It has been a weekend of frenzied competition in the world of swimming. In the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Chad Ho and Hayley Anderson triumphed in the 5km open water races. And in south London, I and 30 of South London Swimming Club’s finest lined up at the deep end of Tooting Bec Lido to compete in the annual Plunge for Distance competition.
The Plunge for Distance is the darts of the swimming world. Although it takes place in the water, it can’t really be classified as swimming. It involves a dive, but Tom Daley needn’t worry that he’s suddenly going to be usurped by 30 plucky amateurs from Tooting. It was once, however, an Olympic sport – so that actually makes it pretty impressive and probably puts one over on everyone competing at Kazan, natch.
As an event it enjoyed its peak of popularity in the late 1800s and early 20th century, which means that it would have been a pretty hip thing to be doing in 1906, when Tooting Lido was built. I imagine it was the bikram yoga of its day. In 1904 it was even an Olympic sport, although its tenure was short lived: it was immediately dropped from the roster of Olympic events, never to be seen again. The premise of the ‘sport’ is simple: dive in and see how far you can glide before having to take a breath. Those Edwardians really knew how to have a good time.
Actually, it is a lot of fun. Although, to be brutally honest, it does favour those athletes with a little bit more natural insulation than I possess. Or “mere mountains of fat who fall in the water more or less successfully and depend upon inertia to get their points for them.” Not my words, the words of Gerald Barnes in his 1922 bestseller, Swimming and Diving. So, my pre-race preparation was somewhat different to usual – I stayed up late eating burgers and drinking beer and arrived at the pool in the peak of pre-Plunge physical fitness: hungover and slightly bloated.
As we lined up poolside the mood was tense. With the club record holder (a very svelte woman possessed of particularly buoyant buttocks) not in attendance, everything was to play for. Could this be my chance to shine?
Well, no. All competitors had three chances to put in their best performance. After one dive it was obvious where I was headed: very slowly towards the bottom of the pool. When your other sport is ultra running, buoyancy is not something that you are naturally blessed with.
So, I left the competition to be fought over by better (and bigger) men. In the 1904 Olympics the winning dive was 62 feet 6 inches. Our champion put in an impressive 60 feet 9 and a half inches. Unfortunately he was on a diet, otherwise who knows what distance he could have achieved.