Sonia O’Sullivan: Don’t be afraid to take on a new challenge
Sometimes an injury can allow us to pursue a different sporting interest
Sonia O’Sullivan: “What I decided to do instead was to step out of my comfort zone and literally jump in at the deep end.” Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
All athletes get stopped in their tracks every now and then, where the normal daily routine comes to a grinding halt.
It can be injury or illness and it very often happens when you least expect it. And it happens to us all, from those out there chasing Olympic dreams to the so-called weekend warrior. Just when you think you’ve finally found your groove the injury gremlins suddenly appear from around the corner, ready to trip you up.
You wonder was there somewhere along the line where I could’ve prevented this obstacle in the road or if this is the natural break that we refuse to give ourselves – one that our body is actually crying out for.
You almost expect these little challenges when pushing your body to the limit, when eking out as much as you can.
These days I run for fun and fitness, mixing in a little swimming and cycling. Of course running is still the dominant force, still the one that tempts me to go that little bit further, that little bit faster. I often feel I’ve got the balance right and the perfect system to satisfy my running needs.
I find when I push myself and raise my heart rate and burn energy I feel the need to refuel with clean healthy food, and with that the cycle of healthy eating and living is maintained.
But I was stopped in my tracks last week. The injury started in my foot, possibly from running on the rough surfaces of Falls Creek over the Christmas, or perhaps the long drives out there from Melbourne.
Either way it’s thrown my back out of alignment too, which means no running and no cycling for the next few weeks. In another lifetime this would have pressed all the panic buttons, but instead it simply means more time in the swimming pool.
With no running and no cycling, day after day in the pool can be mind-numbing. In some ways swimming is the least social of activities, at least while you are doing it: head in the water, only the clock on the wall for company, or maybe a smile or nod from your lane partner during those short few seconds of rest at the end of the lane.
So it felt last Monday as I was staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool, processing these thoughts, lost in my own world, before narrowly avoiding a collision with an oncoming swimmer. This jolted me to pick up the pace and next thing I’m tickling the feet of the swimmer ahead.
I still have to get my head around the etiquette of lane swimming. It would certainly never happen on a running track. And you never know what lies behind those goggles – an angry or friendly foe lapping up and down the pool?
This past week has also brought back memories of all those times I was injured during my athletics career. In those days, putting in time and effort was all I had to do, burning energy and fuelling the mind while my body healed and restored itself.
It can be a very lonely time when you’re taken away from your running partners and regular routine, losing that friendly banter, as you stare at the black line of the swimming pool floor, wishing time away.
What I decided to do instead was to step out of my comfort zone and literally jump in at the deep end. I was vaguely aware of a swimming squad, the Malvern Marlins, at the local 50m pool in Melbourne. So this week I also left the comfort of the old 25m pool and my simple regimented solo sessions to have a go with the Marlins.
With three designated lanes of swimmers I figured I’d be safe in the middle lane, although I wasn’t prepared for the mix of strokes: butterfly to backstroke to breaststroke and then back again.
It would have been easy to just do everything freestyle and save myself the fear of everyone watching as I came in floundering with the butterfly, or careering all over the lane in the backstroke, but I stuck to the plan as best I could.
Our coach Gerry was on deck with his whiteboard, reading out what was coming up next. I think swimmers are that bit nicer than runners or cyclists when it comes to learning a new skill in a training environment. I was introduced as the new swimmer, on trial for a month, and my fellow swimmers couldn’t have been more encouraging or helpful.
I never imagined I’d be able to swim the 50m butterfly stroke, up and back. And with the more butterfly efforts I also appreciated freestyle swimming in ways I never did before. It was definitely a step into another world for me. Even the language of the intervals tested me throughout the session.
But there was also laughing and chatter throughout the session, and the only time I looked at the clock was when it was time to get out: 90 minutes in the pool never went by so quickly, with no black line staring either. The old familiar hunger was there on the way home too, that feeling you get after you’ve truly filled an hour of your day with proper exercise.
It made me realise too that it’s never too late to take on a new challenge, even if you’d rather be out running or cycling.
Sometimes the body simply needs a change from the daily routine.
You never know what you might discover just by jumping in at the deep end and giving it a go.