I (Alice) had hoped to put something really ‘cool’ together on A Lotus Rises to celebrate this year’s IWD, but I’ve got flu; and I couldn’t quite get it together. The past 12 months have been wonderful for our growing swimming collective, and of course women’s rights are not just about one day. But the plus side of being ill is that in the last few days I’ve been able to sit back and enjoy all the different celebratory posts from the likes of Swim Dem Crew, the Outdoor Swimming Society, and Survival Techniques, felt strengthened by the story of Tiffany Haddish and motivated by the powerful insights from women like healthy relationship ambassador and Safe LivespioneerCelia Peachey, the Pool’s Marisa Bate and many, many more… It got me thinking, and, almost without realising, I began to write … (Heads up: this post contains some strong language and relates to domestic abuse) …
One of the best drills for developing feel for the water and also a good front crawl hand entry position is the closed fist drill. It’s one of my favourite drills and I regularly include it in a warm up, often switching between a closed and open fist with fingers spread wide every 3 strokes, for a couple of lengths or more. It settles me into the water and sets me up nicely for a main set. But once upon a time, that drill triggered something very different in me.
“Ali, can you make a fist, like this?” I looked at my coach on the side of the pool and stopped still, transfixed by the closed fist he was making. I could see the hairs on his forearm and the lines on his curled fingers. To me, it wasn’t the hand of my coach, it was the closed fist of someone else…
The fist I saw belonged to a man who said he loved me, yet called me a ‘b*tch’; who threw glasses at me; smashed plates; downed a bottle of whiskey and screamed in my face, bucking his head into me like an Ibex… The person who left me sleep deprived by keeping me awake all night with his lectures; punched the walls and doors around me – who punched so close, but not close enough to leave a bruise; the person who pretended to be driving our car off the edge of a cliff top road – with me in it. I remember that final day, when he pushed me onto the bed, covered me in a duvet and pillow and beat down through it on to me. 48 hours of destruction and finally I knew I had to throw him out. But how to really break free? He was ill, I loved him, couldn’t I heal him? A year of soul searching and dreaming of reconciliation, and ‘what ifs?’ followed.
“He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s not in control. It’s red mist,” I said to a male counsellor, who specialises in working with perpetrators of domestic abuse. “On the contrary.” came the reply, “His actions are about doing just enough to scare and control you… Domestic abuse isn’t measured by whether or not you had to leave a relationship in an ambulance… Be under no illusion, what you have described is severe abuse.”
But I still couldn’t quite accept what had happened to me: Alice, the one time lawyer, the writer, the academic, the athlete, the friend, the sister, the daughter, the joker, the smiley, happy girl…I was still an actress, to both myself and the outside world. Yes, the doctor had given me tranquilisers to ease the anxiety from the trauma I was processing, and my mum heard me screaming out in my sleep in the night… but it wasn’t really that bad…was it?
I froze still in the lido water. I couldn’t move. I just stood and stared, having what I now know, is a flashback. “Ali, it’s just a hand”, my coach flexed his fingers out, unlocking his fist and waving. “It’s a hand, just a hand – look it’s me; Ali, it’s me.”
I finally lifted up my goggles and broke the spell. “Are you ok to swim?” Yes, I was. And the lesson continued with a quiet diplomacy.
The mind is an extraordinary thing. We can create layers of behaviours, including OCD and addiction and become experts in denial to protect ourselves – I believe we see that magnified across society about so many ‘difficult’ issues – it hurts to focus on the painful stuff and we can go to great lengths to numb or disguise it. However eventually, no matter how long it takes, one way or another, the truth will confront us.
What I didn’t realise then, but I do now, is that I was severely traumatised. For some reason, despite the help and advice I’d sought prior to that point, it still hadn’t fully ‘clicked’ how vulnerable and hurt I was. Yet in that moment it was so clear, and I finally started to accept my reality.
At the same time, as I moved through the water I found glimmers of my true self. My body that can move with power and grace; and a spirit that can ignite others; and with each glimmer, a feeling that perhaps… just perhaps…life could be something more – That I was worthy of something more.
I finally found the logic I needed to move on – that if seeing another man close his fist to demonstrate a swim drill caused me to be paralysed with fear – how could I ever stop being afraid of my ex – no matter how chocolate box the good times seemed – there was no way I could guarantee that he wouldn’t turn on me again; and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t change that. I finally realised that the relationship was irreparable – I couldn’t save it – or fix him; and the only path forward, was to properly, and finally, cut all ties.
About a week after that swimming lesson, that’s exactly what I did. “You f*cking b*tch. Where are you? Where the f*ck are you?!” he screamed down the phone for the last time.
Moving on is a process. And unravelling and understanding how such circumstances came about, why I came to be in that relationship, and healing; has been very difficult and taken a lot of time.
Domestic abuse is a complex issue and I don’t think there’s a one size fits all answer. To identify the causes, help prevent its occurrence, promote healthy relationships and help men and women trapped in abusive relationships, requires us all to look gently but honestly at ourselves, our history and circumstances, both individually and as a society as a whole.
Most importantly, we can’t do that alone. We need considered, well-resourced, holistic and long term support.
It was critical for me to be able to access specialist women’s support services. I was one of the lucky ones. At my most vulnerable I was able to seek out and access initial support through a hotline and counselling service funded by a women’s charity – it saved my life – but because of cuts, that service no longer exists. And little did I know, but that was just the beginning of a journey of understanding, healing and growing, which extends much deeper and beyond that one person and that episode in my life.
I have not previously felt able to share this part of my story for a number of reasons. Fear, shame, and not wanting to put this out there without being clear in myself that I understand what happened. But the support and self-knowledge I have now means that I can, and I hope that by sharing this other chapter in my life, I can help others.
Out of the water A Lotus Rises, and thank you to all the women across our growing swimming collective, for empowering me and so many others, in our lives both in and out of the water… Here’s to a future beyond hashtags; and to positive, considered and practical change in our behaviours, policy, systems and culture.
Some useful resources for anyone needing to reach out for support can be found here.
Many adventures start out as just a flicker of intent, mixed with a dash of terror of the unknown. Rather like standing at the water’s edge, you deliberate, hesitate, but eventually you leap, love it, and wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.
So, to avoid any further delay to your outdoor swimming adventures, we asked a range of swimmers turned open water addicts, what they wish they’d known before they started open water swimming…
“That no one cares what you look like or how you swim because everyone’s too busy enjoying themselves and eating cake; That the fear may never subside but the enjoyment, satisfaction and sense of achievement will only get greater; Always have a woollen hat in your bag; and always pack a cap, goggles and costume, as you never know when the opportunity for a swim might appear!” Manda Read.
“That swimming takes you to another place: both geographical (far flung places where you meet similar minded people and have a hoot, even if you don’t speak a common language) and also takes you to yourself (without sounding too hippy-ish!): giving you the time to think over stuff, grieve at times, get some space and find the strength to face up to challenges in life.” Clare McRobbie
“I wish I’d known how much more alive and exciting I’d find swimming in just toggs. That you don’t have to choose between being a wetsuit or toggs swimmer – you can do both!” Vicky Raybould, who completed her first open water event in 2016.
“A fingertip’s worth of Johnson’s baby shampoo on each lens of your goggles. It’s ok to let it dry while you wait for your next swim. Then dunk your goggles in the water and shake off the drips before you put them back on. Never fails to stop them misting up!”, says Jackie Risman.
“I wish I had known that nobody cares what you look like in a swimsuit…and how much I would come to appreciate my health and what my body is capable of,” Barbara Brown
“That Jellyfish can’t get down high necked swimsuits” Anna Wardley
“The least glamorous sport in the world…but life changing and prestigious” Sal Minty Gravett
“ That you don’t have to be an elite swimmer to do it – in fact you don’t even have to be a good swimmer. That I had been doing it my whole life already, it’s just that I used to call it playing at the seaside…” Polly Downes
“Almost anything can (and will) happen. And (almost) anything will be okay!”, Jaimie Monahan.
“To be honest I wish I’d sorted my technique out sooner.” Geraldine Treacher.
“How huge a part of my life it would become.” Jody Jones
“What wonderful, inspiring and downright gorgeous people embrace and participate in this sport…I couldn’t imagine my life now without my swimmie friends and I’ve achieved things I wouldn’t have even dreamed were possible five years ago.” Annabel Lavers.
“I use the strong ‘in the moment’ memories that outdoor swimming gives me, to give me confidence and courage to channel into other areas of my life,” Teresa Klesner
“That it’s OK to be a bit uncomfortable – it won’t kill you, it won’t even hurt you. And the joy of actually BEING in one’s own body – of experiencing it as a wonderful piece of equipment which could do so much I’d never imagined and which was so much more strong and capable and adaptable than I’d ever thought it could be.” Barbara Jennings
“You have no idea how capable you are, or how far you can go until you try. Just a little bit more each time. Plus making really solid friendships so quickly,” Debbie Taylor
A Lotus Rises is the swim blog for women who love open water and we’re very excited to be delivering our Guide to Open Water Swimming at WAExpo 2017, the annual flagship event of the Women’s Adventure Expo CIC. Never afraid to tackle the important issues, we’ve got together with Outdoor Swimmer Magazine and Zoggs to try and answer one of the toughest questions in open water swimming – What makes the best #SwimSelfie? and support you on your swim adventures, whatever they may be!
Submit your pics to @WAEXPO and @ALotus_Rises with the hashtag #swimselfie, for the chance to win a year’s subscription to Outdoor Swimmer Magazine, a Kit Bag full of swim gear from Zoggs (1 x swim cozzie from a choiceofthree (size 8-20), the excellent predator goggles, swim hat, ear plugs, and towel), and 2 tickets to WAExpo 2017 held in Bristol on 7th October to inspire you on your swim adventures. We’ve extended the deadline so that last entries are Monday 2nd October, with winner announced 3rd October.
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”.
Ellery McGowan is an outdoor swimmer with a swim cv and sense of adventure that inspires the swimming community. Her swim highlights include Lake Zurich, Ederle, Manhattan, Toroneos Gulf and Kalamata plus 5 Channel relays and 4 Winter Swimming Championships, Most recently she completed an All Women Relay of the English Channel, setting a new record for the Oldest Women’s Channel Relay, with a combined age of 393. Team Members were Irene Keel (76), Ellery McGowan (70),Chris Pitman (66), Dee Richards (62) Sally Minty Gravett (59) and Kathy Batts (57) and the time taken to cross was 15 hours and 17 minutes. Ellery is also a swim teacher and swimming coach at Charterhouse.
In 2015 Ellery’s son James, an accomplished athlete, passed away from Adult Sudden Death Syndrome and she is now using swimming as a platform to raise awareness of Cardiac Risk in the Young , an organisation which draws attention to the range of conditions that can cause young sudden cardiac death. Each week in the UK at least 12 fit and healthy young people die of undiagnosed heart conditions. She has raised several thousand dollars in 2015 alone by her challenge undertaking “5 Swims in 5 Countries for a Five Star Son”.
A Lotus Rises caught up with Ellery to talk about her swimming journey, what inspires her and her adventures.
Why did you start outdoor swimming?
I taught myself to swim at aged 5 in an estuary in Tasmania and later swam in rivers and dams. There were no swimming pools in the vicinity of where I lived. However I took up masters swimming when I moved to Germany on 1991 and as I had never been in a club I could not even kick 25metres. I competed in Masters but in 2004 saw a stand in Riccione for SwimTrek and signed up for my first trip to Turkey. I loved every minute of it, swimming the Hellespont and a 10km swim across to Bozcaada among other swims. I felt at home once again.
What have been the highs and lows in your swimming journey and how do you stay motivated?
My first open water race was at the World Masters in Edmonton in 2005 where I came back with a gold medal which surprised me…. That was a high!
My lowest of low was not making it to France as a solo in 2015. I was pulled out after 11 hours in the French Shipping lane. I hate not finishing what I set out to do and not completing Rottnest in February due to the strong currents and not making the cut-off was also disappointing
What do you think are the three most important things for effective swim training?
I train regularly but think self- discipline, consistency in training and motivation to do so and cross training are essential.
What three tips do you have for swimmers new to open water?
Swim with an open mind
Enjoy the experience- every swim will be different.
Don’t put stress on oneself by hoping to finish in an unrealistic time.
How do you prepare for your swim challenges?
I am fortunate that I can train by myself and have the self-discipline to do so, but I also go on training camps to be with like- minded people.
I have a feeding plan which works for me and I have used for the last seven years! (Maxim and High5 isogel alternating along with half a banana every 3 hours)
A “Tupperware” box goes with me containing “ouch” for jelly fish stings, Voltaren for inflammation, ibuprofen for pain relief, an anti-histamine cream, sturgeron for sea sickness, night lights, safety pins etc. I cannot recall when I last used any of these apart from Voltaren on my 30km Kalamata swim last September.
How do you avoid injury?
I listen to my body but after a shoulder injury over 10 years ago I concentrated on my technique. I do two Pilates sessions a week, one yoga and a gyrotonics to keep my body supple and for core strength. I also do two spin classes for cardio.
Why did you do the English Channel relay? How was it?!
We had planned to do a two way in 2015 but were weathered out and managed to start a one way. However a massive storm hit us for the last few hours. I remember at 11:00 at night swimming in lightening and hail for the whole of my swim with everyone else in the cabin of Anastasia sheltering. Two hours later the seas became rough, the boat was lifted out of the water as winds reached 40 knots and we had to call it a day for safety just 2 miles off the French Coast.
Kathy re-booked with Eddie Spelling for this year , first on the tide but as the weather was not so good we went a day early, with just one replacement member due to injury. The first relay was four months before James died and this was the first time I had been in the Channel since. We all felt the cold after our first night swim which was pretty rough too but we had a full moon which was beautiful. Conditions smoothed out during my second leg but the third was magical coming towards the white cliffs of Les Escalles. I swam very hard and was just 17 minutes from the landing. I felt James was with me all the way in that glorious sunshine.
Has swimming helped cope with your bereavement?
Most definitely. I think of him a lot during my swims and I know the money I raise is now going towards research and screening. We have two days of screening planned at Charterhouse in June which will be covered by money from James’ memorial fund.
Most of all I look back and know that the cold water swimming has put me in a good place. I have no problem in getting into -0.2 water in Siberia with air at -15 and swimming a 100m race. The feeling afterwards is always elating.
Your swimming accomplishments range from marathon swims to winter swimming championship medals – do you have a favourite swim and also, what next?
Every swim is different because of the elements, but I think possibly Toroneos Gulf has been my favourite. I was invited to do this by a Greek marathon swimmer whom I met on “The Big Blue” after swimming Manhattan. He sadly died earlier this year, also at a young age, from cancer. The swim was 26 km in the beautiful Ionian Sea, a wonderful atmosphere and in Greece everyone who finishes is a winner. To swim in hearing Vangelis playing loudly and having a huge wreath of olive leaves placed over my head by two fellow Greek swimming friends was just amazing.
What is your favourite swim cake?
I am not a great cake eater but would never say no to any, especially a rum cake!
What is your favourite swimming costume for open water and why?
I have a few but at the moment it is knee length Agon with an Australian design and my name ELLERY emblazoned on the front. (Just in case I forget who I am!)
The clocks have sprung forward and a summer of sporting adventure awaits… A few weeks ago at swim training, I was chatting to two wonderful women who are both undertaking exciting personal challenges (on land and in water) in the next few months. I don’t think either of them fully appreciated this, but they are embarking on amazing challenges. One is simply ‘Going for a run’ and the other, ‘A bit of a swim’. I found it totally inspiring. And yet somehow, we managed to navigate our conversation into that classic realm of never being quite ‘good enough’. Thankfully we also had the self awareness to catch ourselves and laugh at our ability to get swept up in the narratives of others and ‘do down’ our own achievements:
“I will probably come last…”, ” My friend has been doing X hours of training. I haven’t even started yet…”, “I only came in X place in that ultra marathon…” “I should have been faster in that triathlon…”, “everyone is going to be thinking ‘why are you here?'” Because whoever the audience is you think you are performing to, completing ultra marathons, triathlons and wonderful swims whilst juggling the challenges of everyday life, is not enough.
I was grateful for the self-check of my peers in that conversation. We were falling into the trap of the kind of helpful discourse that enables you to single handedly ignore any sense of enjoyment and pride in your training journey and completely overlook the awesomeness and reward of the objectives you have achieved.
It’s sometimes worth remembering that even trail running and ski-mountaineering phenomenon Kilian Jornet doesn’t always come first in his races. And, as inconceivable as it may seem, Beyonce told me that back in 2013 she came third (behind Kelly and Michelle), in a Destiny’s Child egg and spoon race. Tough times, but she bounced back.
Human beings love to compare: who is fastest, strongest, furthest, toughest etc? And of course if none of those superlatives apply to you, you’re probably not trying hard enough.
Fortunately there’s always the opportunity to claim a ‘first’ in order to give an achievement real meaning.
‘Everyone climbs Everest nowadays’, but if you’re the first person called Colin from Paraguay to successfully ride a unicycle to the summit and back (without supplemental oxygen), then in some circles that achievement may just be credible.
I am pretty confident Colin would be setting a world record ‘first’, however I also sense that within this cunning plan, there may be a level of unnecessary exertion. Why? Well, although Colin is free to fulfill himself with whatever unicycle challenge he feels necessary, I hope he will also realise that even without the unicycle, he is already first in his own category.
How do I know this?
I recently undertook a scientific review of my sporting performances since birth, and the level of consistency is incredible; Second to none in fact. And I am confident that if Colin, or anyone else for that matter, undertakes a similar review of their own performance, the result will be the same.
For example, at first glance the official results of the 2013 Traversee de la Ramaz 7.5km cross-country ski race indicate I was second to last. However, I reviewed the performance thoroughly with my adjudication panel, and it turns out I actually came first in my own category: The first and only girl to cross the finish line from South East London with about 4 hours cross country skiing experience in her life, who loves avocado and who had been given unwaxed skis to ‘race’ on.
Unlike normal skis, cross country skis have to be waxed before each use, otherwise, as I can testify, they get stuck and at best it’s like skating across sand paper, in what turned out to be pretty hilly terrain: I was (unintentionally) riding a unicycle up Everest. As Tania said before the start, “It’s not going to be easy, but you’re here now, so you might as well get on with it.” Suffice to say I put in a performance the likes of which I am confident the cross-country skiing community is unlikely to see again. Somehow I actually managed to finish.
Of course it wasn’t the performance I had hoped for, but I embraced the situation and was first in my own category and I was delighted.
This weekend I enjoyed the handicap races at the Serpentine and Tooting Bec, as well as a cheeky training session at Charlton Lido. Did I come first in any of the races? No. Did that matter? No. Was I training in the slow lane? Yes. Was I a bit p*ssed off that once again I found myself back at not quite square one with training? Yes. Overall did that really matter? No. Did I have wonderful conversations about the relationship of humans to water, film festivals, social change, bravado and winter swimming, the power of dogs and the importance of saunas for the human spirit? And was the water delicious? Yes.
It was all lovely and a big thank you to my unknowingly inspiring peers!
But back to those all important challenges… I am still hedging my bets over plans for the summer. There’s a fair few things pencilled in, but they all come with the asterix *subject to injury. Fingers crossed.
Happily, whatever happens, I, like everyone else, will be first in my own category.
芙蓉出水: (fúróng chūshuǐ) Out of the water a lotus rises
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