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FEATURES,  Readers' Swims

“Once in the water, I flow”

Janet MacLeod shares her account of being an older woman swimmer: strong and fearless, solitary and communal, life-long and evolving.

We women largely move through the world under a small shadow of threat that shapes us, our choices and our opportunities. Simple things: which route to take home; which seat to take on the bus; a placatory tone with an angry companion; should I go for that job; should I speak up or accept. Our bodies are unruly and messy; hidden, always hidden. 

So I swim: wantonly, half naked in public, not covered or caring about how I look. Mismatched colours, no style, hair wet and unbrushed. I am strong and fearless in water. I have scars and hair; I wobble and sag. And I care not. 

I am a life-long swimmer, as comfortable in a loch as a leisure centre, and a middle-aged woman. At every stage of my life I have lowered myself into water, hot and cold, to look for some peace, and some quiet, and some time. By nature I am anxious and I have lived most of my life in an overwhelming fog of terror.

“You’re going to end up in there anyway, so just get in” 

I live in a city 10 minutes cycle from a lido, unheated and uncovered; a glorious enclosed warm blanket of a place that I get under most days. My life is centred around this water. A bag is ready and packed and always waiting: flask, chocolate and an apple. No phone. 

I am neat and orderly, shoes side by side, clothes folded on top of them and my waterproof bag covering everything in case it rains. I walk, very upright, to the pool side and in my own time I put in earplugs and pull on a swim cap. I bend down to the water to wet my goggles and put them on, twitching the swim cap, tucking in my hair. 

And then I stand in all the weathers that there are and look out over the water and at the other swimmers to time when I might get in. I get in without hesitation using a mantra that gets me through the anxiety of crowded carriages, road tunnels, aeroplanes and lifts: ‘you’re going to end up in there anyway, so just get in’. 

“Race tracks for some and peaceful meanders for others”

A competent younger swimmer will likely be able to swim faster than even a good older woman swimmer, and so the lanes become race tracks for some and peaceful meanders for others, with a slow lane largely filled with women and a faster lane with trackers, PBs and impatience. 

I am an awkward lane swimmer because I rarely, if ever, maintain the same pace. I front crawl in sprints and return with breaststroke. Then I might suddenly stop, close my eyes to the sun and savour the cold water on my joints and the heat on my face. 

But if I have a mind to, I can race and overtake and already be turned back and swimming past as another swimmer comes to the end of their lane. The final length of any swim will always be done head-up breaststroke with goggles pushed up to my forehead and my eyes taking in the last drops of water and the end of my time in the water. 

“I relish this part of the swim”

When I swim, I am involved in the minute changes I can make to my breathing, the catching of the water, the roll of my body and the position of my feet. I can change it all and sometimes feels like a sleek ottery water being; other times I push breathlessly through, out of time with my own self. 

There will be a place I arrive at where I bolt forward cleanly through water, which feels smoother; my breath is easy and unconscious and I feel like I am slicing the water with little disturbance of the surface. I relish this part of the swim. And I think of all the time I’ve spent ploughing up and down pools to learn how to be better so that there can be moments like this.

I have my life in the water and I have my life out of the water. I hold pain in my joints; they work and then they don’t. My bones move against each other like rusty metal. I wake in the morning and my body is stiff and slow to unwind. 

My mind then shifts to the day ahead and when I will get a chance to swim again. I run through meetings, calls and deadlines and make every effort to clear an hour at midday to get myself time in the sun, and fresh air and water. 

As I lie in bed too sore to move, I imagine the cold water closing over my joints and searing them free of pain. When I walk from my pile of clothes to the side of the pool I know that I have four scars on my legs that can be seen, two of them are recent and red. 

Last year, between surgeries, I was left with a difference in leg length that made me rock from side to side when I walked and that short journey to the water was the only time in the day when I would walk without shoes that had a lift hidden in one of them. 

It’s all very revealing, half undressed and showing scars and trying to hide my very stiff walk. But once in the water, I flow; I can twist and turn, stand up and walk fluidly. So this is why I swim and this is how I swim. Simple and complicated; solitary and communal, life-long and evolving.

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Jo is the Gear Editor for Outdoor Swimmer and also writes news and features for the website. A keen open water swimmer and long-distance walker, she loves seeking out lakes and lidos close to her home in the Mendip Hills, Somerset. She is the author of The Slow Traveller, editor and founder of independent magazine, Ernest, and has previously tested outdoor clothing and kit for BBC Countryfile Magazine, BBC Focus and Ernest Journal.