The Reason I Swim

The reason I swim is different to the reason I used to swim, yet the same. I originally swam because I wanted to carry on drinking beer and eating lots of crisps without beginning to resemble a balloon, and although that intention has not varied in the intervening years, it also feels like a long time since my reason for swimming was as simple as that, because if you do enough swimming, your reasons for swimming will inevitably evolve. Also, if we are being technically accurate, the original reason I swam wasn’t because I wanted to carry on drinking beer and eating lots of crisps; It was because, when I was three or four, my parents attached some inflatable wings to me and placed me in a public swimming pool in Nottinghamshire. Kids started drinking very young in the village where I grew up, but at three I had not yet fallen in love with beer, although it might be argued that even then I had already started my inexorable decline into the crisp junkiedom that has left its permanent mark on my life.

For years, I thought I could swim, merely because I could move forward in the water without sinking, but what I was in fact doing was only “swimming” in the sense that a spaniel, paddling out into a lake to retrieve a stick or ball to the sound of its owner’s congratulatory coos, is “swimming”. Even in 2016, when I was attempting and sometimes completing some reasonably brave and lengthy cove-to-cove swims off the Devon and Cornwall coasts, this was the kind of “swimming” I was doing. “Look at that unusually big spaniel!” I can now imagine an onlooker saying, watching one of these swims from a cliff overhead. “His owner must have thrown his stick or ball really far out into the sea. Isn’t he clever? Actually, he looks a little lost. I hope he is ok.” But nowadays, having had lessons in the early part of this year, I can actually swim. I move through the water in a fairy streamlined way and, if I transfer to my upper gear, can do a length in a 25 metre swimming pool in about 22 or 23 seconds. This is one of the many benefits I have felt from learning to swim properly: I have discovered I possess gears. But mostly I don’t use the upper couple, because it’s not a race. This is another reason I swim: it makes me happier in my own space, less competitive, more comfortable with making decisions just for me. Besides, I’m still a bit rubbish in a few ways: I don’t know how to tumble turn at the end of a length as I have never tried it, and I never worked my breathing effectively into my stroke, because – due to constraints caused by money and location – I was never able to complete my course of lessons.

The reason I swim is because I had a deranged disc in my back last autumn, and while my back was being deranged, I got a chest infection and then, when the chest infection was almost better, but not quite, I got another chest infection, so felt like I had a chest infection on top of a chest infection, which obviously isn’t possible, unless you have two chests, but that’s definitely what it felt like. My deranged disc and one and a quarter chest infections briefly knocked my life off at least one of the rails it was travelling on and I wouldn’t wish the same experience on anyone, but I am also grateful to my deranged disc and one and a quarter chest infections because they made me get more serious about swimming, and without them I might not have got serious, at least not in the same way. As soon as I was well enough, around December, I began to swim a lot: more even than I’d swum in rivers and the sea and lidos in the previous few summers, which were summers heavily characterised by swimming. This, and the lessons, have led me to where I am now, which is in the middle of a life that is not just strongly swimming-flavoured, but significantly altered by swimming. Yesterday I did 100 lengths. Today I took it easy and did 80.  I have never felt stronger or fitter, although the back injury is still there, somewhere. It’s what people call a ‘Lifetime Injury’. What it feels like is having a rusty bolt just above my hip on the left side. Some days the bolt comes a bit loose, but a lot of other days the bolt is tight. What is bad for the bolt is being in my car, or sitting in comfy chairs writing on my laptop, or carrying heavy shopping bags. I know that swimming helps keep the bolt tight, but if I push it just a bit too much, and use my upper gear, it can also loosen the bolt a bit, so it’s a fine balance, and another reason I rarely use my upper gear. Additionally, using my upper gear would mean that swimming lasted less long, and I don’t want it to, because unlike when I was swimming thirteen or even ten years ago, and even unlike nine months ago, after I messed up my back, swimming’s primary purpose for me is no longer medicinal.

The reason I swim is that it entirely alters my perception. For a start, there is my perception of my own body. By comparison, say, 16 years ago, when my body was at its worst, or even five years ago, when my body was better but what in retrospect strikes me as still not too great, my body was only something I was aware of in the way you might be aware of a trailer attached to you with some old bailer twine. If something dramatic happened in the trailer – a large amount of metal being dropped into the trailer, or a party, where lots of drunk people in the trailer were singing, or the ensuing fight when the party got out of hand – I would always know about it, but other than that, the trailer was quite separate from me. I now don’t even have a trailer, and I feel like I know my body much better. It helps, of course, that I’m happy with it right now, and feel like I’ve returned to some earlier version of myself that might have been, if I’d been better to myself when I was younger, and kept on the more athletic path I had been on in my teens and early 20s. I’m a fraction over ten and a quarter stone, have a 28 inch waist, my shoulders are broad, my stomach is flat and, because the swimming teacher I worked with used the Alexander Technique, I’m very slightly taller than I was a year ago. But ultimately this is not about that. It’s about a heightened self-awareness, and it goes far beyond the physical. Since swimming a lot, I perceive my own flaws and motives more acutely, am more able to separate what I want from life from what I sometimes mistakenly think I want. I feel more aware of the true agendas of others, both good and bad. I feel more empathetic. I do everything – except swimming – a little more deliberately. I sometimes hurt more acutely too, yet I don’t want to change that. How has swimming done all this? I am not quite sure, but it has become more heightened with more swimming, and is a way to live that I find myself embracing. The reason I swim is I have become less interested in a life where I am not swimming. That, to me, now seems like it would be the equivalent of closing a door in my mind leading to a favourite room.

The reason I swim is because it confirms my faith in long cuts. We live in the age of the the short cut, the “life hack” if you want to put it in standard fuckwit marketing terms. “Hey, look!” says the Internet. “If you get enough followers, you can be well-off and successful without even becoming good at anything in order to get there.” The Internet wants us to be lazy and greedy and cons us that the synthesised versions of happiness it offers are equal to the real thing. Swimming is the anti-Internet. It locks you in the present moment and, before anything good can come of it, hard work is essential. I worked possibly harder on my latest book than I have on any other but, at the same time, I worked equally hard on my swimming. Instinctively, I knew that each was as important as the other, even though I do not, and probably never will, make a living from swimming. I had the swimming regime of somebody preparing to front crawl to Calais. I didn’t front crawl to Calais, but I thought more clearly while I wrote the book, and it led to a book I’m happier with. It was all exhausting, and I found the fact that it needed to be, and the fact that two tangible results have come out of it – a largeish book, and a physically and mentally altered me – very reassuring.

The reason I swim is never the first 25 lengths. It’s something that kicks in after that, often not even until length 32 or 33: an elemental zone I go into, where I stop getting in my own way mentally and everything is watery and simple. For the first 25 lengths or more I’m still straightening myself out, prone to old bad habits. I kick from the knee, or don’t get enough width on my weaker left side. But there’s a trance feeling later on when I’m in a medium gear, sliding through the water, that I could permit to carry on forever. It’s far more meditative than any formal meditation has ever been for me. It’s easier than it once was because, when I started moving more effectively, it made me quicker, which meant that I could do more in the same space of time than I once could, which made my muscles more toned, which made me move even more effectively, and so on, forever. At its best, it’s like the direct opposite of a vicious circle, and it makes me suspect that my swimming guru, Charlie Loram, and his mentor, Steven Shaw, might be touched with a sprinkling of genius. Doing this for nine months – plus the less intensive swimming I did for the years leading up to that – has brought me to the point where the reason I swim is not even mainly because of swimming’s benefits or recuperative aspects; it’s for the experience itself, which is the part of my day I have started to look forward to as much as any other. But I know that could change. Because that’s another reason I swim: it heightens my awareness that everything is shifting all the time, and makes me more open to it. In a year, the reason I swim could be totally different. And that’s ok.

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20 thoughts on “The Reason I Swim

  1. Oh how lovely. Thanks for putting into words how I feel when I swim. The pure bliss of being in the water, the meditative rhythm. I love being a swimmer. I love finally being confident enough to call myself one.

    1. Thanks Sophia! It’s a lovely feeling, isn’t it. I don’t think I felt properly confident enough to call myself a swimmer either until recently.

  2. So somebody else feels the same way I do about swimming! I’m 50 next month and have only just got into swimming in a proper way, mostly by watching YouTube videos or picking up advice from people at the pool. Glad to hear Tom describe it as meditative cos thats exactly how it can be. Not at first mind. At first its a bit shit. But keep at it.

  3. This resonates so much with me. I’ve been swimming regularly, early in the morning, for over a year now. I still swim like a spaniel and probably always will, but a day that doesn’t start with a swim is a day where my head is muzzy and my thinking is clouded. When I get in the pool I can’t stop smiling for the hour I spend there. Like you, I find it takes about 30 lengths to get ‘in the zone’ and arrive at one of the best times of my day.

  4. I try really hard when I swim with my head under water and thrusting my legs out and elongating my body (like my mate, Tim the swimming instructor, told me to do) and constantly pulling really weird faces (my idea, not Tim’s), so when I’m passed by two women who are not only swimming with their heads ABOVE the water but are TALKING as they do, I always feel a bit disappointed with myself. But I was even more disappointed when I was repeatedly overtaken by a bloke who was also swimming with his head out of the water, especially when he finally got out of the pool and I saw that he’d only got one leg.

  5. My dad used to be an excellent swimmer . He taught me how to swim from a toddler. At the age of thirty he took me back to the lido and gave me a refresher course on my breathing technique . We were the oldest father and daughter duo there! I didn’t care . He was seventy and my hero. However , we did shit ourselves when the wave machine came on!
    In 2016, I had my right foot amputated . I walk very well and have embraced my prosthetic .
    Last year, it was back problems that made me think about swimming again. The first time was in the sea on holiday . What an overwhelming feeling of freedom .
    My dad is ninety one . Still my hero ! Thank you Dad.

  6. Morning Tom

    Thanks for this! Motivational on a cloudy September morning contemplating the need to really do some proper exercise and have a regime! Had a bit of a health scare recently so need to look after myself. Thanks for sharing this

    Looking forward to the next book

    Best wishes


  7. I love being in the water, where a person as lumpy as I can slip through it’s depths with ease, dolphin-like… The reality is a virtually motionless ‘bob’, with the embarrassment of gravitating towards any able bodied swimmer trying to go about their business in the pool. I will persist, I would love to achieve the meditative state you speak off. I think I have a fear of listening to what’s going on inside.

  8. Inspirational.

    I used to swim in my school days, competitively. Wasn’t bad at it either, even swam for the school, but rowing took over.

    But my late teens and early 20’s got me lazy, serious exercise fallen by the wayside. Odd bits of swimming in the intervening 40 years when I decided I Really Should Get Fit Again. Seems I still have good lung capacity on the back of those rowing years (Avoids joke about the 35-year-old whose lungs I have… A few really fit years in your teens will stand you in good stead, it seems)

    But now I find myself by that beautiful East Devon coast. In the last few weeks, the idea of swimming in that sea has come to me. Apparently this is called “wild swimming” these days, rather than “swimming in the sea”. Also, of course, swimming is a good way to exercise if you have an inguinal hernia.

    Your blog here has further encouraged me. I hope it doesn’t turn out too wild.

  9. It is interesting to read your description of what it feels like to be swimming ‘trance like’, almost part of the water.
    I am a non swimmer, somehow a shameful admission. I used to go to the local swimming baths when I was a child but more for the showers (exotic) and Slush Puppie machine than anything else. I have always envied those who can swallow dive effortlessly into the sea.

  10. Hiya Tom!
    Reading this makes me wish that I could swim! But I can’t, sadly. The reason being that when I was 4, a friend who was about 5 years older than me, decided whilst we were at the swimming baths, to give me a piggyback in the water, and proceeded to swim. I slipped off, going under the water, and splashed around like a drowning rat. Needless to say I was traumatised and refused to swim. Until I went to primary school and we were taken to the swimming baths. I only jumped in once whilst holding two classmates hands, because of my fear.
    I did, however, learn how to swim well enough to do 2 lengths at a time, but that was as far as it went, I’ve never shown any interest in it since I was a teenager and I’m now 51. Sometimes I wish that I could swim, my daughter learned at school and enjoyed it for a while, but she doesn’t have much enthusiasm either.

    I really enjoyed reading this piece, you always write with such flair Tom; I am glad your back, and overall health, has improved. I imagine living somewhere by the sea (which I absolutely love btw!) helps a great deal.

    Can’t wait to receive Ring the Hill and my beautiful picture of the sheep!
    Bless you Tom xx

  11. I am planning the speech for my 50th wedding anniversary. It’s likely some of the guests will read this so I’m trying not to give too much away, but analogies with my regular swimming will feature.

  12. This is very inspiring. I love the water but have never gotten into swimming seriously. I’m 49 next week and in reasonably good shape, but so much room for improvement. It is an interesting thought that my best physical (and mental) years could be ahead of me if I was to follow your example here. You look tip top, by the way.

  13. I’ve been contemplating starting swimming (including finally learning front crawl!) to be a bit fitter and less middle aged shaped while also taking my M.E into account and this has really inspired me to pick a day to start (tomorrow morning!). If I look even half as fit and well as you do in a year or so, I will be delighted. Thanks, Tom!

  14. This resonates a lot, yet shows to me even greater possibilities of swimming. Inspires me to keep going and perhaps even to push a little more.
    I have disc issues, and had only ever swam head above the water, limited breast stroke until I got it diagnosed. I’ve learnt back stroke through YouTube and love swimming now, and the accompanying sense of targeted healing.
    Perhaps I can still tackle front crawl!
    Thank you.

  15. Beautiful. And so much I recognise.

    After years of niggling anxiety and failed attempts at lessons, I finally learned to swim a couple of years ago – and promptly fell in love. I ride bikes, I hike, I sometimes run, but none of those have ever brought on that meditative state that swimming does. This summer I swam in the sea for the first time and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such pure joy of being in the moment. I find myself dreaming of sandy coves now.

  16. I developed a fear of swimming as a child. It stopped me studying marine biology in my final year at school as I wasn’t allowed an alternative assessment when I confessed that I could not do the reef snorkelling field trip. I was devastated. I tried arguing that astronomers didn’t have to travel into space to study astrophysics, but was handed a note to transfer out. It was awful.

    When as an adult I knew I had the opportunity that would never come
    again, to swim in the ocean from a boat in the Caribbean…I knew I had to do something. I took swimming lessons, but they were in a poop without a deep end.

    Pool to ocean is a mind battle. A big mind battle. When the time came…

    Yes, I plunged in to the deep ocean…terrified as it was not exactly the calm blue Caribbean sea I had imagined. There were waves and a storm was approaching.

    Everyone else in the group went down to snorkel at a shipwreck…I stayed on the surface feeling like a kid missing out on all that wonder all over again. People offered to hold my hand and their kindness made me feel worse. I felt very brave yet so ridiculously alone and childish bobbing around on the surface at the same time.

    And then…a wild turtle was with me.

    It swam under me, turning and coming back again, its flipper brushed my stomach a few times and it stayed and played. It did this until the first few people resurfaced and then swam off.

    It was incredible.

    It was the first time I had replaced fear with giddy joy in the water and it’s what I hold onto each time that old pattern of fear returns.

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