On Mid Summers’ Day, swimmers were asked to talk about their love of taking the plunge as part of Amy Sharrocks’ Museum of Water at Somerset House.
In the beautiful June sunshine, we each took to the stage on the river terrace overlooking the Thames. The aim? To create a Swimmers’ Manifesto.
I thought about how best to share my experiences of water and what popped into my head was the idea of a swimming chronology.
That became a poem and I called it 芙蓉出水（‘fúróng chūshuǐ’), which is a Chinese proverb meaning: Out of the Water a Lotus Rises.
It’s a phrase often used in connection with swimmers and strong, beautiful women in water. But more than that: it celebrates people over-coming challenges and coming into bloom; something that resonates with me deeply.
芙蓉出水：Out of the Water a Lotus Rises
My first swim: I can’t remember it; but I know I loved it.
My first major swim crossing.
At 3 years old I completed one width of the big pool at Eltham swimming baths.
Terry the coach was poolside, guiding me along with a bamboo pole.
I vividly recall my determined doggy paddle as I travelled from one side to the other, refusing to be intimidated by the splashing and shouting of the older swimmers.
A wild, wet and windy Brittany beach.
A gale was blowing.
My mum was wrapped up in an anorak, but I was in my favourite blue swimming costume, demanding to be allowed to get in the sea.
School swimming lessons on a Wednesday morning begin.
A mushroom float; A star float; Swimming in pyjamas and diving for a brick – the progression from bronze to silver and then gold: Each badge appended proudly to the front of my blazer.
A holiday to Corsica and a beach with pebbles like scorching coals.
Transfixed by the early morning big waves, I got caught.
Tumbling under the water I ran out of breath.
From nowhere, arms grabbed around me and an anonymous Frenchman took me under his arm and planted me upright, but dizzy and in tears on the shore.
Crook Log swimming pool opens two aqua-zooms. We queue for hours.
The big question was, “who is brave enough to go down the red flume?”
With fear and excitement: yeah, I was.
A holiday to America.
Disneyland, water-melon, beautiful sandy beaches, porpoises, everglades and alligators.
We even have to stop the car to let a turtle cross the road.
My first swimming gala: 25 meters backstroke. I win; and an American girl called Laura who loves swimming, visits my primary school. We become friends.
The Woolwich Waterfront Leisure Centre opens.
It had a wave machine, and a loud horn sounded to signal its start. It was so exciting! We went there to celebrate my 11th birthday and I remember feeling like a superstar when the lifeguard announced it on the intercom.
I visited Laura in New Jersey. Homesickness was dissolved by pizza being delivered on a scooter to the beach.
Jet skis, swim training, tuna fish sandwiches, coca cola, fire-flies, and multimillionaires. I was no longer in South East London.
Donal Trump’s helicopter lands and my companions offer him a lift. I didn’t recognise the name then, but I do now. He declines.
At the beach club swimming gala, we raced on inflatable turtles across the pool, whilst competitive parents screamed at us to win.
Laura and I were laughing too much to care.
Swimming in Italy.
I am a child of the jaws generation and the huge rocks under the sea prompted me to enact the first rule of international shark defence:
Make sure your brother and sister swim in front of you (it’s scientifically proven that the shark will eat them first).
Back at school I raced in the annual Haberdashers’ tri-school sports tournament.
About more than just simple school rivalries, this event was a clash of state versus private education, inspiring the best and worst in some participants.
I was part of the underprepared team of female swimmers from New Cross, competing against two sister schools who trained all year round in their own pools, with official coaches and matching swim kit.
The girls from New Cross had none of that.
Cutting through the glass ceiling we claimed victories our competitors did not anticipate and learnt about the importance of team-work, aspiration and self-belief in the process.
Cigarettes, alcohol and a rebellious first love, led to me being sent to Saint Malo to learn French. My language skills didn’t improve but I did discover the power of a woman in a bikini.
Ice axe, crampons, and tales of adventure.
In Norway teenage insecurities were dissolved as I climbed mountains, discovered glaciers and skinny-dipped with friends in the Jotunheim sunset.
After downing Chinese liquor under the strobe lights of a nightclub in Nanjing; at 3am I find myself in a swimming pool playing volleyball with new-found Chinese friends.
We enter a new century…
During 2000 to 2007 swimming was subsumed under academic pursuits and a city job with all the trimmings.
I travel through Mongolia, the water basin of Asia. In North Western Mongolia I meet Kazakh eagle hunters and swim in a lake that looks like an ocean.
It was cold, vast, wild and free. I vow to return.
My brother is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and from my office in Beijing under the man-made blue skies of the Olympics, I contemplate what it means to truly seize the day and dream of a return to a healthier past…
Back to London and I entered a sprint triathlon and got swimming lessons to lift my stroke out of the 1980s.
But on 30 June 2009, the day before my 31st birthday, I got hit by a lorry whilst cycling to work. Swim training comes to an abrupt halt.
Waking up on the tarmac, commuter traffic swirled around me: Nothing could stop them from getting to their desks on time.
It was a wake up call and I woke up on my birthday determined to instigate change.
That summer I went to Canada: kayaking with orca and sleeping under the stars.
I also met an Australian who was passionate about swimming and we jumped into freezing cold lakes whilst hiking in the rockies.
My love of water was reignited.
A year later (2010) I swim my first mile, then 5k and then 10.
I make new friends and at the Serpentine, I hear about marathon swimming for the first time: Lake Zurich sparks my imagination.
I moved to the mountains and frozen water took over my dreams. Skiing obsessed; I was hypnotised and unable to see the lines that were being crossed.
Water became my protector.
I finally understand the importance of self worth; swim across lakes and rivers and break free.
I completed the Lake Zurich Marathon Relay with my friend Anna. Brought together by our love of swimming and immense pride in our South East London heritage, we named our team the South East London Ladies Swimming Club.
In 2013 I also started to learn about the global fresh water crisis and China’s role within it.
My swimming costume is made in China and I started to join the dots between the freedom I feel in the water, what I had perceived as its never-ending abundance and the realities of water scarcity, pollution and control in the land where my swimming costume is made.
Those issues are closer than we think.
I swam outside throughout the winter and I now dream of more snowy swimming adventures.
A back and shoulder injury has taught me the importance of patience and when I was frightened having an MRI, I shut my eyes and pretended to be swimming.
Focused training has transformed my swim technique and taught me a new body language that talks me through the water.
A wonderful summer of swimming has started.
芙蓉出水 (‘fúróng chūshuǐ’)。Out of the water a lotus rises.
A Lotus Rises is on a mission to increase visibility, access and participation of women in swimming. Our first collaborative workshop is at the Women’s Adventure Expo on 7th October. Whether you’re returning to the pool, learning to swim or embarking on the English Channel we will be exploring all that open water has to offer with insights from across our women’s swimming collective and scientific contributions from the international institute of swim cake studies. You can get involved in the @Waexpo excitement through their #swimselfie competition. A bag of kit from Zoggs, a years subscription to Outdoor Swimmer Magazine and 2 tickets to the expo up for grabs – just follow and tag @Alotus_Rises and @Waexpo in your #swimselfies past and present for a chance to win. More details here.