms. 

We were often some of the youngest there, surrounded by retirees who were the only people on the same schedule as us. Their skin was softer, textured and pillowy and bodies weightless in the water. Seeing these older women in the changing rooms, with bodies so different to mine but also not at all, was a reminder that regardless of how much of our identity we associate with our physical appearance as young women, it is something that’s ephemeral and changes. They are most importantly the vehicle of our life, something I think we need reminding of on the days that we find ourselves being intimately critical of the skin we live in. 

It’s easy to measure ourselves against the curated telescope of the feeds we scroll through on our phones and nothing has been a bigger reminder of that for me than sunbathing in the field behind the Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond this summer. On a sweltering Saturday morning my friends and I made the pilgrimage from South London to the Heath. Tucked away in the wild hills, in an unassuming field by a pond, a gathering of women luxuriated in this privacy and comfort. A myriad of bodies in every shape, size and age were bathed in the summer sun, boobs and bums everywhere you looked and nothing has ever made me feel so completely content. We lounged on our towels chatting, half naked, surrounded by strangers, feeling for a couple of hours, liberated. The women in this field were the only mirror we all needed.

The ritual of swimming has become the physical and mental exercise I fall back on. For a solitary activity, there’s a kinship as you gather in this one place to swim alongside each other, stripped of the armour we wear in the world. I now crave the feeling of ploughing into crashing waves, surrounded by my favourite people and feeling the icy sea fizz around me, and on the days when it feels as though the weight of the world is on your shoulders, the heaviness disperses as you plunge into the water and you’re free.


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