Swimming has become an obsession of mine. If you had told this to me a little over a year ago, I would have said you’re out of your mind. On that Tuesday, in late May, I tentatively made my way to the local pool for my first lesson since childhood. Only two weeks prior I had been released from hospital after a three-month stay due to an unexpected health crisis. In those early days of recovery, swimming was the last thing on my mind. Yet, for some reason, I decided to give it a try. At the time I had no idea how such a small act would dramatically influence my life—and transform what, at first, seemed impossible into possible.
Take the Plunge Headfirst Into Fear
Those first strokes back in the pool weren’t entirely straightforward. I never liked swimming lessons as a child. Splashing around with friends for fun was one thing. But come lesson time, I struggled to master the breathing rhythm of the freestyle stroke, or endlessly tread water. My skin crawled during the drive home from each session, wet hair dampening my shirt collar. My only consolation was the packet of chips received at the end of those 45 minutes of misery.
I stuck out swimming lessons long enough to feel comfortable in the water and then, finally, my parents gave in. I was adequately equipped to avoid drowning and that was good enough. My first lesson back as an adult came with much trepidation. A few weeks beforehand, a friend of mine suggested I try swimming as a therapeutic activity during recovery. When she described her own experience at the pool, my mind was flooded with those unpleasant childhood memories. I resolutely refused to ever try the sport again. She persisted in her campaign, however, and snuck the subject into each one of our ensuing conversations.
Admittedly, a tiny part of me was intrigued by the picture she painted of her beloved sport. Swimming seemed to offer an ideal cross between physical movement, breath control and meditation—not to mention a blissful escape into an underwater world. I did love the water, after all.
As I thought about it, I realised that my aversion to the pool had more to do with an early hate-hate relationship with side-breathing than swimming itself. It seemed a shame to banish the activity from my life on that basis alone. I decided to give it a go.
You Can’t Rush Endurance
On the day of my first lesson as an adult I was ill-prepared, to say the least: no goggles, a granny-style swim bonnet, and a bathing suit more appropriate for a Mediterranean beach. Nevertheless, I thrashed my way back and forth across what felt like an endless series of 25-metre stretches, clinging to the wall for long pauses in between, to catch my breath and clear my un-goggled eyes.
Swimming demands full commitment from your entire being.
As this process continued, something shifted inside of me. Despite the struggle, I felt at home in the water. My heart leapt a little each time I pushed off the wall to glide beneath the surface in a moment of total tranquility. After living through so much uncertainty, the pool offered clear boundaries and immediate feedback: a space apart from my worries, and illness, and pain, to simply be in the present. Because unless you’re an experienced swimmer, there’s no way you’ll make it across the pool without swallowing two litres of water if your mind is ticking off an endless To Do list. Swimming demands full commitment from your entire being.
By the end of that first hour, I was hooked. I continued the weekly lessons and, over the summer, started going to the pool more frequently. Eventually I joined a local Masters club, and even signed up to participate in a swim meet in the fall. As the months passed, I slowly made peace with side breathing. I’m still no master at the freestyle stroke, but I am good enough to occasionally enjoy the wonderful sensation of flow that comes when you get it right.
What’s more, I set up mini-challenges for each swim: a little more distance, or faster speed, or a new drill. Over the course of a year, I learned skills I never imagined possible as an adult—flip turns, diving off the blocks, the breaststroke pullout, and dolphin kicking. It’s come to the point where I actually spend more time watching swim technique demonstrations than funny cat videos on YouTube.
One Small Step at a Time
One year later, I can now swim longer distances. And I even extended my repertoire to cold water swimming in the nearby lake during lockdown: another seemingly impossible feat, which has since become a regular habit. Whether in the pool or lake, I approach each swim session with equal parts humility and determination: pushing through the inevitable discomfort, while accepting that you can’t rush endurance. Like it or not, progress in swimming comes slowly. You have to keep showing up, week after week, putting in the time. And that’s all we can really do, both at the pool and the rest of our life.
During this year of recovery, swimming has become much more than a sport to me. The pool is my sanctuary. It’s the place I go to make sense of things when the external environment is messy. A go-to haven where I am sure to leave behind my worries, from the moment I hit the water until I haul myself out again an hour later. It’s also become a space of community, with familiar faces of the local lifeguards, regular swimmers, fellow club members and coaches.
Recently our local outdoor pool opened for the season after the delay due to lockdown. The last time I had been there, in August 2019, I couldn’t swim from one end to the other. Unlike the indoor pool I grew comfortable in during fall and winter, this one is 50 metres: twice as long. On that first day back I had no idea what to expect after no pool access at all during two months of quarantine. When I jumped in, I felt equal parts exhilaration and dread. I was excited to be back in the pool. But I wasn’t sure whether I would sink or swim, quite literally. I pushed off the wall and took a few easy strokes, slowly making my way down the lane. And before I knew it, there was the wall. Just like that. No thrashing, no moment of terror halfway across. Just swimming.
When Impossible is Your New Possible
These days I still need to take plenty of breaks during my hour-long swim. But I cover more distance than I ever thought possible and my technique has improved significantly, even though there’s still a long way to go on both counts. Most of all, I have come to accept that mastering swimming will be a lifelong journey. The beauty is that I enjoy each step along the way. That initial jolt when you first jump in. The soothing underwater world once you’re in there. The signature tingling sensation from head-to-toe after a particularly gruelling session. Mastering new skills, bit by bit. The ritual of packing and unpacking my swim bag. I have even made peace with the dreaded post-swim wet hair moment.
Looking back one year ago, I can’t believe how far I’ve come. On the day of that first lesson as an adult, I revisited an old fear and literally dove into the heart of it. In doing so, a whole new world of opportunity opened up to me. Today I am filled with pride whenever I step out of the pool, or lake, because it’s been a slow journey to get here, both in and out of the water. Swimming teaches me to embrace the struggle, and face the impossible, time and again. To explore new territory and confront fear head-on. To dive off those blocks without hesitation—and when you keep showing up that way, the impossible can indeed become reality.