MY SWIM STORY
I love being in water.
There's more to it than just that, but I do love being in water. The freedom, fluidity, tranquility.
We were water babies as kids, for sure. My parents instilled in us a love of water early on, whether it was water parks, the local lake, or a backyard hose. Water was playful, fun. And then as we grew older, my sisters and I became competitive age group swimmers with the Dartmouth Crusaders Swim Club (Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada). My specialty was long distance freestyle and butterfly, the longer, the better. But I was shy and awkward, I didn't fit in and I knew it. It's really too bad, but back then open water swimming wasn't a thing yet, not really. I had no idea what awaited me down the line.
The closest thing I saw to it was a young kid's summer swim club in the shallow end of a nearby lake because that's all they had access to. The coaches let me volunteer one summer, all of 14 myself, and I got to work organizing the kids with swim sets and provided feedback from off the edge of the floating dock. That was probably my first ever leadership role, on the water and in the water, the best of both worlds. But that fall, things changed. Like most young competitive swimmers, I eventually got discouraged with my lack of progress, changes in coaching leadership in our club at the time, and realizing I wasn't likely to blossom into Canada's next Olympic hopeful, I stopped swimming altogether.
I confess, it haunted me for a long time, probably well into my adult life - all of that work gone, the feeling of accomplishment, the joy of succeeding at something I loved - gone. I didn't touch water with swimming in mind for almost 19 years, I did try, but I can count the number of lane swims I went to on both hands. I couldn't face it, it wasn't the same, I had parted with water bitterly, disappointed, unable to feel the same joy. My journey didn't end there, but I wouldn't realize this for some time to come.
So let's fast forward to 19 years later, I had moved to Ottawa, Ontario for work, met my swell better half, got married. But at times I was unhappy, I was overweight, unfit, and missing a goal to focus on. I joined the local city gym, which happened to have cardio machines in a workout area that overlooked a 25 foot pool. I would work away on the elliptical, while watching the adult swim club doing their morning workout. At times I was completely mesmerized by the movement of people going up and down the lane. I missed it, and then I started wondering if I could maybe possibly regain a love for water, and wondering turned into registering with that same club. And that was pretty much the beginning of it all, rediscovering swimming, meeting amazing friends, doing a few swim meets too. We even started swimming open water together during the summer...
But swimming in actual open water events? That took some time. I just didn't see myself as an athlete, I had every excuse about my body, and the aches and pains that came with trying to regain fitness. Under it all was probably that lost confidence that came when I stepped away from the pool for good as a kid. It's taken a long, long time to regain that. And it started with kind of a bang. My friend Lois, who also swam with the same club, suggested we sign up for a 4km race at the lake where we'd been swimming that summer. It sounded terrifying, but I figured, what's the worst that could happen, I'd have to stop if I couldn't finish the distance. Ok, not the end of the world. It ended up being a pretty memorable swim, I swam hard, and marvelled at how freely I moved through the water. But also terrified, I'd never really swum much in open water, every shadow was a shark, every weed a lake zombie's arms reaching up to get me. Yeah, raised on horror movies in the 80s, can't help it. After I finished, the coach running the event complimented me, saying how strong and fast I looked. I didn't have the guts to tell him, I was pretty much just scared out of my wits the whole time. But it awoke something in me, a certain joy, and I kept thinking about that swim, and coming back to the freedom I felt, being out of the pool, in nature, no lanes, no lines, no limits, as they say.
And then I started training harder, logging hours outside of club time at a pool nearby, working up my distance. I signed up for 10 km (6 mile) provincial championship, raced hard, and set a new age group record that stood for a couple of years. Hubby drove us home after the race, I napped for 15 minutes, bolted awake and exclaimed how completely awesome I felt, and apparently repeated this numerous times before eventually falling asleep for the rest of the ride. Since then, I find myself looking for longer, pushing myself harder, exploring the boundaries of what my body can do. My confidence had returned, it seems.
My next swim was a 14.5 km (9 miles) swim, followed by a 25 km (15 miles). I will never forget the night before that 25 km swim, sitting at the swimmer/kayaker pasta dinner. At some point, I ended up sitting with a group of accomplished swimmers who were talking about the swims they'd done that year, channel crossings, long lake crossings. I sat in amazement, excited to be swimming in the same event as so much talent. The swimmer sitting next to me was being chatty, which was nice, I recognized her and admired her accomplishments. Then she asked me the dreaded question - what was my longest swim to date? I sheepishly responded, only 14km. The look on her face changed to one of surprise, doubt, even a touch of disdain, it lasted only for a few seconds but it was clear to me. And with that, she smiled a little, turner slightly away from me, and carried on with the other swimmers at the table. The awkwardness that followed showed me I wasn't in the same league in her eyes, I was out of place. I was pretty crushed that night, doubting my own abilities, but I woke up the next morning really pissed off. People should lift each other up, encourage, support. But being pissed off helped fuel my swim, I channeled my doubts into a stubborn angry drive, the whole swim I thought, there was no way I wasn't finishing, my body would have to figure it out. I placed 10th out of 18 women, not bad at all for a first-timer.
I don't have a lot of marathon swims under my belt yet, there's still far more I will accomplish. I'm presently training my way up to 40km swims next. My goals now are to pursue a number of iconic swims in different parts of the world, but also venture out and set new courses yet to be explored, and to go longer and longer, until I can't. And along the way, to make sure I support others the way I would want to be, then, now, every day.
And then came cold...
Swim peeps in the Northeast Kingdom did a callout for Vampire Swims all over the world, and I put my hand up immediately. A Vampire Swim is an organized chilly swim at Halloween, to promote blood donations and fund-raising for local blood banks. By this time, I was swimming with the Technosport Triathlon Club, and coach Duane kindly helped me put together an event. People swam in their Halloween costumes, we had a blast, it was silly fun at about 10C(50F). And then one day a little later, I was flipping through my facebook feed and noticed the same swim peeps cutting a hole out of Lac Memphremagog, to form a 25m swimming pool. Hmmm, I thought, what are these idiots up to and how do I get in on it? I trained for the year that followed, and the next year I showed up, ready to ice swim my little heart out. Ice swimming is an entirely different sport than marathon swimming, and yet so many marathon swimmers were there, maybe it's the crazies that bring us together. And the water.
In the years that followed, I kept training cold water distance as the fall and winter came on, swimming every month of the year since 2015, except once where we couldn't find open water anywhere within reasonable driving distance. Training went longer and longer over the years, and I found myself able to stay in for really long periods of time. I did my first ice mile in 2018, the first Canadian woman to successfully complete one, and I actually swam a full 1.9 km (1.18 miles), which ended up on the IISA top 10 international women's distance record list. I followed with 2 more ice miles that season, in close succession, which only a handful of people had ever done to that extent. Chilly, cold, ice, I loved it all.
There's another side to all of this for me, volunteering and community building. Organizing and leading the Vampire Swims was a good start, I put a lot of effort into this relatively small swim, and loved seeing people having a good time in the water. A couple of years later, I participated as a swimmer in the 5km King Wolf Swim in Kingston, Ontario. It was supposed to be the swim's last year, as the founder and Race Director was planning to move on to other things. I agreed to step into the role, and over the years have built on the swim's original vision by adding an 11km marathon distance, and enhancing safety requirements and protocol, enlisting the local Navy and Coast Guard to support the swim. I also stepped in as Race Director for the 4km Riverkeeper swim in Ottawa, Ontario one year when they were in need. It really is an amazing feeling to sit high up on a patrol boat and watch swimmers make their way across any body of water, it feels like such an honour, when really they are the ones doing all the hard work.
In early 2021, we moved from Ottawa to a small community in Westmorland County, New Brunswick. The goal is to be closer to my family, to be able to spend more time together and for us to help out. As a former maritimer, I feel like I'm home again, and don't feel like I'm too "come from away". We now live in a lovely spot overlooking Baie Verte, a beautiful sub-basin on the eastern shore of the Northumberland Straight. And, gasp...ocean swimming, a whole new set of challenges to take on!!! We arrived in winter, so I got my first taste in some very cold water. The bay freezes over most nights, and the tide comes in over the ice.
The hardest part about leaving Ottawa was not being actively part of the swimming community and the friends I had made while there. I'm grateful that I'll still be returning a few times a year for work, and will get to see them, but it can be really tough knowing they are so far away. I had met so many great people, some being a lot like me, some very different, that I could feel really connected with. They were always willing to support me when I needed it, silly enough to know I don't take myself too seriously and neither should they, and pretty forgiving when I'd photobomb a selfie. Really good people, what more can a girl ask for? Good friends don't grow apart, no matter the distance.
I hope I'm lucky enough to find the same sort of community here in our new home. And if not, let's build one!