Featured,  View from the Water

Even the best swimmers get nervous about open water

Last weekend was the Great North Swim, which takes place on Windermere in the Lake District. It’s Britain’s largest mass participation swimming event, attracting nearly 10,000 swimmers from beginners to some of the fastest people in the water around. You’ll see children as young as 12 and pensioners approaching 80. I heard people in their 60s talking excitedly about setting a PB (personal best) for the mile and saw people swimming head-up breaststroke side by side and chatting and smiling. I even saw one person wearing glasses. Great Swim might sometimes be criticised for insisting all swimmers wear wetsuits and their warm up routine may not be to everyone’s liking but they really do a fantastic job of introducing people to the joys of swimming outside.
Great Swim like to invite swimming stars and celebrities to say a few words of inspiration and share their swimming tips. One of those people this weekend was double Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington. Rebecca must surely be one of the toughest women out there. You don’t get to be the best in the world without an iron will and the ability to push yourself through thousands of punishing early morning training sessions. Then you need nerves of steel and absolute belief in your ability to perform at your best in the Olympic arena.
It is unlikely that any of the non-elite swimmers at the Great North Swim have spent more hours in the water than Rebecca yet she stood up in front of us all and admitted how nervous swimming in the lake made her. She worried about the cold, not being able to see where she was going and not having a black line to follow. Initially she didn’t want to swim at all but was eventually persuaded and afterwards said she was really glad she did.
Interestingly, and adding to the fun of the event, there was a little bit of banter between Rebecca and fellow swimming star Steve Parry, who despite his pool swimming pedigree is now something of a Great Swim veteran. Steve cheerfully told everyone he was going to ‘win’, yet in the water the two swam alongside each other and, although they were fast by normal standards, they certainly didn’t race. Talking to Rebecca afterwards she said how much it helped her confidence to have Steve swimming next to her.
Later I watched some of the junior elite swimmers getting in a bit of practice before their 5k race. The youngsters were to swim without wetsuits and clearly the open water and the 17.5 degree water temperature was an issue for several of them – and who can blame them? I would have been terrified at that age. The next day you could see the anxiety clearly in their faces as they lined up for their race. Despite their hours of training, speed and skill in the water, diving into Windermere definitely made them nervous – if not scared.
The point of course is that open water is intimidating – and for good reason. However much we train and however proficient in the water we become, we are still land animals with a need for air. It’s normal to be nervous. It’s a good thing as it encourages us to take appropriate precautions before swimming. Even the best get anxious, which is reassuring. We can at least not be worried or feel ashamed about our own fears.