“Hey Dad, if you’re sinking, I’m not coming in after you – it’s bleeding freezing!”
And with those words ringing in my ears whilst my 15 year-old looked nervously down from the safety of his canoe at my dying swan impression, my first attempt at a practice open water swim over the Christmas period ended in ignominy and near disaster.
It all made sense at the time; revved up by the inspiring 'Swimming to Antartica' book by renowned open water swimmer, Lynne Cox, as well as the knowledge that it was only three short months since I had happily splashed around the same bay in Portscatho Cornwall, I had donned wetsuit, bribed my son to paddle alongside and had taken to the water to see just how far I had to go to be ready for the Malta open water swim.
As I wheezed and fought for breath in the cold water in an overly tight wetsuit (had I really put on ten pounds since the summer?), I began to wonder whether I was to pay the price for my over confidence. My life wasn’t quite flashing before me, but I was groping in vain to recall exactly why I had felt justified in telling our team leader and organiser, Stephen Gould, that I felt I was competent to be able to undertake the Malta open water challenge.
Particularly hard to bear was the thought ‘you’re only as good as your last match’. As I floated on my back to try and calm the rising panic and racing heart, the bitter truth was that this WAS my last match and not the exaggerated fitness levels I had enjoyed last summer whilst training for and running in the RMHC Yorkshire 3 Peaks challenge.
As January started, I could barely swim more than a couple of lengths without my chest closing up. So I set myself a target to ‘sort things out’ by the end of January; if by that time I had not drastically turned things around, then I would sheepishly have to make my excuses and bail out of the swim, knowing that, at my age, this might be my last chance to something like this.
I changed my diet. I changed to hypoallergenic bedding. I turned to alternative medicine and acquired a ‘salt pipe’. I went to the doctor and started the antibiotics. Finally, I bullied myself to go jogging to try and force my lungs to clear. I went when it was dark along deserted paths and fields, sinking in mud up to my ankles, wheezing and coughing and stopping constantly.
My wife wasn’t impressed: “well I suppose if you’re having a mid life crisis, I should be grateful it’s this and not a younger woman”. As I looked in the wall mirror having just crawled through the door after another attempted run, glowing like a lobster and looking every bit the escapee from somewhere very secure (but not secure enough), I had to acknowledge the sarcasm was justified and that ‘the younger woman’ whoever she was would no doubt be running in the opposite direction from me (and a hell of a lot faster), if she were to set eyes on me now.
But things did slowly improve. By the end of January, I was coping with the pool again.
In February, thanks to the helpful advice from John Coningham-Rolls, our trainer from Swim Trek and himself a cross channel swimmer who clearly knows a thing or two about open water swimming, I started working on my technique.
The idea I am told behind improving technique is not to look good – it’s simply to be able to draw more water with less effort so as to maintain a better pace for longer. What I hadn’t realised until John, and later Stephen, helpfully broke down the correct stroke technique, is that it’s so involved. The best analogy I can think of for trying to change your stroke while swimming, is like trying to hit a golf ball after having your swing pulled apart and rebuilt. Trying to think about the bits that need changing as you’re doing them is a sure fire way of the other 'okay' bits abruptly disintegrating - frustrating when golfing, but downright hazardous when swimming, particularly as the breathing-timing is usually the first thing to go!
So it’s been a shaky start, but I am now half a stone lighter and feeling more confident again. I am swimming 3km three or four times a week, having worked out that by going first thing in the morning when I haven’t time to wake up properly, at least only the session is painful and not the build up to it as well.
I even get the odd moment when an inexplicable wave of optimism hits me and I start to muse that I might fit that wetsuit better now and may be it’s time to take to the sea again. Up to now I’ve reacted by thinking about just how cold the sea will be at the moment and, in case this isn’t enough, I recall my son’s horrified face looking down at my last attempt. For now, this has countered any remaining urge to confront those demons again! For now, that is.
Ian Down is a partner in the entertainment, media and intellectual property department at Hamlins LLP, solicitors, in Regent Street, London and specialises in marketing and sports sponsorship law. He is best known within the brand licensing industry for his work for the McDonald’s Happy Meal licensing programme in Europe and APMEA over the last ten years.