In October 2018, I attended a conference hosted by Swim Ireland. #WePlay: Inspiring Girls In Sport is an annual event for female athletes of all ages and abilities, exploring the areas of body image, health and wellbeing. I went as a journalist, keen to hear athlete panel discussions. I came out of it with a lot more than I expected…

It’s all Aoife Murray’s fault, really. The Cork camogie legend closed out her contribution with a killer line about how giving up sport, be it because of studies or self-consciousness, is depriving yourself of education for life. It hit me, hard. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. With a public participation pledge to make as an advocate for the 20×20 campaign, this was it: I was going to learn how to swim… again.

I came home from the conference that evening and contacted my local swimming pool to enquire about lessons. I also looked up the 2019 ‘Swim for a Mile’ challenge, deeming it sufficiently far away to have in the back of my mind… sure how hard could it be?

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I went to swimming lessons up until the age of 9 or 10. I made it into ‘the deep end’, but never progressed from widths to lengths. I was comfortable with being in water, and certainly wasn’t afraid of it. On sunny days, all of the kids on our road would take off to the local pool for craic n’ cannonballs. Bigger adventures to the beach or adventure parks were always met with delight, be it jumping into a lake or the sea. I loved it.

That all changed in my teenage years. I was almost 18 years old when I got my first period. Everyone around me in my all-girls school was visibly developing, and I felt I was being left behind. Our sex education programme left me feeling like there was something wrong with me. I remember going on holidays with my parents at 14, and insisting on wearing a giant t-shirt over my swimsuit before going into the water. When I was 16, our class did a TY module in swimming in the boys school across the road, and I used every possible excuse to get out of it. An activity I had once loved now made me feel exposed and inadequate.

Me and the water parted ways for many years – until the summer of 2012, to be precise. Back playing both hockey and football at full flight having misguidedly given them up for the Leaving Cert, I had heard of the physical benefits of cold water for recovery, and decided to give it a bash with one of my friends who was well versed in such pursuits. I was hooked, instantly. Such a welcoming environment, surrounded by women and men of all shapes and sizes, ages and abilities -and I didn’t care about them seeing me in my swimming togs. I wanted to go again, and I did. Summer turned to autumn, and autumn turned to winter – and I kept going. Frosty November mornings, plunging into the icy water, feeling rejuvenated. It was never ‘swimming’ – but it was being back in the water. I loved it, again.

Since that summer, Seapoint has been my go-to destination when I need to reset. I try to go once a week, and I really feel it when life – or tides – get in the way of making the trip. From relieving stress, to rehabilitating injuries, and everything in between – whatever the issue, the answer for me is some Vitamin Sea. Whilst working through all-consuming grief at the death of a close friend, it became essential ongoing therapy. Plunging underwater to forget everything for a few seconds, feeling every nerve in your body switched on, and resurfacing with a clearer head… for me, there is quite simply no substitute for it.

But for all my holistic trips to Seapoint through the years, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been missing out on a crucial part of the experience – the actual swimming. Countless times I’d marvel at those brave enough to venture out to the buoy and back. Really, there’s no reason why I couldn’t be one of them. That day at #WePlay, I got the push I needed. At 33, I’m not getting any younger. It was time to learn to swim again.

***

In early November, I walked into Swan Leisure in Rathmines for my first swimming lesson in 23 years. Myself, three other women, and three men – all varying in terms of our experience and ability. Nobody held back, even if it meant making a show of yourself. Overzealous kicking and gasping for air really takes it out of you – I was exhausted when I came home after that first night; that happy sort of tiredness you feel when you’ve worked hard. As the weeks progressed, so too did the difficulty level – turns out undoing over two decades worth of bad habits and re-learning technique from scratch is really tedious work. WHO KNEW. Draining drills sought to rectify endless errors, and choking on pool water became a part of life. Sometimes, I came home elated at the slightest advancement; others, I came home fuming with my lack of progression.

Ultimately though, I was relieved. A combination of an ever-erratic work schedule and long-standing injuries had forced me to give up playing both club hockey and football last year, and I hadn’t fully realised just how down I was about doing so. Putting in the hard yards at training, craic in the car on the way to matches, the elation of winning, the learning in losing, even the incessant buzz of being in a squad group chat – I was missing it all, dreadfully. Whilst it was definitely the right decision for me, that didn’t make it any easier… and although grappling with kickboards in the shallow end of the local pool was a far cry from kicking points on the football pitch or driving the midfield on the hockey pitch, it was something. Something new, something intriguing, something challenging – and crucially, something to fill that void. Of course, the camaraderie of being part of a team wasn’t there – but I was even beginning to enjoy the solo pursuit of swimming. The only person who was accountable for my progression was me, and I liked it.

My group swimming lessons ended in late December, and two days later the registration for the 2019 Swim For A Mile challenge opened. I didn’t even hesitate.

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I returned to the swimming pool in January for my first solo lane swimming session. I had done the metric maths – one mile is 1600M, which breaks down to 64 lengths of a 25 metre pool. Never mind that I had barely swam even ONE length properly at this point. To say I was naive about what it would actually take to swim for a mile is an understatement.

I waded in expecting to start swimming lengths in perfect front-crawl style… but what actually happened was that I took off far too quickly, mis-timed my first breath, kicked frantically to exhaust myself by the halfway point, got freaked out about holding up the other swimmers, and had a panic attack right there in the lane. Wheezing for breath, I retreated out of the water. I forced myself back in to do a few lengths of breast stroke to justify the journey – but I was devastated. I wanted to quit, there and then.

I returned to the pool again the next day, and throughout January – but there was little improvement. I was struggling, barely managing two lengths – the basic entry requirement as a starting point for Swim for a Mile. I needed help, and I knew it. I had seen a flyer in the swimming pool advertising private lessons, so I contacted the teacher I’d had for my group ones to enquire. One-to-ones are expensive – but I chose to see them as an investment rather than a cost. As with any sport, finding the right coach is key. I connected with mine from day one – her straight-shooting style of instruction suited me. I explained to her the challenge I was training for, and the deadline that was fast approaching. She had me under no illusion as to her expectations – no point in doing my weekly technique session with her if I wasn’t going to put in the practice outside of them. So I stopped making excuses, and instead started making the time to get it done.

The difference from those five one-to-one sessions was remarkable. Pull-buoys, kick-boards, hand-paddles – my coach used every trick in the equipment room to highlight what I needed to work on, and ‘sculling’ became the bane of my life. My head positioning and breathing technique slowly surely began to work in tandem with eachother; my legs stopped kicking wildly, and my upper body started doing the heavy lifting. I’d take her teaching and apply it to my solo training for the rest of the week, and come back to the next lesson stronger. I was swimming. Not only was I swimming, but I was enjoying swimming. The progress became addictive – and as the number of lengths grew, so too did my confidence. Five lengths. Ten lengths. Twenty lengths? Sure, no problem.

With our one-to-one sessions complete, myself and my coach parted ways, and I was left to my own devices. One morning in late March, in that very same lane where I’d had a panic attack the first time I’d tried to swim a full length – I swam 50 of them.

“Toe in the water. Face in the water. Staying afloat.

Touching the bottom. One length without stopping.

Fifty lengths without stopping.

Getting used to the water.

Getting fit. Getting faster.

Me and the Water.”

-Swim Ireland Manifesto

***

Saturday 6th April… T minus 24 hours to Swim For A Mile, and I wake up with a combination of a headcold and cough. Not ideal for a sport that is heavily reliant on coordinated breathing. Off to the pharmacy then onto the couch with a stash of medicine, hot drinks and tissues – Google-ing ‘how to cure a cold in a day.’ I went to sleep that Saturday night, hoping I’d magically wake up better. I didn’t. Sunday morning rolled around and I was still stuffed-up – but there was no way I was bailing without at least giving it a bash.

When the registration for Swim For A Mile 2019 initially opened, I jumped at the chance to take on the challenge in the National Aquatic Centre. Walking into it on the morning of Sunday 7th April, I had that nervous-excited feeling I always got before playing a big match. The registration check-in desk yielded a really slick goodie-bag. Into the changing rooms to get ready, and the nerves really kicked in. When I walked out pool-side, Swim Ireland’s Bethany Carson was on hand to talk our group through how the event works, and put everyone at ease. Timing wristbands applied, entry numbers written on shoulders, lane assignments divvied up – then the final adjustments to hats & goggles, and into the water we went.

I had a very clear-cut strategy worked out, based on my training – I can swim eight lengths comfortably; and 8 x 8 makes 64 lengths. A brief break – 20 to 30 seconds – to catch a breather between sets of eight lengths, and I would manage it no problem. I’d practiced this approach, and it worked for me. Unfortunately on the day that it actually mattered, I couldn’t do it. Breathing was so difficult. The first four laps were steady enough, but once I turned and pushed off into my fifth, my airways felt so restricted. I tried to steady myself, but the sixth was no better and I had to stop. I had brought an Olbas Oil inhaler pool-side to have on standby, and that helped. Bethany came over to my lane to check was I okay, and gave me a pep-talk. Gráinne Murphy, who was timing my lane, also pitched in. They, and all of the crew who work on the Swim for a Mile programme, are such an encouraging presence. Buoyed by their words I got back into the water to try again, altering my strategy to counting sets of six lengths at a time, taking a brief breather after each.

12 lengths. 18 lengths. 24 lengths. 30 lengths – sure that’s nearly halfway; another two to go… and now 32 more. 26 more. 20 more. Sure that’s only five sets of four lengths when you break it down – I can do that. 10 more. 5 more. Counting down, one at a time. Second last length. After the next one, this will be over. 20 weeks work. I don’t really want it to be over. Better savour the last length – you’ve worked bloody hard for it.

Touching the wall, I was the happiest person in the National Aquatic Centre. Elated, I hopped out of the pool and checked my time – 50’21’’. Not bad; well under the hour. I immediately wondered what time I could do it in at full health… having a competitive streak never leaves you! There was no ‘team’ to celebrate with – but I didn’t care. My wife was waving down from the balcony, taking photos. Truth be told, she was my team-mate – a constant source of encouragement. For every time I came home from the pool insisting that I couldn’t do it, she had a solution. My family and friends and former team-mates were full of kind words via texts, with many even enthusiastically declaring intent to sign up next year. I’m already looking forward to it.

Later that day the hockey squad I’d been Captain of for the past three seasons were playing in a Leinster Cup Final. Out of the swimsuit, and into the club green n’ white to play my part supporting on the sidelines. That’s the thing about team sports – you can retire from playing; but you never really leave…

***

If you’ve ever wanted to either start swimming from scratch, or get back into the pool after a lengthy absence – my advice to you is JUST DO IT. Making the decision to take the plunge is the hardest part. With Swim For A Mile, Swim Ireland have created an initiative that empowers participants to believe in and achieve what seems beyond the realm of possibility for them. Clear-cut communication, top-notch weekly training programmes and video tutorials, one-off opportunities to attend Technique Clinics and swim with Olympians, superb organisation of The Big Day itself – it’s a brilliant experience from start to finish, with an absolute dream team pulling the strings behind it. Whether you swim it fast or slow, a mile is a mile – and you are in complete control of your own goal. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I didn’t return to the swimming pool for over a week after completing Swim For A Mile. Having done all of my training in the early mornings before work, I fancied a few lie-ins. When I did go back, I got into the same lane I’d done majority of my training in, went under and pushed off the wall. I didn’t keep count of how many lengths I was racking up; and bar the odd water-break, I swam for around an hour. With the pressure of the looming deadline gone, I was free to just enjoy the new skill I had worked so hard to learn. Walking to the changing rooms, I felt the fittest I’ve felt in years – and devoid of pain, as the injuries that had plagued me on the pitch were not a factor in the pool. It was at that point I realised I’ve found my new sport for life.

There’ve been several trips to Seapoint since, too. Whilst I’m not quite ready to venture out to the buoy and back just yet – I’ve been eyeing it up, and it is very much on my mind. The open water holds a whole new breed of swimming challenge – but one that now, thanks to Swim For A Mile, feels within reach.