I think it’s safe to say, 2020 did not go the way many of us expected and the less we say about that the better. Sadly 2021 is not looking much better, but hey, we will get through it and out the other side. 

By my nature, I am very competitive – set me a challenge and come rain or shine, I will try and do it to the best of my ability. Back when I was a Fitbit wearer it was not uncommon for me to be out at 11pm on the last day of a weekly challenge with my friends to make sure I came first in our step challenges. 

In 2020 I had lots of events lined up – a few 5km swims, 2 miles at Swim Serpentine, 100 miles at RideLondon. However, as expected when the C word hit, they were all cancelled or rescheduled to 2021. Without the drive to get out and train for these my brain headed to that black place, arguing what is the reason to get out and go cycle/run/swim if I wasn’t training. 

To coax myself out of that place, I signed up for the Polar Bear Challenge – a virtual winter swimming challenge. It would be my first winter season after taking up open water swimming in 2019. I attacked my training during September and October while the water was still warm, getting the metres in. The challenge started in November and I carried on attacking the distance as the water was still warm-ish. By the end of November, I had swum nearly 15km – my total distance for the whole challenge from November to March was meant to be just 5km! 

Then December arrived and the temperatures really dropped – once it started going under 10 degrees the difference was really noticeable and I had to start reigning myself in and limiting how far I was swimming. Once it was down to 8 degrees, I’d given up trying to swim front crawl with my head down and was bobbing along with my head up doing breaststroke. 

And it was a revelation – I’d always said open water swimming was amazing due to the views, but in reality, I was missing 90% of the scenery as my head was under water or grabbing a quick breath of air. Yes, when I’d organised to meet friends for a sunrise or sunset swim and the sky had turned to fire, we would stop to admire it, but that was a small fraction of the whole swim. 

Once I was bobbing along, chatting to a friend for the 10 minutes we were in while the water was cold, I experienced a whole new way to “swim”. It was no longer a race; it was an experience and I came out of the water with that sense of zen you hear other cold-water swimmers talk about. The world around you slows down while you are in the water and flows past without a worry. Birds flew around your head, the tide moved around you and you remembered how small a part of this world we are. 

On Christmas Day I had arranged to meet my friend for a swim at the beach, mainly to try and mark the day as different from the rest given our normal Christmas plans were cancelled. The tide was feeling a bit cheeky and the waves a bit bigger so we just embraced some wave jumping like I had when I was a kid – another revelation made. Just jumping around was as much fun and had the same effect on my psyche as going for a proper swim did. 

In my mind now, swimming has taken on two distinct sides – the competitive, fast paced race side and the dipping/head up bobbing for fun. Both have a place in my life and help me keep a balance to the worries going on in my head. 

And it is the dipping side Mental Health Swims embraces – joining other like minded people in the water, talking about anything and everything – what was on TV last night through to visits from the Black Dog. You can even just enjoy being around other people with no need to talk. That moment you enter the water and you are forced into the here and now, and as your body relaxes into the water, the moment of peace washing over you. 

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