“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
The water is crystal blue. Clear. I can see black lines and the Ts contorted beneath shallow waters. A few random leaves have snuck in from nearby trees. I’m sitting on the end of the pool, sweating from the midday heat. My shoulders ache. They’re not used to this. My neck is stiff. But the pool looks cool and inviting. It calls me. Dares me. “What have you got in you today?” I’m tired. But all I need is to get one lap done. Then another. And another.
It’s taken me a bit to get here. Well, today it took me 20 minutes drive from Redland Bay where I’m living, to Cleveland. I normally swim locally at the YMCA pool – a 25m pool. I’ve come at lunch because the 50m pool is quiet; after the early morning aqua aerobics and before the 3:30 learn-to-swim sessions. There are several pools here at Cleveland Aquatic centre but I’ve chosen the 8-lane Olympic pool to dip my toes into. The sun is hot on my back. I slip on a ‘rashie’ – a rash vest for sun protection while I do laps – something that’s not uncommon in Australia where most pools are outdoors. Most pools are heated so they can remain open in winter, sometimes they provide shade over one end – blue shade cloth that blocks the harsh summer sun. Many don’t. The Chandler Aquatic centre in east Brisbane, has two 50m pools. One outdoor and one indoor. It hosted the 1982 Commonwealth games. It’s a lovely place to swim. Full of history.
In truth it’s taken me a lot of years to enjoy doing laps. At school I wasn’t the most athletic Australian kid. I carried quite a few kilos. My nicknames were ‘Walrus’ and ‘Whale’. I was the big lad, almost always the last one to finish any races. Races that I was forced to participate in. To me, pools were for cooling off. Racing? I hated it. I always crawled from the water well behind my class mates, embarrassed. During Senior (grade 11/12) we could qualify for the Bronze Medallion – a life saving qualification popular here in Australia. I wasn’t quick enough to achieve it. I had to settle for the Bronze Certificate. Which basically meant I could rescue someone. Just. And I could swim. Just not very fast. In my head this certified I was crap at swimming compared to my school mates. And I moved on. Or so I thought.
In my late 20s, I did a Dale Carnegie course in Public Speaking; I lacked confidence through my teens. I was still shy in my 20s and I wanted to fix that. Over 14 weeks I turned up, learnt new skills, and worked through 2 short talks each week. It was confronting. And it’s still one of the best courses I’ve ever done. One week we were presented with a task: to overcome or fix something, or complete a task that challenged us. I’m still not sure why, but into my head popped: “I want that damn Bronze Medallion”. Here was a chance to fix the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ dispensed at High School. So I looked up some trainers, looked at the requirements, and signed up. I began the task of learning to swim again. I started doing laps a couple of times a week. It wasn’t easy but I knew it had to be done. I wanted this. I needed to swim 400 metres continuously within 13 minutes: 100m free, 100m breast, 100m survival backstroke, 100m sidestroke. I completed the course, passed the test and got that Bronze Medallion. I’ve still got it. A reminder that things can always be better, can be overcome.
In my 40s I got my PADI Dive Master qualifications in the UK. Learning to dive in muddy ponds, cloudy seas off the south coast, and practicing my swimming again for the 400m swim test I needed to complete to qualify. The faster I swam the more points I’d earn towards completion. So I began training again, several swims a week. It was easier this time, but it was still one lap at a time.
A few years later, still in the UK, I took up triathlon. Who’d have thought, growing up a stones throw from the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, surrounded by dozens of Olympic swimming pools, that I would take my first tentative steps into Triathlon in England. I began swimming once or twice a week, although not consistently, in squads, often at the back, in the slower lanes. Yet, over the years, my swimming improved. I was competing. But, importantly, for that shy, overweight teenager that still lingered in my head, I was no longer last.
Over the next few years my ambitions grew and I trained for a couple of long distance triathlons but to date my biggest swimming achievement was the Thames Marathon – 14km down the Thames between Henley-on-Thames (famous for the rowing regatta) and Marlow. When I look at the kid who climbed out of the pool well behind his class mates, I would never imagine I’d actually enjoy the training: multiple laps of a lake in south London twice a week to build up my endurance for that long swim down the River Thames. But enjoy it, I did – it was knackering I won’t lie; I popped out for energy bars, pasta, bananas then hopped straight back in to knock out a few more kms. And I loved the event. The swim was wonderfully scenic, well organised and I was competing with good friends from the club. We got support and encouragement from one another and from other members in the Tri club. It was one of the most enjoyable challenges I’ve ever signed up for.
Then I discovered swim holidays. Swim Trek is one company that offers exotic places to swim for a week. Sounds crazy, but it’s actually good fun. I’ve been to islands and coastal bays of Greece, not far from Corfu. Where we’d do 2 swims per day, with guides and support, swimming into caves, through under water arches and around small islands. Cold beers over dinner with old friends and new. And I’ve swum in the beautiful and barren fjords of Musandam. A dry rocky peninsula in Oman that pushes out into the Arabian Sea where it forms the Straights of Hormuz, with Iran, just a few miles away. Inside the peninsula is a wonderland of dolphins, rays, the odd black tipped shark and miles and miles of wonderful swimming. Plus delicious local foods on the old wooden sailing boat that delivered us to our swimming spots. These trips were wonderful: exploration, a challenge, good food, a few drinks and a little bit of exercise.
Here in Australia the international borders are shut. I can’t go anywhere but within my own country. While summer heat and humidity cripples anyone who dares go outside, and summer fires, cyclones and electrical storms bring a destructive edge to life in the great south land, I’m staying put in Brisbane. I was looking for a challenge after completing several multi-day hikes in the Northern Territory and South Australia. I was sent a link for a swim challenge to support Reach Out – a mental health charity.
Covid has brought mental health into sharp relief. I’m acutely aware of the impact of extended lock-downs on mental health. Friends and relatives in Melbourne went through months of restrictions last year, while my friends in the UK have been locked down since Xmas. Yet before Covid even made the news, Australia was plagued with teen suicide. People I’m close to have been affected by this. So, I signed up to Laps for Life. The site offered a range of distances. I wanted a challenge, so I ignored the 10km and 20km options and chose 31km. An average of 1km every day. That should be doable. I think I can manage 1500m every weekday for the month. I’ve done a week of swimming on camp with the club, but never anything like this before. But it was a challenge worth going after. It’s now my 2nd week. After 9 days of swimming my shoulders are knotted and my neck is sore. I’ve had a massage to work out the worst of it and I’m still tight. But I know how this works. It’s a mind game. Get in, push off, swim. One lap at a time.
Each morning, I get the gear together: Speedos, rashie, goggles, towel, water bottle. Get out the door. Drive to the pool. Pick a lane. Slide into the water. Get the first lap done. Then do another lap. And another. That’s 400m done, 800m, then 1500m. More mental games: “I’ve come all this way I may as well do 2km”. This is normal now. Familiar. The lane ropes beside me, the black line beneath me, keep company. Swing the arms, breathe, kick. Forward. One lap at a time.
As I finish my set. I stretch tired shoulders. I look at the water sparkling with afternoon sunshine. The storm clouds that threatened heavy rain have moved on. Now I see just blue skies, palms trees along the fence line, and the crystal water. Tomorrow, I’ll go through the same routine. Push myself out the door. Get to the pool. Focus on one lap. Then another. And another. As I count down the days. I’m curious how I’ll feel about swimming at the end of March. Will I continue with the daily swims? Will I ease off? Will I feel any improvement? Yet I’m also conscious that if the donations I raise can help just one young person, then the swimming is secondary. But for the minute, the swimming is everything.