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Leaping for the joy of swimming

Ella Foote meets Alexandra Heminsley, author of Leap In, an emotional account of her venture to tackle the sea, from learning to swim properly to swimming from island to island in Greece

Running taught me

you get to choose to have a level of self-determination about the person you want to be, swimming taught me that you can be this far into your life and decide you would quite like to learn to do it well” says author and journalist Alexandra Heminsley who has recently mastered outdoor swimming.

If you have read Alex’s new book,

Leap In, the first thing you will notice

about her in person is that she is now

close to the arrival of her first child – the

book ends with her questioning if she

would ever have children. The second

thing you will notice is her passion

and persistence to constantly challenge

herself. Leap In follows the success of

Running Like a Girl, a book that tells

her story of starting to run and making

it part of her life. “If you are like me,

trying to do something different, there

is always a question mark whether

you will actually do it – part of

the experience is to question

it, especially with swimming,”

says Alex.

Alex and I met on Brighton

beach, where her swimming

story begins. It is a beautiful

day considering storm Doris

had blown through the day

before. The sea is calm, with

gentle waves hitting the pebble

beach. The sun creates a shimmering

path on the water and creates an

inviting spell over me. The beach is busy

considering it is a weekday afternoon,

children play at the water’s edge and

surfers lurk besides the steel skeleton

that once was Brighton’s West Pier.

The sun is warm enough for Alex and

I to be sat outside on the sea front, the

splashing sounds beyond us a constant

reminder of what brings us together

today.

Leap In chronicles Alex’s venture to tackle the sea, from learning to swim

properly to learning to work with the

water to pull herself from island to

island in Greece. The story begins on

her wedding day and describes the

joy of leaping into water just in front

of her Brighton home she had lived

in for nearly five years. The opening

descriptions of being supported by the

salty sea, the tingle the chill brought

to her skin and sense of magic she felt

as she left the water are all feelings and

sensations many swimmers will relate

to. It was this magical feeling that got

her to back into the sea the day she

returned from honeymoon only to

discover how fickle the sea can be. She

describes how the water, colder than

before, steals her husband’s wedding

ring from his finger with the force of

one big wave. Although she has now

forgiven the sea, “It has given me so

much more than it ever took. Much, much more.” says Alex. “That day showed where my mind-set was, if I just threw myself at it and with a positive attitude, swimming

would just happen, like it did

with my running. But I soon learnt being a have-a-go-hero wasn’t quite enough, there was a massive readjustment to make mentally.”

Alex joined a local swimming course with the main goal to be able to swim Pier to Pier along the Brighton shoreline. She learnt with people who were also learning with a view to swim outside, a motivation aligned with hers. “Running had taught me – you get to decide, you get to say I want to be this kind of person, there is enough life for you to keep trying to do new things and you don’t have to have mastered it by a certain age,” says Alex. “I found it really satisfying learning a new skill in my late 30s.” The course was spread over the year and throughout the book Alex describes struggles all swimmers can relate to, which is part

of the beauty of the story. There were so

many times you could nod along with

the challenge you can face in water, no

matter how good a swimmer you are.

“Everything was pointless until I sorted

out my breathing,” says Alex. “You can

inefficiently drag yourself though the

water if you can get the breathing right.

You can have the most beautiful stroke

in the world, you can have your arm

in the perfect position and have the

body of Greek god, but if your heart

is hammering because you are not

breathing right it won’t mean anything.

It was worth learning to swim, even if

I never got back into the water, it was

worth learning that lesson – the self

reliance that you can master your own

breathing by deciding to.”

Alexandra Heminsley 2

So much of what Alex learns

and experiences is anchored in her

experience of running. But she is quick

to remind us that just because you

are strong and fit, doesn’t mean you

can just pick up swimming – many

triathletes might agree. “My worst

marathon nightmares were either

about pain, which can heal or shame

– which will pass,” says Alex. “I would

negotiate myself mentally around those

two things, but with swimming my

nightmares were about dying! The loss

of control can be so fast, that is what I

learnt the day with the wedding ring – I

could feel a complete lack of control

with the environment I was in, which I

had never felt with running.” The book

appeals to so many different types of

people tapping into the minds of those

learning to swim, those embarking

on outdoor swimming events, body

acceptance, winter swimming, joy of

swimming and the collection of people

you meet through all different types of

swimming scenes.

Swimming events provide much

opportunity to swimmers to tackle

distance events across bodies of water

that otherwise they might not have the

opportunity to immerse themselves

into. “You can leave your house and

run 26 miles through a city at any point

you like, but swimming in some spots

you can only do with the support and

knowledge of experts,” says Alex. “But

swimming also has that wonderful sense

of adventure and the chance to meet the

characters who have been keeping lidos

open. They are the ones that kept

swimming as a viable thing while it wasn’t having its moment in

the sun.”

Much like with her book

about running, Alex is quick to

remind us of the mistakes we

often make when considering

sport. “It is the most consistent

and pernicious mistake that

sports marketing make – selling

sport to women is about how they

feel about their body and improving

it,” says Alex. “It is getting better, but

for men, advertising has scenes of men

involved in sport because it is time

with the lads, part of their social life,

while for women it is about getting

thin. What became even bigger with

swimming for me, because there was

so much happening to my body during

IVF treatment, is that it is easy to feel

disconnected or not in the club. If you

are not the swishy ponytail girl running

10k with pink knee-high socks, you

can’t do sport. But what we should be

focusing on is how sport helps you find

people who you can walk around the

park when you are at your lowest ebb.

They are the people that don’t just get

you around the park, but they get your

through some of the darkest times in

your year. That integration between the two is so important because if people

can see you can get that from exercise,

they would join in more.”

The community that has since

become Alex’s regular swimming

company have continued to be a

space for support and friendship. This

connection has helped Alex continue

to swim during the winter months and

even during pregnancy. On returning

to the water once she becomes a mother

Alex has ambitions for UK swimming

trips and expeditions, but also experiencing teaching her baby to

swim. “I am really fascinated how a baby can instinctively swim – the geekiness of that, how they learn to control their breath,” she says. She also has sights on learning to surf, wanting to disrupt the surfing clichés of what it means to be a surfer. “I want to be surfer/middle aged mother/having a go,” says Alex. “There is actually very little swimming and moving much more in a dynamic way. There is a lot of free

spirit tied to surfing, but I think any

relationship with the water and the sea

can be spiritual.”

Alex’s appetite for living doesn’t

stop with running, swimming or even

surfing. She is easily inspired and we

talked about climbing, poetry and other

watery writers. “I have a desire to go

off on a trip to surf, but that might just

be the bit in me terrified about being

a mother!” she says. Her infectious

sense of adventure will be what drives

her through the next challenge of

motherhood, I am sure. Her book

will resonate with so many about why

we swim and usefully ends with how.

Leaping into the sea at Brighton after

meeting Alex was even more enjoyable

knowing that is where it all began.

Photos: Chris Floyd