We are honoured to have Outdoor Swimmer/Musician/Composer/Recording Artist/Lyricist and Vocalist Carleen Anderson, sharing her swimming journey with the A Lotus Rises swimming collective. Although Carleen’s open water addiction only fully took hold in her ’50s, Carleen’s relationship with water has been a significant thread from childhood to today, and is a journey of overcoming prejudice and segregation, personal endeavour, overcoming a fear of deep water, motherhood, team work, determination and creativity.
Most recently, Carleen completed the half mile event at Swim Serpentine, raising money for Macmillan Cancer Research in memory of family members lost to cancer. We spoke to Carleen to find out more about her open water journey.
But first, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on Carleen’s musical career – It’s a mind blowing portfolio of creativity and collaboration (her work with the Brand New Heavies and Incognito provided much of the sound track to our teenage years! #starstruck).
“Carleen studied at the University of Southern California to be a Music Education Teacher. Those music schoolteacher goals however were thwarted by Ronald Reagan’s administration’s decision to remove the teaching of arts from the government education curriculum. Raised by her Grandparents to carry on regardless, Carleen took on work as a bank clerk whilst single parenting her son. Via a music family association, (she’s the Goddaughter of the famous singer/performer, James Brown), she was recruited by prominent UK music producers to sing and write songs for the music group, the Young Disciples, an occurrence that led to Carleen and her son relocating to the UK in 1990.
Along with being nominated for a Brit Award for her first solo album in 1994, True Spirit, Carleen has been afforded many celebrated music associations. Paul Weller co-produced her second solo album, Blessed Burden. A short list of her various collaborations include touring with the Brand New Heavies plus Incognito as well as being a featured soloist for Blues Rocker Dr. John. She performed with UK’s Jazz Legend Sir John Dankworth at the internationally renowned Stables in Milton Keynes, a music venue he and his wife Dame Cleo Laine opened in 1970 that has hosted numerous worldwide musical luminaries since its existence. Carleen also sang alongside Sir Paul McCartney in support of the War Child UK charity and appeared as a special guest soloist for The Queen of England at an exclusive Theatre Royal Brighton event celebrating music education. In 2013 she sang the lead role at the Royal Opera House as part of the ensemble for Composer/Pianist Julian Joseph’s original music with libretto by Mike Phillips inspired from the Arthurian Legend of Tristan and Isolde which some may know of the title from Richard Wagner’s rendition. In that same year Carleen won the Jazz FM Best UK Vocalist award.
She is also the recipient of Gilles Peterson’s World-Wide FM 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award. The Arts Council England plus the Performing Rights Society Fund (PRSF) Women Make Music (WMM) each granted Carleen funds to develop her current trinity project, Cage Street Memorial which consists of a book, a theatre production and a soundtrack album.”
Why did you start open water swimming?
I was first introduced to open water when I was three years old, accompanied by my paternal Vicar Grandfather and his congregation, during a night swim on Galveston Beach in the Gulf of Mexico sea basin of the Atlantic Ocean in Texas, USA. The year was 1960 when Black Americans were still refused access to public beaches in the daytime. To avoid the violent reactions from those who were against ‘coloured’ people integrating into social activities, my Grandfather arranged with the local authorities for his flock to experience this refreshing adventure after dark, once those who would object had vacated the location.
It was during this occasion that my teenaged Auntie taught me to float faced upwards to the night sky and I could feel the flowing waves of the sea sustaining me. This is when I first learned how to be water safe.
As time moved on and access to swimming pools and beaches based on skin colour became less prohibitive by law, my brothers (who were natural swimmers) would challenge me to aim for more than just knee high water paddling, but failed to convince me beyond the occasional dash in the deep end swimming across to the side wall.
so that embryonic sensation I felt when I first floated in the ocean at age three laid dormant for nearly five decades…
My earliest attempt at learning to swim properly was during a swimming course at the college campus, where I was studying music. I swam the length of the 50 yard pool without coming up for air and the coach couldn’t believe what he’d witnessed.
Unfortunately my follow up lap revealed that it was my fear of deep water and inability to manage my breathing technique, that lead to me holding my breath underwater for the entire distance. I was discouraged and unable to overcome my fear of swimming in the deep water, so I dropped out of the swimming course.
It wasn’t until my 50s that I took up swimming lessons again…
What got you back in the water?
In my 40s I took up horse riding, in part to distract myself from the empty nest syndrome I faced when my son went on a gap year in Australia. For over a decade horse riding was the prominent activity in my life, but an incident while out on a ride resulted in the twisting of my pelvis. I was instructed by my doctor to stop horse riding completely and to instead swim to repair the damage. Swimming had been more about splashing in the shallows on holiday than an exciting escapade, so learning to swim properly so that her injury could heal, was a daunting task.
In 2008 I was hired to sing on a private Mediterranean cruise for a 10 day intimate family event, and the family encouraged me, once again, to try swimming in the sea. It reminded me of my first saltwater experience when I was three years old, and when I got home, I decided to have swimming lessons in the local pool; My goal was to be able to swim with the ease and fun in open water just like that family had demonstrated.
But Swimming lessons proved challenging. I found it difficult to find a coach who would take my aims seriously. I could barely swim ten meters before exhaustion set in. What had propelled me through the waters in that one off 50 yard dash at the college campus swimming pool of my youth, had since deserted me.
And although front crawl is the stroke that feels most natural to me, the demands of the breathing technique resulted in my coaches choosing to train me in breast stroke, but then I found the coordination of the arms and legs even more complicated than the front crawl breathing!
But I soldiered on, even though the swimming pool lessons were expensive and it felt like my technique wasn’t progressing. I figured continuing was better than giving up…
A well timed dose of fortitude came, when she saw beginner swimmers on TV challenging themselves for charity in the British Gas Swim Series. This gave her the incentive to take the plunge in memory of her loved ones lost to cancer. Her fundraising campaigns in the 2012 British Gas Swim Series at Lake Windermere plus the 2013 and 2014 Human Race events in the Thames River at Little Marlow in Buckinghamshire resulted in her raising £3,000.00 for Cancer Research UK. At Swim Serpentine 2017 she raised nearly £1600.00 for MacMillan Cancer Care.
Her swimming pool training began to improve once she started lessons in open water. Although daunted by the vastness of Mytchett Lake in Camberley Quays, Carleen found a very supportive trainer in Martin Allen who at the time was the manager of the centre. Their goal was to prepare her to swim one mile at Lake Windermere. But with barely six weeks training, most of which was spent with Carleen desperately holding onto a kayak, she was unable to reach her one mile goal in the British Gas Swim Series event in 2012.
The safety steward saw that I’d hesitated to enter the 14 degree water, and kindly encouraged me as I navigated 20 meters at a time. He watched out for me as hoards of faster swimmers zoomed through the waters around me. After I’d been in the water for a long time, we decided it would be better to aim towards the 1/2 mile mark. Even though I had to hold onto the kayak for most of that swim, the crowd cheered me on and I swam the last 20 meters by myself as the safety steward in the kayak looked on from a safe distance. I completed the swim in 1 hour and 7 minutes.
In 2013 Carleen decided to register for the 1/2 mile wave in the Human Race as she now knew that this was a distance she could complete, albeit very slowly. However these waters would be in the River Thames at Little Marlow Bridge, Buckinghamshire.
Visually it seemed a conceivable task, as the width of the Thames looks much smaller than the gigantic Lake Windermere. But my Coach Martin had cautioned me about the currents. I was still at the stage of barely achieving 50 meters continuously before stopping to hold on to a kayak, take a break, and then continuing.
I delayed getting in by sitting on the ledge fumbling with my goggles, but finally entered the water. I felt as though I’d entered a whirlpool. The safety stewards in their kayaks circled me as I reached the 200 meter mark near the iconic Little Marlow Bridge structure, and told me that I was not to go any further.
Too proud to take a lift back to shore in the kayak I swam sideways to the riverbank where friends who had come to cheer me on pulled me up over the embankment and consoled me as I cried for being unable to complete the course.
Undeterred, Carleen continued with her training with plans to go back to Little Marlow in 2014 to complete the 1/2 mile course. She gained fresh motivation after seeing the live TV coverage of endurance swimmer Diana Nyad swim from Cuba to Florida in 53 hours at the age of 64.
It was Coach Martin’s empathy for Carleen’s despair over the incomplete Thames swim in 2013 that led him to recruit Nina Cron, an accomplished swimmer, to coach Carleen in preparation for the return Thames River attempt in 2014. And together, Carleen and Nina completed the swim.
There were a few wobbles during that swim, but Coach Nina was there to lift me up as I made my way through the strong currents. We made it to the finish line in 1 hour and 6 minutes. The crowds who’d gathered that morning gave me a warm cheer as I exited the water. It was great to feel them acknowledge my determination and take that journey to its completion.
Between 2014 and 2016 there were career demands that prevented Carleen from the necessary training it takes to participate in a mass swim event. Also during that period another close family member died of cancer which further drained Carleen of her energy. But Coach Nina, a health nurse by profession, continued giving her moral support and by the end of the 2016 swim season, Carleen ventured into the open waters of the Thorpe Park swimming lake. The temperature was so cold she could only swim about 100 meters, but she was back in the waters, which Coach Nina reminded her was the most important thing to take away from that experience.
I began putting in the swimming pool training hours from then on in preparation for the Swim Serpentine 2017 event. I worked on building up my stamina, strength and technique with my favourite swimming aids. The pull buoy helped streamline my position in the water and short fins helped me concentrate on my ankle flick. Using a kick board improved my propulsion and hand paddles angled my fingertip for water entry and made me pull through the water with greater efficiency.
How was event day? What did completing Swim Serpentine mean to you?
With Coach Nina on one side and our friend Liz on the other, both shouting directions but each far enough away so that I could swim unassisted, I completed the 2017 Swim Serpentine 1/2 mile course in 1 hour and 5 minutes.
It’s a slow pace but feel it is a real breakthrough. I didn’t have to hold onto a kayak and did the entire swim under my own steam.
And a few days later my Coach Nina took me back to Mytchett Lake and I swam without a coach or kayak nearby!
Nina had put forward this last minute challenge in order for me to prepare for filming my music video the following week at Walpole Bay, where I would be swimming on my own.
The tidal pool measures up to 137 meters in distance and up to 8 feet in depth and there are no lifeguards or water stewards in kayaks available for emergency rescue.
I swam smoother and faster on that Mytchett Lake training loop than I’d ever done in the five years since I’d first started swimming in open water. I amazed myself and my coaches and fellow swimmers who’d seen my development over the years were incredibly proud.
When the time came me to swim in the salty waters of the Walpole Bay Tidal Pool I felt just as I had when my Auntie had taught me to float off the coast of Galveston Beach at night time when I was only three. And the buoyancy evoked such realms of possibility. I could feel a compulsion to be more more adventurous in life surface, despite the chronic aches and pains from bodily wear and tear that my 60 years around the sun brought.
How has swimming affected your life out of the water? Has it influenced your work?
After five years of training I can still only swim 1/2 mile very slowly in open water whilst I know other people can swim much longer distances in considerably less time. I could feel deflated, but Coach Nina reminds me to think about how far I’ve come.
When I started open water swimming it would take me several months to recover from a 1/2 mile swim. But days after Swim Serpentine 2017 I was filmed swimming for the first time in saltwater at Walpole Bay for my music video and I had plenty of energy left over to carry on swimming after filming was complete. And I am motivated about the thought of my next swim. As Coach Nina says, “Swimming will always be a challenge but you will get stronger every time you swim.” This is a motto that Carleen has taken on to live by in general.
To say I’m addicted to open water swimming would be a HUGE understatement. Swimming gives me an opportunity to escape the music industry bubble and enjoy the natural tempo from the sounds of open water; swimming outdoors is a great uplift from life’s pressures. Although I’m less enthusiastic to swim in chlorinated pools as she feels it’s essentially sharing a big bathtub with the neighbourhood, still, in order to maintain the propulsion gained from summer open water swimming she swims in the local pools during the winter months.
What’s your favourite piece of swim kit and why?
I keep my swim kit by the door. For the pool I have a knee length one piece suit, prescription goggles, silicone ear plugs, swim hat and toiletries. When I know I’m going to be doing swimming drills, I switch to a larger bag to hold all my training equipment, (kick board, pull buoy, fins, etc.). For open water swimming I add two additional swim hats, thermal swim socks and a wetsuit. Along with my coconut water filled sports bottle I also bring a carob and nut health bar for energy replenishment after the swim. I’d love to have cake but serious food allergies prevents me from having it.
What advice do you have for people new to outdoor swimming?
First and foremost enjoy the swim! Resist the urge to fight the water and instead let yourself feel its flow and glide along with it. I like to hum as I blow out air under water – it helps keep my swimming pace steady and even. Most of all I feel swimming is an opportunity to get rid of stress and heal. Of course staying fit is a healthy way to live life however you need to enjoy the activity in order to stick with it. Also, raising funds for charity is a strong motivator.
How did you train and prepare for the half mile at Swim Serpentine? What were the highs and lows?
I devoted an entire week in July 2017 to exclusively swim everyday in preparation for Serpentine 2017. I booked into the Premiere Inn closest to my frequent training centres, Mytchett Lake, Thorpe Lake and Horseshoe Lake to cut out the two hour round trip journey that took so much away from what was gained in her outdoor swims. I’d swim in the mornings and evenings and sometimes Coach Nina and sometimes Coach Martin and friend Liz would join me. That week greatly improved my confidence in deep water, and helped prevent the anxiety that surfaces when I’ve had time away from open water.
What are your swim plans, or water inspired projects for the future?
My next goal is to improve my swim time for the 1/2 mile distance at Serpentine 2018 and ideally swim it within an hour. I also hope to have enough courage to swim completely independently without my coach swimming in the same wave.
Until then I hope to enjoy several scheduled events with Mytchett Lake swim club that I’ve been invited to join for the next open water swim season. Prior to that, if I can summon up the bravery, I’d like to participate in the New Year’s Day Swim in 2018 at Walpole Bay in Kent.
At a recent gathering with the family who had encouraged her to swim in the Mediterranean Sea, they reminded reminded me of the tremendous strides in open water swimming I’ve made since then.
I whole heartedly recommend swimming. And sums it up like this:
“One returns to the shore after venturing out into the wild waters ready with a fresh outlook on life”.
Out of the water A Lotus Rises – Thank you Carleen!