Featured,  Readers' Swims

How Rhona McGregor overcame her fears and fell in love with open water

‘Open water swimming!  Are you mad?’

Well, that’s what people say when you tell them you spend your Sunday mornings swimming in a cold loch just outside Glasgow. We are few and far between, us open water swimmers, but we are growing in number as more and more pool swimmers discover the joy of swimming chlorine free, lane free and with no tumble turns at the end of each length.
I participated in my first organised open water event late in the 2012 summer season. I had swum for hours in the pool and could easily swim 100 lengths. I had even managed getting into a loch before the big day. A friend of my husband had agreed to take me with him on one of his training sessions at a very cold loch near Dumfries.
It did not go well!
I ended up telling Chris I was fine just swimming around near the shore, while he and his buddy swam across the loch and disappeared from view. Liam, my husband, stood on the shore and shouted encouragingly to me but I could not get my face in the water without complete panic taking over.  I felt invigorated though and realised that my body loved being in the water, even if my face didn’t.
The day of the event arrived and I found myself standing on the shores of beautiful Loch Eck, waiting to swim a 2k. Looking around I could see a diverse bunch, of all shapes and sizes, all of us squeezed into our bought, begged and borrowed wetsuits. I watched as the folk doing the longer distances started off and then it was my turn. We had our safety talk from Robert Hamilton, who runs Vigour Events and who had organised the swim that day, and I kept his voice in my head as I went onto the water.
“If you are in trouble or just want a safety boat to come over so you can speak to the crew, just lie on your back and raise your arm.”
 Liam and my three girls were on the shoreline shouting: “Go Mummy! Go Mummy!”
I had to turn to them and smile and reassure them I was fine as I turned on my back and went under the water. I managed to get my face in the water a few times before the race started and I gave Liam the thumbs up.
“I can do this,” I said to myself.
The race began and I was left for dust by everyone around me and after 25 strokes I had no breath left in me. I completed the race though, and didn’t care in the slightest that I came last. I had done it half front crawl and half breaststroke and had a little rest and chat with the safety crews on the way round but I had finished and received huge cheers from the small band of spectators who were still on the shoreline, including my very loud children and husband. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done but I had loved every minute of it and could not wait for the new season to begin.
I kept training in the pool all winter and only had a little time off due to a period of ill health. So when the 2013 season came upon us I felt I was more than ready to get back in the open water. I had learned that Vigour Events ran open coaching sessions at Bardowie Loch just north of Glasgow and I had been eagerly checking their website for updates as to when the sessions would begin.
So the first Sunday that I had free I made my way to Bardowie, full of anticipation and trepidation. I arrived and started chatting to the folk who were already there and to Robert and his wife Kirsty who helps with the business. I filled in the forms and collected a number tag which we wear round our ankle or wrist, depending on how flexible you are, and then got changed in the ample changing facilities. We all gathered together looking out at the loch through the floor to ceiling windows of the club house and listened to Robert explain the course and how to stay safe, then it was out to the shoreline.
The eager ones are in first, keen to get on with it, then the swimmers who are less confident, then me. Robert has explained the technique of how to get our faces in the water and how to gradually begin to swim to keep our body temperature up. It feels like everybody has managed this and they’re now beginning their swim round their chosen course route. I follow but I am really struggling with the panic I feel when my face goes in the water. I decide to head back to the shore and I shake my head when Liam shouts to me from the jetty.
“It’s not for me,” I tell him. “I’m coming out.”
“Keep trying,”’ Liam shouts. “You can do it.”
Robert realises I am giving up and throws a tow-float into the water for me. He tells me to swim up and down in front of the jetty where he can keep an eye on me and to practice breathing out under the water. It starts to get a little easier but I am now cold as I have not been swimming the whole time. After around half an hour I give up and leave the water.
The warm shower in the club house is so welcoming but as I stand under the warm water I can’t help but feel really disappointed in myself. I loved the feeling of being in the water and even managed to get my face in but keep running out of breath and stamina. I begin to think I might not be an open water swimmer after all.
A fortnight later I find myself standing on the edge of Bardowie Loch again. This time I have the tow float on before I even get in the water, a little safety blanket for me. But it’s the same as last time. I just panic when I have swum more than a few strokes and start to gasp for air. Robert calls me over to the jetty and gives me a little golden nugget of advice about my breathing technique. Slowly, but surely a little light bulb goes on in my head, like a low energy light bulb heating up. Before I know it I have set out to swim the shortest course, safe in the knowledge I have my swim float to hold onto if need be and the safety boat crew to call on if the light bulb goes out.
I only got round the course once but I feel euphoric. I can swim open water after all and I loved it. There is no stopping me now.