Open Water Swimathon Training Day - Ambassador, Wanda Stockdale shares her story!

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Swimming has led me on a number of adventures and many new experiences, over the past four years, however I had never anticipated that it would see me walking through London, at half past six on a Sunday morning. One thing I don’t do, is mornings!

There also one another thing, I don’t do, but have wanted to try since I started my swimming journey in 2015, is open water swimming, aside from swimming in the sea, on holidays abroad. Only recently, I celebrated my birthday, by jumping off the back of boat, into the sea, in Cyprus. The Blue Lagoon to be precise! However, abroad, the sea is warmer and you can see what is below you.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by Swimathon offering me the opportunity to become an Ambassador for Open Water Swimathon. This gave me the push I needed. I have taken part, in the pool event, since 2016, completing the Triple 5km, challenge earlier this year. Swimathon is a great event, it provides a challenge for everyone, no matter what their swimming experience is and supports raises money for two fantastic charities that are close to me heart. I decided that I would dedicate my open water swim, to the memory of my late Grandad, who himself was an open water swimmer many years ago.

I did, what I was advised by several people, not to do, bought a swimming wetsuit on-line. On its arrival desperately tried to put it on. I dread to think what my neighbour down downstairs thought, as I crashed about my sitting room. My guinea pig, Penny, ran and hid in her house, to this day I think she is possibly still traumatised, by the experience. 

A few days later, I attended an “introduction to open water” event close to home, It was here that I was able to establish that my wetsuit did fit, though it took two people to get me in it. I was asked to swim out to a buoy, a mere 200m away. I managed all of 5m! When I looked down and could see basically nothing aside from brown murky water, anxiety took over. The familiar tiles and black line had been replaced with, basically nothing.

Despite this, I loved being in open water with no lane ropes or walls to restrict me. You certainly don’t see a seal, pop its head up, in your local swimming pool, unless of course, you’ve made a bit of an error and inadvertently mistook a Sea Life Centre for the Leisure Centre!

Ten days later saw me arriving at Stoke Newington West Reservoir, at just gone 7am, on a Sunday. My wetsuit in my bag, along with the usual swimming essentials. I stood, looking over the reservoir contemplating the fact that there was in essence, no turning back. I couldn’t do, what I had considered, the previous time, jump in my car and drive off or even sneakily leave and hope no would notice! After my previous open water swim, I felt nervous, as much as I had enjoyed it, the experience of looking down, seeing nothing and the anxiety that overwhelmed me made me question if I should “just stick to the pool”. The pool represented a safer, more controlled environment.

After a round of introductions from those leading the session, I was placed in the “beginner category” I headed off to get changed. Sneaking a quick look around me, I noticed that most people where put their wetsuits on, with relative ease, while there I was, still doing battle with mine. It doesn’t help that my back injury, means that my balance is pretty poor and putting my wetsuit on while standing, is courting a trip to A and E!

I made my way into the reservoir, we were asked to swim out to a buoy.  I tried, but again the anxiety of seeing nothing, took over. I felt so frustrated, that I can swim 5km in a pool, but I struggle to manage 5m in Open Water.

Jonny, from Outdoor Swimmer magazine came alongside me and with encouragement, using head up breast stroke I made it to the buoy. In doing so, he helped me to understand that my anxiety is natural and that with time and practice it will lessen. Jonny supported me back to the jetty and took me right back to the basics, putting my face in and bubble breathing.

I found this exercise really encouraging, not only did it serve as a means of getting used to putting my face in the water, when I can see very little, it also acted as reminder of the early days of my swimming journey. When I started out, the primary issue for me was that I was I had no confidence in swimming with my face, in the water. I could “swim”, but only with head up and arms flailing. It took several weeks to get used to and feel comfortable with swimming with my face in the water, now it’s second nature.  If I can achieve this, in the pool then I can achieve the same in open water. This realisation, made me determined not to flog my wetsuit and give up on open water swimming!

I acknowledge, that I will need to develop some new skills, such as sighting. I also need to get used to swimming in a wetsuit, which feels quite restrictive. I also understand that it will take time for me to get used to looking down and seeing basically nothing except the water around me and whatever might happen to live there. By the end of the session, while a more practice is still needed, I began to feel comfortable swimming in open water, I still find myself needing to stop after 10-15 strokes, to re-orientate myself, but over time I know I will gain more confidence.

I also know that I love open water swimming. Freedom has always been a big part of swimming for me, as someone who lives with a muscoskeletal condition, but without the restrictions of walls and lane ropes open water takes it to a new level. It’s absolutely amazing! 

Towards the end of the session were also offered the opportunity to try swimming, in the reservoir, without our wetsuits. I decided, given that my arthritis tends to not to react too favourably to cold, to give this a miss and remain clad in my wetsuit. However I certainly wasn’t passing off the opportunity to jump off the end of the pier, I stood at the end for a few brief seconds, before launching myself in the air and into the reservoir, in a manner that probably me met by muttered words, black looks and disconcertion, if I replicated the same actions at my local pool. Jumping in is so much fun!

I actually felt really disappointed to have to get out,  I was really enjoying myself, despite my initial anxieties and without a doubt I am hooked. Though I know Open Water Swimathon will be a challenge, it’s one I am looking forward too,

The session concluded with a question and answer session, the main thing that I took away from this is that open water swimming offers many places to explore with a wide range of swimming venues being on offer. I am so grateful that partaking in Open Water Swimathon has helped to open this door for me.