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!

 

 

Breasts, Girl Power and Sport: Becoming Team Mel C!

A few months ago I got referred for a scan on my right breast. I had been experiencing some severe pain in that area for a while and there had been some tissue change, so it was a sensible precautionary measure.

Whilst rationally I knew there could be a number of explanations, breast cancer has been, and is, a reality for a number of women in my peer group and I challenge anyone to go through that process and not let their mind wander…I burst into tears when they told me the scan was clear and walked out of the treatment room in a daze and with a strong sense of allegiance with the other women in the waiting room.

Once again, life was put in perspective.

It turns out spending a lot of time with your face down, horizontal in water in a swimming costume and running along mountain trails does make you fitter.

Face down and horizontal in water
Face down and horizontal in water

It also turns out that when you have assets of a certain measurement, without the right support, all that activity can put the muscular tissue around the breast under a lot of strain; and that was a contributing factor in the pain I had been experiencing.

Having the right support is essential. I got re-measured for a bra immediately and Shock Absorber is now my new best friend.

At the start of the Mont Blanc Cross Half Marathon last weekend and fully supported by Shock Absorber!
At the start of the Mont Blanc Cross Half Marathon last weekend and fully supported by Shock Absorber!

Not long after all that, I saw the email from Human Race about the Shock Absorber Women Only Triathlon with Breast Cancer Care at Eaton Dorney.

Unsurprisingly, it resonated with me, and when I saw the competition to be part of team Melanie C’s triathlon relay team, it was too good an opportunity to miss!

I have never won a competition before (unless you count the can of shandy I won on a scratch card back in 1986), so it was extra specially exciting to get the call from Human Race, letting me know I had been successful.

To say I am proud to have been chosen as the swimmer for team Melanie C is an understatement.

She is a Spice Girl, which is mind-blowing, but more than that I love her strength and positive attitude. She’s also not just ‘sporty’, but an accomplished athlete.

A couple of weeks ago, on what rates as one of the most surreal days of my life, I was introduced to Melanie C for the first time live on the One Show. I also got to meet Kelly Koya who is the lovely cyclist on our team.

The One Show: Team Mel C meets for the first time!

 

I read recently that 1/3 of young girls believe exercise is socially unacceptable.

Talking to Kelly and Melanie about how exciting and rewarding sport can be, it’s really sad to read statistics like that. But it’s a reality and one that has to change – women’s health and well-being depends on it.

Team Mel C triathlon training with Kelly Koya
Team Mel C triathlon training with Kelly Koya

One of the reasons for such statistics, is that young girls and women can feel self-conscious and nervous about doing sport.

On The One Show, Melanie C talked about that and how the women only triathlon is an opportunity for women of all ages, shapes and sizes to experience sport in a fun and social environment. I am so proud to be part of that!

Sport empowers, but it’s very true that getting started (then re-started and restarted again in my case…) can be intimidating.

When I exercise, my face goes bright red, and I sweat – a lot – and sometimes when I am trail running snot runs from my nose (it has been known to happen when swimming too…)

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

Many years ago I had a pretty athletic figure and whilst it’s in the process of making a comeback, I felt incredibly awkward when I started exercising again: Unable to jog for 10 minutes and so very conscious of the cushioning I had acquired shifting over my natural frame, my thoughts raced across a spectrum of insecurity and frustration at how I had ‘let myself go’, through to pride and excitement at being on a healthier path and feeling just a little bit like Jessica Ennis…

It’s funny in a way that the self-conscious me back then developed such a passion for open water swimming, but as I wrote on the South East London Ladies Swimming Club blog, 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!

Swimming - it makes you happy!
Swimming – it makes you happy!

Sport, and in particular open water swimming, has changed my life and helped me meet some big challenges in the last few years. Being on Team Mel C is a wonderfully positive part of that journey and I am sure I am going to learn a lot from the experience.

I am incredibly proud to have the opportunity to race alongside Kelly, Melanie C, Team Pendleton and all the other participants on July 13th and celebrate women in sport.

From beginner to elite, whether you’re swimming, cycling, running or simply jumping up and down and shouting in support of participants –  it’s going to be a great day – I can’t wait!

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!

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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