Lionheart Magazine #14, the Joy issue, published May 2022.
In the water, in my body
I started swimming by chance. It was a warm day in early summer by the seaside, and I was charmed by an inviting tidal pool and decided to go for a swim for the first time in many years. The water was shockingly cold and rich with salt, and when I was in it, just so much all at once! I left with sand everywhere, and walked around for hours before having an early dinner of chips and oysters and a single cocktail, before going to sleep for ten dreamless hours.
Something had happened in that water. Intrigued, I looked up where I could swim outdoors in London, and found that the city I know pretty well has so much water in it. And you can just get in! So that’s what I did all summer, in the lidos, ponds, reservoirs, docks and the river. It had been a rough year and I knew that I needed something to get back to myself – I literally needed a cold splash of water to the face.
Many people who are into so-called wild swimming have a story like this. You come to the water because you need something, because you’ve lost something or because you are yourself lost, in pain or distress. If we come to the water feeling disconnected we leave as part of things again, and we keep going because it’s easy – to be in water, it’s such a simple pleasure.
At least that’s how I felt when I started in the summer. I knew people swam outside all year round, but as the temperature started to creep downwards I was sceptical about continuing – why take on the pain? As the autumn leaves dropped into the pond, I didn’t keep going as much as I just … didn’t stop. On Halloween it was 12 degrees and it had frankly become a bit miserable, but I wanted to make it to single digits – I’d come this far, right? And then, on a sunny and freezing late November day at the lido, I swam in nine degree water for the first time. Suddenly, I felt the euphoria that those wide-eyed cold swimmers had told me about but had eluded me so far. In the frigid water, my skin was on fire and my mind was empty but for the sensation, and I laughed out loud, amazed. After two laps I got out, freezing and flustered and exhilarated. The revelation had taken its sweet time, but when it came it was instant and transformative.
“The key is cut by the lock. You will code then decode your mind. You will save yourself. You cannot help it,” Molly Brodak wrote. I think about this a lot when I think about swimming. In the beginning I kept going to the water because it felt good and I trusted that feeling – I needed to move towards things that felt good because I needed to trust myself again. Swimming felt good in a gentle way back in the summer when the water was warm, and I would go to the Hampstead Heath ponds in a skirt with a bikini underneath and just dry off on the grass afterwards. This feels like a long time ago now, as I’ve been hauling neoprene swim socks and gloves for months, along with a full set of thermals and a hot thermos to combat the cold from within. I’ve tried going to heated outdoor pools in winter and while it’s lovely, it just doesn’t have the same effect. I’ll swim back and forth in the warm water, so pretty with the steam coming off the surface, but it’s too sweet. It’s not a victory – it’s not a kick in the face, and when it’s cold and dark in a way that creeps under the skin, only a hard-won thrill will do.
There’s always a second when I walk towards the single-digit temperature water where I don’t want to do it, because I know that for the first few seconds I will feel like I’m dying. But I do it anyway because I know this is the thing to do – I trust myself again. And also, I know that the process of repeatedly going from fear to composure in the water is helping me be more like that on dry land as well. Not that I think about any of that when I’m in the water – there’s not a thought in my mind other than to swim and to breathe. At the far end I’ll flip over on my back to float, watching the trees and the sky and all the good fortune that’s around me. In a minute I’ll have to move so that I don’t freeze, but right then I’m out here, in the water, in my body, out of my mind. In that moment it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be okay – it feels like it already is.