Out of the Water a Lotus Rises

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.

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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.

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芙蓉出水:Out of the Water a Lotus Rises

The 1970s

1979

My first swim: I can’t remember it; but I know I loved it.

Alice and Dad

The 1980s

1981

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.

1982

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.

Alice Beach with mum

1984

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.

1985

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.

1986

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.

Alice Blazar

1987

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.

1988

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.

1989

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.

1990

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.

Alice and Laura 1

1992

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).

1993

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.

1995

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.

1996

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.

Alice Scotland

1997

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.

2006

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.

2008

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.

My first mile

2011

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.

Skipic

2012

I finally understand the importance of self worth; swim across lakes and rivers and break free.

2013

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.

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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.

2014

I swam outside throughout the winter and I now dream of more snowy swimming adventures.

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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.

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Learning to Fly: Paragliding Off the Aiguille Du Midi 3842m

The last three years I have spent a lot of time walking along the Chamonix valley with my head turned upwards staring at the paragliders dancing in the sky. Inspired by their grace I always dreamt of joining them to jump off mountain tops.

Then, at the Chamonix Adventure Festival, I discovered the films of paraglider Jean Baptiste and the Everest paragliding adventures of Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa and Sano Babu Sunuwar in Hanuman Airlines. My view of what is possible was transformed.

So, on the morning of 22 April, after days of stormy, grey weather, Sean at FlyChamonx spotted a brief weather window. And, with the help of his colleague Patrick, I took my first flight: A stunning journey from the top of the Aiguille Du Midi (3842m) amongst the mountain tops of the Mont Blanc Massif.

I was brought to tears by the beauty of the landscape and the grace of flying.

For me, proof if it were needed, that dreams do come true.

How To Feel Good [Nearly] Naked

When you go swimming, unless you are wearing a wetsuit, you are pretty much naked.

Even if you are wearing a wetsuit, at some point immediately before that you were pretty much naked and/or invariably getting changed in a public place.

Regardless, wetsuits don’t really hide your body, they just vacuum pack it into a more pronounced silhouette.

Post swim: messy hair, puffy eyes and feeling great!

Post swim: messy hair, puffy eyes and feeling great!

So surely my social conditioning is strong enough that swimming is when I should feel at my most self conscious?

Apparently not… I have never asked anyone if my bum looks big in my swimming costume.

In fact, just the idea of asking that question makes me laugh (NB it is of course an eminently sensible question in the context of trying on jeans).

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Like a lot of men and women I have gone through different stages of body image love and loathing.

I think we all find our own path through that, but one of the things I love most about the open water is that for a sport where everyone pretty much gets naked most of the time, body image feels irrelevant.

I have noticed a lot of chat on social media recently about the representation of sportswomen: charity calendars featuring glamorous female athletes challenging the stereotypes of their particular sport, pre-surfing dances that have been felt too provocative and apparently tongue in cheek ‘extreme’ sports videos that emphasise the multifaceted ‘assets’ of female athletes, just before they embark on their dare devil adventures.

I know what I like and what I don’t and what inspires me. I switch on or off accordingly. I hope that where things make me feel uncomfortable, the women involved and their audience have fully understood the nuances of power and control that are choreographing their representation and the different messages that can send.

Of course you can be intelligent, feminine, beautiful, funny, sexy, stylish, fit, healthy AND good at sport. And I am well up for celebrating that – Hurrah for fit and healthy bodies rather than emaciated, airbrushed role models!

But it also reminds me of open water swimming’s silence about body image, which for me has become a more powerful voice.

By way of illustration, here’s a non airbrushed picture of me in a swimming costume just before the start of the Lake Zurich Marathon relay, dancing and not caring that I am nearly naked.

It was featured in Women’s Fitness Magazine, so I imagine it means a fair few people have now seen me dancing in a swimming costume and not caring that I am nearly naked.

If someone had asked me a few years ago, ‘would you be happy to have a picture of you in a swimming costume in a magazine?’ I doubt the answer would have been yes. But times change, and for me one of the joys of getting into open water is its innate capacity to be an antidote to modern day pressures about body image.

Long may it continue!

芙蓉出水: (fúróng chūshuǐ) Out of the water a lotus rises

Get in touch:

At A Lotus Rises  we’re building a swimming collective on a mission to increase visibility, access and participation of women in swimming.

You can get involved  FacebookTwitter , Instagram and alotusrises@gmail.com. We want to share your stories, so we can support you and inspire others!

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