I've been swimming since before I could walk. In fact, pretty much since before I could do anything else - Mum and Dad took me to baby swimming sessions as soon as I was allowed in the water. I don't actually remember learning to swim at all, until I was a little bit older and going to lessons on a Saturday morning to improve my stroke technique, and work through the ASA Rainbow Distance Awards and Personal Survival skills levels. I'm sure I must have all the patches and certificates in a box somewhere.
As a child I always loved being in the water, having races against friends to see who could swim the furthest underwater, and practically living in the pool when we went away on summer holidays - in fact I'm sure I have vague recollections of being ill from swallowing too much chlorinated water on occasions!
Sadly, like a lot of things, once I got a bit older and school work got more important swimming got relegated to an infrequent treat and a holiday luxury. Even at university where there was a pool on campus I think it was my second year before I managed to venture in there among all the course work and other distractions. Starting full-time work didn't help either and I soon discovered that it had literally been years since I'd been in the water, and my old pair of goggles had fallen apart where the plastic had perished. Plus I was generally so exhausted by the weekends I could never muster up the energy to do much, and certainly nothing resembling exercise.
Once I was in a stable job, and more importantly working very close to our local leisure centre (and perhaps critically beginning to struggle to fit in my clothes), I made a commitment to look after my physical health more, so as well as eating more healthily, I started going swimming every week on a Friday after work.
I absolutely loved it! After the first few rusty weeks of remembering how to co-ordinate my limbs into effective strokes I wondered why on earth I'd left it so long to do something I always remembered loving. That's the trouble when life gets in the way I suppose.
Yes, I got fitter and lost weight and found a satisfying sense of tiredness from the physical exertion, but more importantly, I found swimming was working wonders for my mental frame of mind too. That half an hour to 45 minutes in the water on a Friday afternoon was my decompression time to let go of all the stresses of the week, to clear my head, so that I could go home and look forward to enjoying my weekend with enough energy to do other things.
I kept that up (almost) every week for a whole year. Then my job changed. I started having to spend more time in London or travelling around the area, so getting to the pool on a Friday afternoon wasn't always practically possible - but it felt like such a treat when I did make it. Eventually the habit slipped away again as work stress mounted, and it wasn't until later last year after I'd left my job that I found the time and enthusiasm to struggle into my swimming costume again and get in the water.
And then the pool was closed for three months while urgent repairs were made to the roof! So that was the winter gone and it wasn't until the new year that I was able to start rekindling my weekly habit.
Now I'm going regularly again I'm noticing just how much of a positive difference swimming makes for me. It's a gentle and supportive exercise that helps me strengthen joints and muscles and manage aches and pains. I'm noticing that I'm able to keep going for longer, to maintain my breathing, and I'm sure my technique is getting a tune-up too. I still love it for the time and space it gives me to relax mentally, sometimes to not think at all and sometimes to work through an issue without other distractions. Most of the time it's a mindful practice of concentrating on my breath, filling my lungs as I raise my head, and watching and hearing the bubbles flow past my face and ears as I exhale with my head under the surface. When I'm really in a rhythm there isn't much space in my head for thoughts or worries if all I need to focus on is breathing in and out, in and out, and moving my body steadily through the water, arms and legs pushing and pulling, stroking and kicking.
What I love most though, is that since April the leisure centre declares it the 'summer season' which means they open the outdoor pool! Oh but this is wonderful, so now not only do I get to have my weekly swim, but I get to do it out in the fresh air with a big sky above me. I have and will swim in the sea if the opportunity arises (although not around the UK - far too blinkin' freezing!), but having a place where I can swim in the open right the way through to October feels like the biggest treat, and I'll make a point of going in the outdoor pool even on a colder and rainy day - the water's heated and I'm wet already so what difference does it make!
Swimming without a roof above your head is a wonderfully spacious experience - quite literally, I'm aware of not being closed in, of being open to the elements and all that delicious fresh air. It also makes the water behave differently, even in a swimming pool a stiff breeze will create small waves and cross-currents that challenge the body to stay on course. The most beautiful to me though is how sunlight plays on the water, the ripples creating shapes in light and shadow beneath the surface and across my skin. To any little girl who ever dreamed of being a mermaid, swimming under sunlit water as the light sparkles above you is truly magical. Then to rest with my face to the sun, gently warming me as I breathe in fresh air, instead of the stuffy humidity of indoors, feels utterly decadent.
Swimming gives me so much - physical exercise, a mental break, time outdoors, but really it's that full combined package that is the greatest gift. For someone who struggles to sit still, swimming provides a moving meditation. For someone with chronic aches and pains from occupational injuries and the physical manifestation of stress, it gives gentle support. For a highly sensitive person who can be easily overwhelmed by the noise and bustle around her, it gives space and quiet to reset. For a childhood water-baby it brings back happy memories. And for me - the real, true me who is trying to find her way on this journey of life, it provides time to just be, to connect with myself, to listen to what's going on in my body, my heart and my mind, and to find clarity about the next step.