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Swimming through a doctorate

The summer of 2014 was both very bad and very good for me. After 22 years as a student, I neared the end of my PhD. Everyone told me to be excited but in reality, I was lost. The life direction that I expected to magically appear before graduation hadn’t surfaced. And although society kept telling me to be an adult, I wasn’t one. I was still single, living in a rented flat with my gay best friend and occasionally spending nights in front of the telly eating ice cream from the tub. Yes, on those nights, I was basically Debra Messing from Will and Grace.
I fell apart at university. I stopped going to work, stopped writing my thesis and avoided my email. I seriously questioned if I would ever become motivated enough to finish my degree.
But I didn’t let everything fall apart. After five years, I was finally a strong open water swimmer and I was determined to do my first 10 km lake swim.
I pushed through training all summer, overcoming the obstacles of not having a training partner (by getting a kayaker to support me) and not finding a goal swim (by looking at foreign events). The more I swam, the more I was convinced I could do it. I occasionally wondered if I could keep it up and I sometimes fretted that I wasn’t good enough. But I pushed on.
The months went quickly and I was soon in Kielder, England, the night before the swim. It wasn’t a good night. My high levels of stress about the swim and my PhD caused a huge row with my father and I went to bed tearful. But it didn’t matter. I had trained all summer and I was confident. I got up on race day nervous but knowing I would complete the event.
The swim wasn’t easy. The water was colder than I’d trained in so I felt short of breath for the first kilometre. At the 2.5-km feed station, I ate too much and was nauseated for the next two kilometres. As that passed, I went around a bend and waves started coming at me. But I pushed on. I considered stopping but I knew I wouldn’t. I’d done the training; I would finish.
After that I passed the 6-km feed station without stopping because of my still-upset stomach, then I turned another bend and the lake was suddenly calm. I could see the finish four kilometres away and I knew without a doubt I could do it. Those last four kilometres were the easiest of the race. I was so excited when I exited that water running. I had set out a goal and I completed it!
After the Kielder swim, I travelled for a few weeks, visiting friends and swimming whenever possible. When I returned home, something was different – I realized I knew how to finish my degree. It was just like swim training. I knew the goal and I knew I had the skills to achieve it so I just needed to push on.
I have now just submitted a 200-page thesis summarizing five years of research and I know that I would not be here without swimming. In working to reach my goal swim, I unconsciously taught myself how to reach other goals in my life.

Next swim goal: 16 km river swim
Next career goal: Undecided