ALEXANDRA HEMINSLEY overcame her FEAR OF WATER by learning to swim. In the process she reclaimed her body after the rigours of IVF treatment …
It wasn’t so much that I decided to take up swimming as that I got into the sea one summer’s day … and realised I couldn’t really swim. I had always been able to do that sedate sort of breast stroke, the one you do on holiday when you don’t want exercise, you just want to cool off in the pool. And I had always been happy to take a splash off a beach on holiday. So I assumed I would be fine in the sea for a one-day swimming course in my home town of Brighton. But I was wrong – there were currents, lapping waves and a sense of powerlessness I was entirely unready for. It was the best the instructor could do to get me to swim ten strokes between the panic and the crying. I thought I was opening the door to a new adventure; instead it felt as if I had unleashed a fresh world of terror and anxiety for myself.
As the summer progressed I would stare at the sea on my beachside runs and simmer with frustration that that first swim hadn’t been what I had hoped for. How had I got it so wrong? Eventually, after a summer of trying to get in, losing my nerve and scrabbling out again almost immediately, I committed to taking a proper swimming course. Three terms of twelve hour-long lessons. And then I would be able to swim the kilometre from the Palace Pier to the West Pier … allegedly.
All through the winter, week after week, I showed up at my local pool to learn how to swim front crawl entirely from scratch. The experience of taking on a new skill – especially one that leaves you so vulnerable and requires you to don swimwear throughout the darkest months – is exceptionally gruelling. The admission that you can’t do something, that you need help, and that you look daft attempting to do it was crushing. The lessons were exhausting and for a month at a time I would feel like I was getting nowhere. It took until October for me to have the confidence to shove my face in the water and properly exhale. It took until spring before I could swim even half a kilometre in the pool, and I still had a panic attack when I got back into the sea that May.
But in July I made it; pier to pier. And I’ve never looked back. I had been aiming for some sort of lofty ‘connection’ with the ocean, but what I found in the sea was a better connection with myself. My learning to love swimming turned out to be about almost everything but swimming itself. It helped to free me from the numbers game of running – distance, time, and goals no longer mattered in an environment when you could never be sure what the tide or current would be doing. To get in, and to enjoy was enough.
Above all, the experience helped to reconcile my own relationship with my body, during a time while I was undergoing a turbulent couple of years of IVF treatment. This had never been my intention – I thought I would travel the world on Instagram-able expeditions then get pregnant the minute I tried. But the prescription drugs, the weight I put on as a result, the confidence I lost in realising that the limits of what my body could do might be related not to sport but to fertility – they ground me down. They left me a shadow of the confident self I had so fought to become through running.
But swimming buoyed me up. To feel free in the water was my solace while my body shape changed, and to swim at all felt like a triumph when I reached my lowest point: a miscarriage. Slowly, as I swam in the sea almost daily for a whole winter in Brighton, I learned the amazing things that my body could still do – it could conquer fear; it could swim, and feel free and weightless when on land it felt heavy and unwieldy; it could withstand the cold as my acclimatisation grew and grew; and it could feel confident and proud in swimwear.
I honestly would not have coped if I had not had swimming: it returned me to my sense of self, in a body I could respect as mine, when nothing else could.
Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim, (€15.99, Hutchinson) by Alexandra Heminsley.
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this don’t miss our next issue out Saturday, March 4.
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