Carleen Anderson #alotusrises

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.”

 

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Finishing her first sea swim at Walpole Bay 2017

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…

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Walpole Bay 2017 Credit Carleen Anderson

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.

 

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Mediterranean 2008

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.

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Swim Serpentine 2017

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.

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Getting ready to get in the Thames 2013

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.

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Camberley Lake 60th Birthday Wade in Water and Zoot Wetsuit trial

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.

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Little Marlow Swim 2014

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.

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Friend Liz, Carleen and Swim Coach Nina at the Swim Serpentine finish!

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.

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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.

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With Coach Nina before Thames River Swim 2014 Little Marlow Buckinghamshire

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!

Carleen Anderson Just Giving Fundraising Page for Macmillan Cancer Care Charity

BEGIN AGAIN Music � Swimming Video Promo for Cage Street Memorial Album

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Drowning prevention, Gender and Community: Saving lives in Sudan. A Lotus Rises Meets Nile Swimmers’ Becky Sindall

Nile Swimmers are a small charity that are doing big things to tackle drowning in Africa. The World Health Organisation estimate that over 372,000 people drown annually worldwide (not taking into account those who drown in floods or boat-related accidents) and most of those deaths take place in low and middle income countries.

Nile Swimmers works with local community leaders along the River Nile to identify safe areas to access the water, provide safety advice and safe swimming lessons to everyone in a community, and train them in first aid, CPR and water rescue skills.

Becky is a long time supporter of Nile Swimmers and the first female instructor trainer in the organisation. She has delivered training with Nile Swimmers in Lebanon and Sudan. She started swimming competitively from the age of 10 and after starting university, became increasingly involved in lifesaving.

To top off her watery existence, she now works as a Senior Research Scientist in Thames Water’s Innovation department, looking for “the next big thing” in wastewater treatment.

Life on the Nile
Life on the Nile

 

Why did you become involved in Nile Swimmers?

I met Dan, Dom and Tom, three of the trustees of the charity, through university lifesaving. I competed for Birmingham and used to swim against them when they were competing in teams from Manchester, Southampton and Loughborough.

In 2013, I got a phone call out of the blue from Dan asking if I would be interested in going to Lebanon for a few days to teach a lifesaving course in French. One of the trainers had pulled out at the last minute and in looking for other lifesaving instructors, my name had come up as someone who might be capable and interested in teaching lifesaving abroad. They were certainly right!

I had followed the work of Nile Swimmers since its conception and I was impressed that they were working in tough environments to make a difference to a problem that was already close to my heart. I jumped at the chance to join them and working in Beirut was a fantastic experience.

Lifesaving in the Nile
Lifesaving in the Nile

From that point on, I was hooked! In January this year, I got another phone call, this time asking if I would be interested in spending a few weeks in Sudan as the female instructor trainer for their first women’s course in the country. I was booking leave from work almost before I’d put the phone down!

Please describe the work you undertook in your recent visit to Sudan.

In March, myself and another international trainer ran two different courses in Khartoum. The first week-long course was a Beach Lifeguard Progamme for 17 men, run on the banks of the River Nile. The men learnt rescue skills, first aid, CPR and the essential skills of lifeguarding a beach, which in Sudan includes how to make affordable rescue equipment from locally sourced materials. During the second week, we ran an Aquatic Survival Programme for 17 men and 19 women. This course gives them the skills to go into schools and community groups to teach others, particularly children, basic water safety messages which can help to keep them safe in and near water.

CPR training
CPR training

This was the first time that a Nile Swimmers programme in Sudan has been able to include women. This is a major breakthrough in a conservative Muslim country and meant that the programme included a lot of firsts for Nile Swimmers, and indeed for Sudan. It was the first time we had a woman training men, the first time women involved in the programme, the first time women had learnt water rescue skills in the pool and in the Nile in Sudan, and the first time men and women were taught CPR together.

What has been the impact of this work?

The impact of these programmes has been phenomenal. As part of the Aquatic Survival Programme, the participants worked in groups to put together a project to go on to teach what they had learnt to people in their community. The best of the planned projects were given a small amount of funding by Nile Swimmers to make them a reality and since March, the 36 instructors have taught basic water safety messages to over 3000 children and CPR to over 900 adults and teenagers.

Learning key messages: Swim with a friend
Learning key messages: Swim with a friend

Equally impressive, we have also had one of the participants, Husam, use the lifesaving skills he learnt on the training course to save a man who was spotted at the bottom of the pool where he was working as a receptionist. Husam pulled the man from the water and started rescue breathing. The man recovered and was later taken to hospital. To know that the Nile Swimmers are using the skills we taught them to save lives makes me very proud.

Please describe the relationship between women and water in the communities in which you work?

Whereas in the UK women come into contact with water mostly in pursuit of leisure, in Sudan, it is a daily part of life. Water for drinking, cooking and cleaning all comes from the Nile. Washing clothes, washing pots and washing yourself all happen in the river. Women in some rural communities wade across the river every day to reach islands where the mud has made the soil fertile for growing the crops they need to feed their families. They are fully clothed as they cross the river with bundles of food and tools on their heads in water that can come up to their shoulders. It is no surprise that everyone in Sudan knows someone who has drowned.

Female Participants on the Nile Swimmers training course
Female Participants on the Nile Swimmers training course

How does gender impact on drowning prevention and the training that you provide?

Drowning is a really simple problem, but there is not a single simple solution. The best way to prevent fisherman drowning is not the best way to prevent toddlers drowning. Gender has a huge impact. The way that men and women interact with water in low and middle income countries is very different so the prevention strategies have to be different too. Women also play a crucial role in preventing children drowning as they are normally the primary care giver. In Sudan, there are still a lot of social barriers to what women are allowed to do.

The women on the March programme had fought long and hard for this training and because of that, they were all really keen to learn and determined to make use of every second. They have been some of the most active participants in teaching water safety since March. They are determined to change the drowning problem in Sudan, even if it means battling against societal norms.

How can people get involved and support Nile Swimmers?

There are plenty of ways that you can support Nile Swimmers. As a small charity, we are always in need of extra people to help out so if you have any experience in water safety, coaching or teaching swimming or lifesaving, and you fancy joining them as a trainer, you can fill in their volunteer form at www.nileswimmers.org/volunteer. If that’s not quite your cup of tea but you have other skills that you think Nile Swimmers could make use of, whether fundraising, social media or raising awareness, contact us at www.nileswimmers.org/contact.

Maybe Nile Swimmers could be the push you need to spur you in your next challenge. Perhaps you could swim a mile for the Nile! It is very easy to link a sponsorship page to Nile Swimmers on justgiving.com or if you simply want to donate to Nile Swimmers and the fantastic work they do you can do that at www.nileswimmers.org/donate.

You can also follow Nile Swimmers on Facebook and Twitter.

How has your relationship with water developed over the years? 

I grew up abroad, mostly in sunnier countries than the UK, so swimming was a huge part of my childhood. I trained with the school team three times a week and still spent all weekend messing around in the pool with my brother. At university, I moved from competing in lifesaving competitions, to coaching, then to running international exchanges for teenagers, and finally into international development with Nile Swimmers, all the time working as a volunteer.

At the same time, I had focussed my chemical engineering degree on water and wastewater so when I graduated I landed a job with Thames Water. These days, water forms the basis of my career and my volunteering work! Of course, I still swim too. I find that being the water is a great way to relax and unwind.

What next?

I will be going out to Sudan again at the end of September to help run the next set of Nile Swimmers training courses. We hope that by the end of the year, we will have 100 Aquatic Survival Programme Instructors who, with the permission of the Minister for Education, will go into every school in Khartoum to teach basic water safety messages. That would allow us to reach approximately 4 million children.

My next personal challenge is swimming the Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) Dart 10k at the beginning of September, which is easily the furthest I have ever swum! Of course, I’ll be using the opportunity to raise money for Nile Swimmers too!

You can sponsor Becky here.

Becky in her (second) favourite swimming costume
Becky in her (second) favourite swimming costume

And finally, where’s your favourite swim spot and what’s your favourite swimming costume and why?

I love swimming outside, so in the summer, I’ll be at the Tri2O Swim Centre just outside Reading most weeks. If I’m not training, my favourite place for a dip is in the Thames, next to Pangbourne Meadows, not far from where I live. It’s a relaxing spot to float and watch the clouds!

My favourite swimming costume is a bright pink Speedo number with multi-coloured swirls all over it and words like “Happy” and “Yummy”. I love bright colours and I’m always happy when I’m in the water so it pretty much does what it says on the tin!

Thank you Becky Sindall – enjoy the Dart and good luck and thank you for inspiring us with all your wonderful work with Nile Swimmers!

At A Lotus Rises we’re celebrating  women in open water, from your first splash, through to wild swims and marathon swimming.

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

First In Your Own Category

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.

The race of life
Tortoise and Hare Face Off, or is it?

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.

Sadly there are no photographic records of the epic 7.5k TraversePre Epic Race Training. Learning to skate with the wonderful Tania Noakes and the added bonus of waxed skis.
Sadly there are no photographic records of my literraly ground breaking performance in the 7.5k Traversee de la Ramaz  However here is a pic of me learning to skate for the first time with the wonderful Tania Noakes. As you can see I am not enjoying myself. Not enjoying myself at all…

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.

The starting line up for the first heat of a Saturday Morning Serpentine Race. No-one has started swimming, but already everyone is first in their own category.
The starting line up for the first heat of a Saturday Morning Serpentine Race. No-one has started swimming, but already everyone is first in their own category.

 

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

Get in touch:

At A Lotus Rises we’re celebrating  women in open water, from your first splash, through to wild swims and even swimming marathons.

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

 

 

Overcoming the Fear of Judgment: Authenticity and #ThisGirlCan

Sport England launched its TV ad campaign for ‘This Girl Can‘ last night, all aimed at increasing women’s participation in sport and empowering us to embrace exercise.

It’s a wonderfully inspiring film and struck a particular chord with me, not just because the advert features open water swimming and a woman kicking arse running up a hill to a Missy Elliott soundtrack, but above all, because of its authenticity.

A lot of people talk about the importance of “being yourself”, but knowing what that is can be difficult – sometimes we get lost or we become hidden; and the ‘being’ bit isn’t always straightforward either.

Sport is often the place where all of that comes to the fore.

Olivia Parker’s article in the Telegraph describes how Sport England’s research found that “2 million fewer women are regularly participating in sport or exercise than men, despite 75 per cent of women aged 14 to 40 saying they’d like to do more.” They also identified that ‘fear of judgment’ was the biggest barrier preventing women from doing exercise. Other research has also found that 1/3 of young girls think that exercise is socially unacceptable . Something which I have written about previously on the blog.

Each section of the This Girl Can film evokes images from my own sporting life past and present, like the endorphin rush, agility and team work of school netball. It also allows me to reflect on some of the battles that have choreographed those experiences. For example, hiding in my living room in 1997 doing a Jet out of the Gladiators fitness video because I was too self conscious about the weight I’d put on to exercise in public (note it is a fantastic video and was, for me, a great place to start getting fit again).

Although I have  been extremely sporty at different points in my life, my biggest moments of doubt are when I have had a break (sometimes that’s meant a ‘rest’ lasting a few years) and make a return to exercise – That I love exercise and the outdoors would come as a massive shock to many people who knew me in my twenties.

Who knew swimming could be so much fun ?!
Who knew swimming could be so much fun ?!

I have found that it is at the point of making a return to activity that my fear of judgment is at its height, and when, the little voice in my head is doubt’s strongest advocate: “How could you have let yourself go like this?” And then, having mustered the courage to make that first step and head to my local leisure centre, doing the walk from the changing room to the pool thinking, “You don’t belong here.”

Swimming features prominently in the This Girl Can campaign
Swimming features prominently in the This Girl Can campaign

Thankfully I got in the water – there comes a point where that flicker of intent becomes a fire of commitment; well that, and the realisation that no matter how out of place you feel in your head, it would be even more weird if you headed back into the changing room – and so I began an amazing journey into open water swimming, well-being and an array of adventures on land, sea and air.

I am so excited to see swimming and open water swimming feature so prominently in the This Girl Can campaign. When we exercise, we are exposed in a different light (and in the case of swimming, we really do bare our physical selves), but where once just the thought of putting my cossy or trainers on induced questioning apprehension, they now open a door to liberation, a lot of fun, health and friendship.

Swimming with the NWSSSG all women elite commando squad: Photo: Gill Williams
Swimming in the Isle of Skye with the NWSSSG all women elite commando squad, part of the Outdoor Swimming Society’s Adventure swim series: Photo: Gill Williams

It is those friendships that continue to inspire me to keep on my path and embrace well being.

Of course I still have doubts and that little voice hasn’t completely gone away, but then one day you discover that the girl who hid in her living room doing the Jet out of the Gladiators fitness video, is now happily pictured in the Telegraph emerging from the Serpentine in a bikini on Christmas day, and you realise anything’s possible.

Here’s to embracing authenticity. #ThisGirlCan.

"Fu 荣出水“ Out of the Water a Lotus Rises: The Serpentine Peter Pan Cup Christmas Day 2014 as featured in the Telegraph online and other press (Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA)
“芙蓉出水“ Out of the Water a Lotus Rises: The Serpentine Peter Pan Cup Christmas Day 2014 as featured in the Telegraph online and other press (Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA) #thisgirlcan

Related Posts and a Thank You

See also ‘How to feel good [nearly] naked’  about how one of the things I love most about open water swimming is that for a sport where everyone pretty much gets naked most of the time, body image feels irrelevant – I have never asked anyone if my bum looks big in my swimming costume; and celebrating women in sport in Finding Our Personal Best. Team Mel C vs Team Pendleton: The Human Race Shock Absorber Women Only Triathlon.

And last but definitely not least,  a big thank you to Jo and Pat with whom I was able to explore the link between authenticity, joy and happiness on their yoga retreat at new year.

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

Get in touch:

At A Lotus Rises we’re celebrating  women in open water, from your first splash, through to wild swims and even swimming marathons.

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

 

 

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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