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The evolution of an open water swimmer

Open water swimming has undeniably expanded over the past 10 years due in most parts to the introduction of affordable wetsuits and the growth in popularity of triathlon. People come to open water swimming from all sorts of backgrounds but more recently we have seen a surge of people coming to open water swimming from a triathlon background. Some stay and develop within open water swimming; some dip in and out (pardon the pun); and some are just visiting for a short while to improve their swimming as in their souls they are triathletes through-and-through and wouldn’t dream of ditching the bike and trainers long term.
As I think of my own progression in open water swimming over the last eight years from a triathlon background to an out-and-out open water swimmer, I can’t help thinking of the evolutionary changes that have occurred in body, mind and spirit.
When you first get into open water swimming from triathlon, equipment is everything. You need the right wetsuit, the best googles and all the right training tools. Every second counts and the water is an obstacle that must be conquered as quickly as possible. It’s all about big events and competitions, age group rankings and friendly rivalries. It’s lake swimming and wincing if the water temp goes below 16 degrees Celsius, rejoicing if it’s 18 plus and just praying it never exceeds above 22 and wetsuits are no longer permitted. It’s looking out on the water and hoping it’s flat and checking all the buoys and imagining all the turns. It’s head down all the way and the joy is getting though it in the fastest possible time. It’s feeling alive when you get out and you check your result and spend endless hours afterwards mulling over how you could have gone faster if it wasn’t for someone swimming over you or blocking you.
After a while something happens. You can’t put your finger on it but you start to realise that you enjoy the swimming and you are no longer getting a buzz from the brawl at the start of swims. You want to be in the water longer so you venture further afield with your event choice; you look at swims that are unusual and in different bodies of water. You try sea and river swimming and tackle longer distances. You become more interested in the beauty of your surroundings and look for idyllic swimming retreats.
On these new ventures you start to meet people that you would call ‘swimmers’. They’re a different breed to triathletes. They lack the leanness of body and muscle-stacked thighs that come from hours on a bike. They are broad shouldered and rugged, and a lot of them are carrying some weight. You smile to yourself as you sip your energy drink and pop your glucose tablets while these strange creatures are eating cake and drinking hot chocolate. Strangely, a lot of them aren’t wearing wetsuits either. To you this is unimaginable, it’s like walking without shoes: why WOULDN’T you wear a wetsuit and benefit from all the advantages it gives you? But as you enter the water and feel the coldness trickle through your neoprene you notice them boldly walk in as if they were enjoying a warm bath. You can’t help but admire this and think: what is this strange voodoo that makes people immune to the cold? You start thinking you want to try it yourself.
Slowly but surely you are changing. How quickly and by how much depends on you but you know the change is happening when you become more interested in distances completed rather than time taken, when you want to swim from point to point rather than around in circles and when you start looking for interesting landmarks to aim for. Now when you swim, you stop occasionally, lift your goggles and look around (rather than at your watch); you swim more for pleasure and less for competition; you feel cheated if the temperature is too high and invigorated when it’s low; you check the weather forecast on a regular basis and enjoy the rainy cold days; you feel alive when you are in the water and long to return when you get out; you want to swim alongside people rather than speed ahead; and your wetsuit may, just may, be hung up in a wardrobe. If you do still use it, it’s no longer an instrument of speed but simply a means to allow you to enjoy the water for longer.
If I think back to when I started, open water swimming meant challenge and fitness. As I reflect now on what it means to me, it’s words such as escape, passion and community that come to mind. I have certainly evolved in body, mind and spirit and I respect and rejoice in the diversity of how all swimmers evolve in their own ways. There is no doubt the water has changed me. How about you?
Iain Keenan is a founder of Chalkwell Redcaps, an open water swimming community based in Southend-on-Sea.