The Scribbler

20 March 2012

My swimming tale

Filed under: swim — The Scribbler @ 18:52

I’ve swum for as long as I can remember. I remember being quite good at it at school and going some way at least to getting a life-saving badge. I remember the swimming in your pyjamas bit and diving to the bottom of the pool to pick up a brick. But then, I think there were more concerned about you being able to keep yourself afloat than any worries about style and breathing.

I guess I fell out of the habit as I did with most sports, when I was at senior school. But even then I remember trips to the baths as something to do with my friends from time to time, taking the bus to the pool.

I even remember swimming at University from time to time. A sensation of needing to be surrounded by water in land-locked Leeds. Maybe it was a comforting reminder of my coastal origins.

But I don’t recall having been taught how to breathe and do front crawl until I took lessons a couple of years ago. I guess I must have learned as a child, but have forgotten it. Maybe I just picked it up naturally. But as an adult, when I swam, it was mainly breast stroke with my nose dipping below the water occasionally, or a very messy crawl with my head above the meniscus.

Then in 2009, I took a series of four private lessons with a teacher in my local gym pool. I was intending to do a triathlon in 2010 and wanted to be able to swim front crawl without looking stupid or tiring myself out. Our lessons focused pretty much solely on getting me to put my head under the water and get used to bilateral breathing.

It was hard. I didn’t like it. I actually disliked swimming for a while because of it. But I had a goal and a mission and I wanted to see it through. So I stuck with it and it did get easier.

I realised I had a natural, but rather worrying fight or flight response when putting my head below water and breathing out. I was happy in the water and happy underneath it so long as I was holding my breath, but breathing out and then coming to the surface to take an in breath triggered a nervous response. I fought it, but there’s only so much you can do in four lessons and I didn’t realise at the time what a significant effect this response would have on my future swimming plans.

I kept practising and could swim front crawl of a fashion, usually rushing my breaths and desperate to reach the end of a length. I got plenty of advice and encouragement and in January 2010 I was ecstatic to be able to announce I’d swim 400m front crawl without stopping.

I didn’t do my triathlon in 2010. Instead, it became a goal for 2011. But I did enter my first dual event – an aquathlon, in November. Driving up to the pool and seeing snow on the ground and the temperature reading 0C, preparing to swim 500m and then emerge wet through and run a 5k, I was already mentally set for the mad world of triathlon.

But not everything went according to plan in that first event. That fight or flight panic hit me as I got into the pool. I thought it was just nerves, or just a bad day’s swimming, when I couldn’t catch my breath and flailed around thrashing through the water.

In the end, I was saved by a fire alarm that went off during the swim. There was some confusion about whether we were going to have to get out of the pool or not. So I pretty much stopped trying to flounder through my swim, stuck in some head above the water breast stroke and generally got myself together, thinking I was just going to swim to the end and get out. In the end, the alarm stopped and we carried on and I was able to get something like my usual front crawl on the go. The rest of the race went well and I was just elated to have finished my first multi-sport event.

It was only when I returned to the same event in February 2011 that I realised I had a problem. 2011 was to be my triathlon year. I’d lined up my first event in April and the February aquathlon was a warm up test run.

I’d continued my swimming training in my gym pool, improving little by little just through repetition and practise. But when I got in the water to start my aquathlon swim, the panic really took hold. The adrenaline rushed through my system and I couldn’t catch my breath. At the end of every length I was clinging to the side, trying to gulp in air and calm myself down.

I swam a couple of lengths breast stroke. I let everyone else in my lane go past me. I wanted to stop and get out. But I didn’t. I carried on and completed the hardest 500m I’ve ever swum. I was last out of the pool by some 2 lengths. It just goes to show how much my running had improved that I still managed to PB, despite my swim taking 2 minutes longer.

But I was in a pickle. I had a triathlon approaching and I wasn’t sure I could go through that again. My good friend Penny gave me some invaluable advice that helped me understand why I could happily swim miles in training and then go to pieces in a competition. I wouldn’t have continued to do and enjoy triathlons without it.

It’s a simple matter of adrenaline. The same rush that sets me sprinting off the line, running the first mile too fast, is a liability in a swim. So now I control it. I visualise in my mind all the aspects of the swim. I take long deep breaths and keep myself calm before the race, even if I’m not conscious of feeling nervous.

It works. I’ve proved that in three subsequent triathlons. Each time, it’s been easier to gain control And I do enjoy my swimming. But sometimes that old adrenaline monkey comes back to bite me.

Recently, I’ve started swimming with Tyne tri club on a Saturday evening. Swimming with other people in my lane, in a busy pool of churning water – well it does send me a little jolt, a reminder that I need to keep working at it.

I’ve written this in the hope that someone else might find it useful. And also to remind me of how far I’ve come. A couple of weeks ago we did a timed 400 and 200 at the tri club. The competitive element did get me in a flutter again and I had to take some time out before I did the swims to get my breathing under control.

I didn’t feel like I swam particularly well. I just concentrated on keeping it steady and managing my breathing. I did feel like I swam without exhausting myself.

I was, as expected, the slowest of those who were there. But last year, when I was swimming 400ms in triathlons, my times were around 09:00 – 09:15. This time it was 08:15. And I know that’s not fast for a swim, but it’s a heck of an improvement.

I also swam on Friday night on my own. Just an easy session, I told myself. I just took myself through some 100 and 200m sets, trying to concentrate on technique.

At the end of the session, I stopped my watch and looked with curiosity at the total lengths. I’d swum over 1km. In what felt like an easy session. Sure, I’d broken that up into smaller sets and taken breaks. But I wanted to go back to tell my 2009 self what I could do. I’m not sure she’d have believed me. And that makes me wonder what I’ll want to tell my 2012 self in a couple of years time.



  1. Keep going my darling daughter Nana would be so proud of you how sad to know she never knew what you would achieve.


    Comment by Christine Sumner — 20 March 2012 @ 19:53 | Reply

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