Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Value of Swimming in Uncertain Times

 Hi Swimmers

Firstly, apologies for the radio silence over the last few weeks on the blog - we’ve had the whole team busily engaged in a complete revamp of the entire website and coaching interface, and whilst we are not quite done with all that yet, we are getting very close and hope to resume these blogs and our usual community engagement in due course very soon. Thanks for your patience and understanding.

Today, Head Coach, Paul Newsome, has prepared a reflective piece for you on the value of swimming and what it means to us all, especially in these uncertain times. We hope it allows you to pause over a cup of tea or coffee and think a little bit about your own swimming and how your relationship with the water might have changed somewhat in the last 12 months. Paul features three brief stories of some inspiring swimmers he has had the pleasure to work with and how their swimming journeys have been significantly altered by the coronavirus, mostly for the better. Paul summarises with some of his own take-home points on how this period has changed his own thinking on swimming somewhat and how his ordinarily extrinsic competitive goalposts have shifted to a place of intrinsic challenge and finding a new calm with that. So please, relax, put your feet up and let’s get a little zen for a moment.

The Value of Swimming in Uncertain Times

I was recently invited as a guest on the new "An Open Water Swimmer's Podcast" with host Will Ellis (release date: 28th February here) to discuss my love and passion for swimming - an easy topic for me! Will is a great host and someone I'd taken for a Swim Smooth analysis session as part of a group over a decade ago in the UK. Given my area of technical interest in swimming, many podcasts that we've done with other hosts have always centered on these elements, but Will took a very different slant, one which focused very much on the "why" of swimming. Why do I swim? Why do I enjoy the water? Why swimming and not another sport? I came away with a headful of thoughts that I'd either never given due consideration to before, or maybe some that crystallized a growing appreciation I've started to foster of late?

Given the current state of play with COVID-19 restrictions on our sport over the last 12 months, I feel my own relationship with water has not necessarily changed per se, but it's definitely evolved. Perhaps though, it's me who's changed and it's this period of intrinsic reflection that has heightened the "why" behind what we all love to do? For many of you, could the absence of being able to do the thing you love or the thing that perhaps challenges you the most (as a triathlete maybe?), be the necessary catalyst to kick your swimming to new heights of appreciation (however you measure that) when we do all come through this? I'm certainly seeing that in myself and my squad of very lucky swimmers over here in Perth, Australia.

Lady Luck

Over the last 12 months, Perth has been heralded as one of the best places on the planet with respect to the relatively few restrictions and impact of the coronavirus - many of us scarcely realizing how lucky we are. Next week will see 3,500 people start one of the largest open water swims on the planet, the Rottnest Channel Swim, in which I will be competing with a good friend over the 20km distance. We have, however, just come out of a heavily publicized (albeit very short) 5-day lockdown here in Perth which restricted access to the pools and saw us only being able to swim solo in the open water or with one other family member. This incident garnered international press on account of the very rapid and focused response to a single case in the community transferred between a quarantined hotel guest and a security guard. The whole state came to a grinding halt for just one case - everything ceased and panic was high. Despite extensive testing (myself included) of those who may have been in the vicinity of this one person, fortunately, no other community transmission has occurred. Consequently, life is returning to some form of normality again. 

One of the hardest things I've personally struggled with over the last 12 months though is being able to fully appreciate and empathize with just how brutal this period must have been - and continues to be - for many of you from the perspective of being able to simply enjoy the pleasures of a nice swim. Lady Luck has shone down on me, and for why, I do not know? I feel a toiling mixed sense of guilt, of pure luck, and of umbrage at myself for the seemingly petty feeling of missing the ability to travel overseas and share my love of swimming with you all, wherever you might be. I miss it so much and yet feel I have no right to do so given where I have the good fortune to be right now. 

I had a frank conversation before Christmas with my Mum about this. Many of you know Linda as "Mother Smooth" and if you've ever ordered anything from us, she'd have sent it to you. True to the adage that "Mum always knows best", I finally managed to pluck up the courage and expand on how excited I was to be taking my wife and two kids camping over the Christmas holidays to a beautiful town called Albany in the South West which we'd all visited together as a family a few years earlier. Mother Smooth couldn't understand why I'd not told her sooner, to which I responded that I didn't want to make her feel bad. "Feel bad?" she quizzed, "I am at my happiest when I know you are happy". Profound stuff - good old Mum!

The Changing Tide

So, what has this all really got to do with swimming? If you are in the northern hemisphere, chances are you are sick to the back teeth of hearing about the coronavirus and maybe even more so the thought that other pockets of the world are experiencing far fewer restrictions than yourself currently. Last week's swift lockdown gave me a rapid reminder though just how uncertain these times can be - the tide can change on a dime so easily. What has been remarkable for me has been watching how those of you who still continue in enforced lockdowns have survived this last 12 months and I'd like to recognize some of the cool - and crazy - things you've been doing, obviously simply for the joy of needing to get your swim in! Perhaps you can tell us more about how you've weathered this storm so far?

Helen Webster, UK

I met Helen in March 2014 at the 220 Triathlon Show in London. As Editor of the 220 Triathlon Magazine, Helen had taken it upon herself to learn to swim freestyle properly for an upcoming triathlon and I was tasked with assisting her with that goal in an Endless Pool and in front of hundreds of people. For someone with very little swimming experience at that point, Helen did amazingly well in front of such a crowd and it’s a testament to her bubbly “can do” spirit that she took on this challenge!

We spent a good hour or so filming her stroke, analyzing it (in front of everyone!), and then getting back into the pool to correct her issues which mainly centered around developing confidence in the water and improving the timing of her stroke, specifically her breathing. Back then, Helen was what we’d have described as a classic Bambino - someone very new to swimming with a relatively high level of anxiety in the water - so to see the following images circulating on Helen’s Facebook page in the last couple of weeks simply blew my mind! Helen’s gone all Bear Grylls on us and now is not happy unless she has to break the ice in her backyard pool just to ensure she gets her swim in! I’m so proud of her as a mate!

Here's Helen on what the last 12 months have meant for her swimming:
"Open-water swimming has been a key part of my training week ever since taking those first steps with Paul all those years ago! Lockdown had made me realise just how important swimming is to me though and in so many ways. Not living near the coast and with managed venues nearby forced to close I've realised how much I rely on swimming for lifting my mood, giving me a pause from a busy world and fully immersing myself in nature. I'm a pool swimmer too and with centres all closed I'm even missing the tang of chlorine and having to do kick drills!!
It sounds melodramatic but a tearful moment on the phone with a friend promoted her to gift me a garden pool and swimming tethered has given me a route back to the water (thanks to Swim Smooth Coach Jason Tait for the tethered swim sets!). It's also led me to a new swim community who are making the most of what they have and finding humour in sitting in ice baths and under hosepipes, or sharing tips for how to stop your garden pool freezing!
I can't wait to have my 'proper' swimming back and believe me, will never take it for granted again. I'm planning a swim challenge for September and keeping fingers crossed it goes ahead!"

Sue Allingham, Denmark

Sue attended one of our 3-day Swim Smooth Coach Education Courses in Mallorca, Spain back in May 2019 and was clearly a super-passionate swimmer and coach. We’ve remained in close contact via Messenger since and she frequently sends me crazy pictures of where she’s been swimming, however, nothing could quite prepare me for this one - her frozen Margarita experience (as she calls it)!

When I asked Sue about what the last 12 months have meant for her swimming, she said this:

"A year ago I entered the World Ice Swimming Championships in Bled Slovenia for a laugh. 2 weeks later I broke both my wrists and then Lockdown! By April I was going stir crazy and the day I had my casts removed, I got back into the sea, as the pools were shut. Little did I know that I would continue going in every day since! As my wrists got stronger, I could swim longer but the thought of trying to pull on a wetsuit was hanging over my head. By the time I probably could get one on I no longer felt the need. I continued to swim throughout the year and ended up becoming the Danish age-group champion in 25m & 100m Freestyle - Ice swimming and 5k Openwater. 
A year on from Covid and we are still in the sea and simply just grabbing any opportunity to jump in the water, to try new beaches or temperatures. As you can see from the picture, we’ve started making our own frozen Margaritas! 
What will I do when the pools open again? Dive in and just keep swimming! Never thought I’d miss the black line so much. Swimming as always is such a social thing & drinking coffee with friends after each swim has really made Lockdown actually enjoyable. Already looking at SwimRuns in Sweden, hopefully as it’s close by we may be allowed to travel. Otherwise lots of pre-paid events carried over from last year. I live in hope. 
One thing is for sure, the sea is always open!"

Mark Turner, Switzerland

Mark also attended one of our other 3-day Swim Smooth Coach Education Courses in Mallorca, Spain (the week after Sue) and had just a few months prior completed the Rottnest Channel Swim here in Perth. Mark set up the world’s most prestigious multi-day cycling event for amateurs, the Haute Route, which is a brutally tough challenge in a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Mark was also the man behind Ellen MacArthur’s sailing career (who set the world record in 2005 for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe), the Offshore Challenges/OC Sport business, and the Extreme Sailing Series, and is widely seen as a visionary in the sport of sailing. And, if all that wasn't enough, Mark led the Volvo Ocean Race series as CEO in 2016/17. Needless to say, Mark is not someone to do things by half and is always up for a (big) challenge! 

Mark now lives in Switzerland on the banks of Lake Geneva and is fastidious about his swimming, especially a weekly completion of the infamous 10 x 400m Red Mist Endurance session! Like with many parts of the world, Mark has had unreliable access to his local pool over the last 12 months and so has turned to the great outdoors instead…even during the middle of winter! Hooking up regularly with like-minded souls in these freezing temperatures has been what has kept Mark going and will stand him in good stead when the world finally comes back to some sense of normality.

It Is What It Is

I think one of the most obvious things with each of these three swimmers - and yourself hopefully too - is that they’ve simply rolled with the punches that 2020 and beyond has brought their way. They’ve got on with it, adapted, pivoted, and thrived in a new environment and in doing so sought out other goals to keep them motivated and in the game. Resilience personified. We always talk so virtuously in training and racing about “control the controllable”, and clearly, none of this is in any of our control right now. Way back in April 2020 when we were still in lockdown and I was personally unable to coach, a very close friend and one of my athletes, Nolan McDonnell told me to “stop trying to save us all - we can look after ourselves!” in response to me frantically trying to work out how to keep everyone fit and engaged when I couldn’t be with them face-to-face. It really struck a chord with me, and whilst it didn’t happen overnight, I did begin to accept the situation. 

Knowing I wouldn’t be able to travel and spread the Swim Smooth word - as has been my life over the last 16 or so years - was a real blow, but ever so gradually I started to move beyond this and to focus on what I could do, not what I couldn’t. For me personally, that’s meant plenty more time at home with the family, and as we are seeing on the pool deck at the moment, plenty of opportunities to be super consistent with our respective training schedules too. The squad here in Perth has never swum so quickly before, ever! Why? Everyone has their groundhog day schedule dialed in and they’re sticking to it because there’s nowhere else to go, and there’s something very centering about that, zen even. 

Fancying a challenge myself - and recognizing the collective benefit of encouraging others to follow suit - I have even got myself back into doing a few triathlons, marathon swims, and even the odd SwimRun event too! Taking on a range of varied challenges was in an effort to not put all our eggs into one basket in case events got canceled or postponed. 

Again, I’m super privileged to be able to do these things right now, and part of that appreciation brings a whole new angle on why we do what we do. For me, it’s all been about my shared experience of training up with one of my best mates Chris to do the Rottnest Channel Swim together as a Duo next week. With last week’s unprecedented lockdown it looked certain to be canceled but you know what, I wasn’t bothered in the slightest! The religiously attended Sunday morning swim with Chris in the river is what it’s all about - not the event itself. Swimming + Best Mate = Win. Sure, the race will be a nice finale, but the old adage of “the journey is better than the destination” is what this whole crazy period has really taught me. We egg each other on even in the middle of winter and for me, this has seen a major step away from the profound sense of training for competition’s sake, to training for training’s sake, and for the social camaraderie that this has brought. I wouldn’t change that for the world.

Even if you haven’t had the opportunity (yet) to be quite so free in your activities, that time will come again, hopefully very soon, and in the meantime, just set yourself some little consistency of routine benchmarks to tick off. Get creative like our friends above (just maybe not quite so crazy!). How many swims in the river can you consistently do every Sunday? Can you always ensure you meet up with Bob for your Friday lunchtime jog in the park? Make sure you commit to that group ride on Zwift you booked in for on the Companion app etc. It’s the little things, done often that will keep you going and when the world opens up again, you’ll be ready! 

Thanks for reading. Swim on!


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