Thursday, 8 January 2015

Holding my breath

I have been swimming for almost a year, now. Well, I've been swimming since I was about eight, off and on, after a fashion, but my latest adventure in the pool has been going for round about twelve months.

About a year ago I watched my eldest daughter train with her swimming squad and, chin on my hand, I thought to myself, 'I'd have loved to do this when I was Lizzie's age.' And a small but brightly shining bullet of an idea was born.

I knew that there was a swimming squad for grown-ups, and that this squad split in two; they're called  Competitive Masters and Fitness Masters. In typical me-style it took me a week or two to ask the coach for advice - I sidled up to him as Lizzie was clambering out of the pool one day and asked nonchalantly exactly how fit did one have to be to come to the Fitness Masters?  He was encouraging, and so it took me a week or two more to find a swimsuit and turn up.

That first session was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, I think, and I'm just talking about the long walk from the changing rooms to the far end of the pool. No matter how you dress it up, I was a fat, unfit middle-aged woman and most of the other swimmers were lithe and fit; even the ones older than me were the kind of lifelong athletes who've never let their bodies get as wildly out of shape as I have.

If it hadn't been for one lady I saw in the changing rooms who walked with me and told me I'd be fine, I might have sat in a cubicle pretending I wasn't there and gone home again. Ironically, that lady doesn't come any more.

It was that hard, and it didn't get easier for a long, long time.

There were days when I lay awake worrying about the next session, days when I just couldn't face it and cried off, feeling a failure. There were days when the swimming was so hard that I thought I'd either faint or be sick, and there were days when I was hopelessly out of my depth and had to sit one or two lengths out. There were also days when I came away feeling an immense sense of achievement, when I drove home exhilarated and triumphant, when I thought that despite everything, I am going to do this.

Highs and lows. A monumental low when Lizzie's squad changed times and my session was straight after theirs; I had no choice but to come out to the Swim Club Mums that I climb into my own cossie and have a go twice a week. I had so dreaded anyone knowing about me; it had been my secret. The night before that first session at the new time I couldn't sleep for worry. I dreamed that God would take care of it, and He did. Not by changing the fabric of the building so that nobody could see me, sadly, because see me they did.

They saw me and they were amazed. Some of them were impressed and encouraging, and a couple of them weren't. Reactions ranged from mild hostility to a little snigger at my expense. I felt exposed and vulnerable; the worst had happened and yet.... I was still alive. I turned up the next time, and the next, and the world, strangely, didn't end.

These days I refer to swimming occasionally in conversation with these same Swim Club Mums - even those who were a little scathing. I've even started going for an occasional gentle swim with another Mum who wants to be more in shape and a number of them have asked me about it, saying that they wish they could do something like it too. I wave to them from the poolside these days, instead of hugging the wall like Spiderman in the hope I might get there unnoticed, and although I still drape my towel round me, I feel less desperate about dropping it and diving in than I used to. I don't care if they see me in a swim cap and goggles, and if I look like a raccoon afterwards, then so what? Everyone does.

Just before Christmas I went out for a meal with some of the other Masters Swimmers. My husband came too, and we had a lovely night. They are a really nice bunch of people. Former competitive athletes, open water swimmers, a cross-channel swimmer, people like me who wanted to get in shape, people who come for the companionship and the laughs as well as the cardiovascular workout.

They are very special people who have not the remotest idea of the huge and important part they have played in my life. If you've never been consumed by self-loathing, if you've never been crippled by body image and acute self-consciousness I don't think you can begin to imagine the feeling when you start to find a way out from under those things; a glimpse that things might one day be different.

It's still a bit hard to motivate myself to get to swimming; especially on these dark, cold nights when bed beckons instead of a cold pool, but more often than not I go twice a week and I am seeing changes in myself.

Physically, I've lost a little weight, but not as much as I need to. It's a slow process, and I'm sure that I need to make more changes in my diet as well. I am changing shape, however, and I feel happier in my clothes, even though they're pretty much the same size.

My muscles are more developed, and my heart and lungs are much healthier, even though once again, there's a long way to go. I don't get as out of breath, I can swim for longer without a rest, and the rests are shorter. This is huge progress.

I am swimming better. I can swim 200m backstroke with a cup of water balanced on my forehead and it doesn't fall off (yes, really, we do that). My technique for front crawl is sleeker and faster than before, and I can swim 25m in eighteen and a half seconds. This is not particularly fast, (my nine-year old daughter can do it in less than that) but for me it's warp speed. I can swim a length under water and 50m on four breaths. My breaststroke has been taken apart and put back together again and it's loads better than it was, but the piece de resistance is that I can now, finally, swim a slow, clunky, unwieldy sort of butterfly after a year of looking as if I needed someone to throw me a lifebelt.

The fact that I can be forty-four years old, and still learn these things from someone who is willing to teach me with patience and good humour, among people who are warm, welcoming and encouraging amazes me. Who knew that such things happened?

However, I think the biggest change hasn't been physical at all. It's been emotional on the deepest level - I'd go so far as to say that it has changed my life. I'm not over-dramatising. People who know me well have said that I've changed enormously.

Take this for an example:

The last session before Christmas, I walked onto the poolside to find the coach waiting for us with a camera. The Competitive Masters squad had met with considerable success at a recent meet (medals, British and European records!) and the club had asked for a photo for the website, or possibly for a local paper. I hung back, since I was not among those competing, but he was adamant that he wanted the whole squad in the picture. Can you imagine how I might have reacted a year ago to the idea that anyone would try to take a photograph of me in my swimsuit, alongside these people with firm thighs, sporty bodies and medals hanging round their necks? Seriously?!

I can; I remember it well. All I can say is that I made sure I was on the back row (people in front of me) and I grinned broadly, swimsuit, no make up, hair that needed washing, eyes slightly out of focus as I'd taken out my contact lenses.  Say cheese.... click. I even forgot to hold my breath.

So that's why I have an affection for 2014. Things about me are only subtly different at a glance, but inside everything has changed. Early last year I was worrying aloud to a friend about the idea of joining the swimming and saying how hard it was, how awful it was, and she asked me why I was contemplating doing it at all. I said that it seemed right; it seemed as if God was in it.

Oh, how He has was; He has been. He is. He's been in the water right alongside me, and he didn't let me sink.

I am so grateful.

22 comments:

  1. I love the way you open up so honestly and vulnerably in your posts, Helen. You are such an encouragement. And even as someone who only sees you occasionally, I have seen some of the changes in you.

    The swimming actually sounds like a lot of fun (a cup of water on your forehead, really?!) - and I'm well impressed that you can swim a whole length under water.

    You are amazing, and God is good! xx

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    1. He is! Not so sure about me!
      Thanks, Mandy, as always. x
      PS the cup of water is to get into the habit of keeping your head very still while rolling the body to move the arms and legs on backstroke. It makes all the difference at elite level, you know. ;-)

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  2. I've followed your journey and stand amazed at the new found confidence which comes through in your writing. So pleased for you and looking forward to seeing where else God leads you this year.

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    1. Thank you, Helen. I'm looking forward to it too. Bless you for being so lovely.

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  3. Dear one, am so proud of you! I'm sure He is too. What an amazing year you had, where you took Him at His word, trusting and being oh so brave. Nothing short of inspiring. I would love to be able to do something this physical, though I would probably choose walking or running if I were able, so to me, getting from the changing room to the pool sounds like a marathon (in more ways than one!) and I suppose some disabled/sick people might feel jealous. But that is not the emotion that overwhelms me when I read your story. I am proud. I am pleased, I am so happy that someone like you is being an overcomer and doing things others can't do, and some won't do, because you are brave and you are not taking your body or your fitness for granted. God made you amazing and tougher than you think. What a star. xxx

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    1. Thank you, Keren, for your generous words. I'm a long way from being fit, or slim, but I'm better than I was. I couldn't have done it on my own. x

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  4. Sweet, vulnerable, honest Helen, you are graced with a great gift of expression. This raw, open post had me smiling, tearful, aching for and rejoicing with you! You have come such a long way in pursuing the pool of life if not taking the waters of worry in your stride instead of drowning in their heavy waves.
    I'm so proud of you and so, I am sure, is God. I can imagine Him sitting on the sideline urging you on, whispering reassurance to your faltering heart and cheering as you overcome yet another hurdle. Your courage is amazing and so is your ability to stick at hard things until they yield. Well done you!! And these words you close with truly sum up why you are succeeding so swiftly:"He's been in the water right alongside me, and he didn't let me sink." Amen! Keep on swimming and keep your head high when others are tempted to look down on you. You have every reason to hold your breath in wonder at the way God is drawing you out and making you brave. I'm so excited to see what challenges you will overcome next! Blessings and love. xox :)

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    1. Thank you, Joy. You are extravagant with your lovely encouragement and I do appreciate it. Bless you too, my friend.

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  5. You are to be admired. It takes a lot of guts. I'd need to be in Outer Mongolia before I put a swimming cossie on in case I met my year 11s!!

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    1. If I had a hoard of year 11s keen to catch sight of me in my swimmers I suspect I'd steer clear too! Thanks, Fran.

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  6. Nice to see you back blogging again recently. Or maybe you've been blogging and I've missed your posts. I've been totally swamped for the past several months and it doesn't look like it's going to get any easier any time soon. Been struggling to blog M-F, but I'm committed to that. Take care. Let's skype soon. And God bless.

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    1. Hi Steve. Thanks for popping in. I hope things get easier very soon. Bless you.

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  7. elen - first of all I was reading your blog just from the email on my iPhone then decided I wanted to see the photographs - WOW - that's a BIG pool!! Your fears about your size and walking out in a cossie really resonated with me - as I have felt the same. In fact only yesterday when I met a very new mum - have a look at my blip for yesterday here https://www.polaroidblipfoto.com/entry/1999917777120399163 who was saying she would like to take her baby swimming, but was worried about what people would think and I was trying to reassure her that if she wanted to do it then she should without worrying about other people - your blog has really spoken to me about how we can get through things with God upholding us, so I am going to forward the email to her.

    You are so brave and I wish you well in all your endeavours - sometimes we have to move out of our comfort zone and then we really do feel the power and grace of God and I have had to do that a lot recently because of a torn cartilage in my knee. Life is often not very easy, but when we put our hand into the hand of God, there is no end to the wonderful things we can do - together!

    Stay blessed as you bless others - having taken a photograph and written a journal for over 2 years, every day, without a break, I realise that I can do all things through Him who strengthens me - and who knows, I may even think about writing a blog, so thank you for encouraging me! M xx

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    1. Maureen, what a lovely, lovely thing to find on my computer when I turned it on. Thank you for your kind, encouraging words - I'm so glad that my experiences might help someone; my heart goes out to your friend with the new baby. I never took my daughters swimming when they were tiny for this exact reason. I am hoping that she can find the courage to get from the changing room to the water and have a lovely time with her little one.
      Good for you re the blog! Give it a try; it sounds as if it might just be your thing.
      Hope your knee gets better very soon. Thanks again for visiting and taking the trouble to leave such a lovely comment. Bless you. :-)

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  8. I love, love, love this, Helen. The writing is beautiful, as always, but the message--the simple word that HE did it, God did this for you out of His sheer desire to bless you--that message is breathtaking. We so underestimate the gift of courage, and He gives it in spades when we're obedient. Bravo, friend-across-the-sea.

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    1. He did it indeed. There's no way on earth I could have done it myself. Thank you, Ginger. It's been a good year. :-)

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  9. I can totally relate! I'm a 54 year old out-of-shape woman and I started a Zumba class about a year ago. I'm always shocked that I can barely walk around, but I can manage an hour-long Zumba class with relatively little stress. Of course, I'm almost always the oldest and heaviest person in the room (except for the teacher's GRANDMOTHER!) , but I suck it up and show up anyway! #SITSSharefest

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    1. Well done you! Isn't it wonderful to find something that you can stick at and make a difference? I hope you go from strength to strength. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. x

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  10. You've been swimming for a whole year? You must be really wrinkly after being in the water that long...and tired.

    Which reminds me, I must get back on my bike...the indoors bike as it's way too cold out there for someone as old as me.

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  11. Wrinkly? Martin, you don't know the half of it.
    Happy biking.
    Thanks for reading.

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  12. I just came across this moving post on the SITS girls Sharpest. My daughter is in her Jr year of college, and a competitive D1 level swimmer. I've been a swim mom since she was 7 years old - and can't tell you the number of times I have had your same thoughts. I have never been brave enough to join a masters team, but was pushing myself to swim about a mile a day for a while. The interruption of a cold and a vacation broke the routine. This has motivated me - maybe its time to try again!
    What a beautiful pool in the photo - it that where you train?!

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    1. Hi Susan. Thanks so much for visiting and leaving a comment - I say go for it. I know how easy it is to be derailed, but I do hope you find the courage to join a masters team, or try again with your mile a day (wow!). This is our pool, yes, sadly only for another year when it'll be demolished in favour of a newer version. This pic was taken at a Christmas swim meet, hence the Christmas tree on the top diving platform!
      I don't know if you'll come back to read this, but if you do - any tips on surviving the Swim Mom years? My daughter is training in the early mornings, galas for entire weekends, and we are all so tired!
      Again, thanks so much for visiting. All the best with your swimming. x

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