Print Edition - 2019-03-13  |  The Guardian

I hated everything about swimming

  • It took me nearly a decade to get back in the pool, after promising myself I would never swim again
- Maria Lewis

Mar 13, 2019-

For years, I would start every morning with a good cry. My alarm would go off at 4:45am—the latest I could possibly leave it—and I would sit at the end of my bed and sob for a solid few minutes. After that, I’d get up, climb into my togs, throw on whatever clothes were laying at the end of my bed, clean my teeth, grab a drink bottle, and jump in the car. I’d drive through the Gold Coast streets utterly miserable, looking at the houses still cloaked in darkness with envy as I thought about the people who were most likely still inside, asleep. I hated those people.

I’d pull up to the swimming pool, then stand next to my gear as I rolled my hair up and shoved it into a silicone bathing cap. This usually took a few minutes, and as I would be yanking the strands into place, I’d be staring at the still water divided into lanes with plastic ropes. I hated that water. In fact, for a massive chunk of my life I hated everything about swimming. I hated the early starts, I hated the darkness, and I hated the smell of chlorine that never seemed to leave my skin no matter how hard I scrubbed.

After high school, I was in a weird state of flux. I had just received a journalism cadetship and was working at a newspaper a few weeks after graduation, but I wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted to do.

I had been competing in surf life-saving and surfing simultaneously since I was a kid, juggling school with travel and training as I raced on the circuit. It wasn’t an unusual pastime, especially for surfy chicks growing up on the Gold Coast. Yet after some relative success and a few Australian medals under my belt, I was being pushed to take it more seriously. That meant taking it to the level of swimming training in a pool four mornings a week, with each session covering between five and seven kilometres. Afterwards, I’d rush to get changed for work and scoff my breakfast in the car as I drove to the newspaper. My lunch break would be another session: soft sand running or shallow water drills to hone our wading and body surfing ability. Back to work, hair permanently damp, then fang it to the surf club at the end of my shift where our coach—the late Pat O’Keefe—would have our gear loaded on a trailer and affixed to the back of a mini-bus. We’d all cram in there, some 30 of us in a 12-seater, as we were driven past Coolangatta to Snapper Rocks and dropped off. We’d hit the waves and begin what was known with universal horror among everyone as a “paddle back”. In short, we’d paddle from one end of the Gold Coast to the other, Snapper Rocks to Surfers Paradise, hundreds of metres out at sea as the light faded around us.

This I didn’t hate. I always preferred any training on a craft or in the ocean because at least it was interesting. The waves made it unpredictable, fun, and the more dangerous the surf was, the better. I had my face slit open on someone’s discarded board once, duct-taping my cheek back together so I could return to the water for a qualifying race. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time and still doesn’t all these years later, as I’m left with a visible scar down the left side of my face. In 10 foot swell I had my jaw broken and eardrum perforated, meaning I had to wear an embarrassing headpiece to compete for the next few months until I healed. Boards and skis were snapped, countless sharks spotted, humpback whales paddled into by accident on a few occasions.

That was all preferable to the monotony of swimming up and down the lanes of a pool, entirely bored as the only thing to engage the mind were the toes of the person in front of you or the burn of your arms as you recalled how much pain you were in. It took years for me to fully work up the courage to admit to myself—and others—that I didn’t want to do the sport any more. The day I officially quit, I told myself I’d never get back into a swimming pool, I’d never get up at 4.30am again to do laps.

I still hate early mornings. But I don’t wake up and cry any more. And weirdest of all, I actually have started swimming again. Willingly. Happily. It happened about a year ago via this strange ache to engage with a physical activity that felt familiar. It had been so long, I didn’t even have any of the necessary equipment when I found a local 50 metre pool. I had to buy new goggles, a new cap, a new kickboard and eventually racing swimmers (because trying to do laps in a bikini as a big-busted chick is downright dangerous). I knew the first session would feel terrible—that “sack of potatoes” feeling reminding me what it was like to return to training after the off-season. Yet I went again, and again, building up a habit of lap swimming once a week. I couldn’t even look at the clock for the first month, not wanting to know how far my split times were off my old pace. When I eventually peeked, it wasn’t atrocious: it was a starting point.

There’s a selfish delight to swimming now that I didn’t have before. Back then, I felt like I had to do it. I could never imagine a world where I would willingly do this same activity for pleasure. These days, I still have to push myself to get out of the house and over the threshold of the pool, but once I’m there, I feel better. I feel strong and confident and powerful as I do my weekly kilometres, trying to inch back to the times I used to swim but also completely OK with the knowledge that I probably never will.

Published: 13-03-2019 10:30

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