‘This challenge hasn’t been easy . . . but I can’t recommend it enough’
When Rachel Collins agreed to take the Swim for a Mile challenge, it seemed a long way off...
Every day is a school day for our swimmer Rachel Collins. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
Rachel CollinsI firmly believe every day is a school day. Working in a newspaper, you find yourself dealing with new ideas, information and people on a daily basis – always room for a little learnin’. But picking up a new skill – one that involves teaching your body to do things it doesn’t necessarily want to – is a whole other ball game. Or pool game, as it turns out.
When the Health + Family editor asked us (okay, ordered us) before Christmas to take part in the Swim For A Mile challenge, it was one of those easy, far-away things that you agree to, never really considering the consequences. How hard could it be? Sure we’ll find out next year, we laughed. And then promptly forgot all about it.
Fast forward to a cold January afternoon and the four shivering, pasty-skinned souls standing on the side of Trinity College swimming pool, studiously avoiding looking at each other, weren’t laughing quite so hard. [Sidenote: seeing your colleagues – and boss – in swimming togs is very disconcerting the first, oh, dozen times. Over time, you become weirdly blind to their, and your, nakedness. I can’t decide if this is healthy or strange.]
What followed was three months crammed with school days. And just like the real school days, we learned a lot, made new friends – a few crafty souls joined the programme without having to document their exploits – some days were mind-numbingly boring, others were laugh-out-loud hilarious, and then there were days when we all wanted to hide in bed and pretend it wasn’t happening.
But it was happening, and as our D-Day loomed closer, we did the swimming equivalent of exam prep – grinds, cramming, panicked wobbles, the lot.
I think the thing that surprised me most about the challenge was just how much you can achieve in three months. We all went from floppy-limbed pool water-drinkers to confident, capable swimmers. This is entirely down to the training we received from our coach, Peter Conway from Swim Ireland.
Swimming isn’t like running or yoga or football. In those sports you ask your body to move a little faster, or bend a little further, or kick a little harder. But essentially they’re all movements you unconsciously do in your everyday life (except the kicking part, I hope. Calm down on the kicking).
But swimming asks a lot more of you. So much of what you’re doing feels unnatural that there’s a constant battle for survival in the early stages. A snarky running commentary between your body and your brain plays on a loop:
Brain: “Put your face in the water.”
Body: “What? Are you mad? How will I breathe?”
Brain: “You’ll be grand, just do it. Now kick your legs. No, that’s too hard. No, that’s too soft . . .”
Body: “Listen here Goldilocks, now’s not the time for fairy tales.”
Brain: “Ah you’re hilarious. But while you’re making wise cracks you’ve forgotten what you were doing haven’t you? And now there’s water up your nose.”
Body: “Splutter, cough, gasp. Okay, okay you win. Let’s start again.”
And on, and on, and on it goes . . . until you realise you don’t hear it any more. And for all of us, in our own time, this fight did stop. It will for you, too, if you stick with your 12-week programme (irishtimes.com/getswimming). And before you know it, you will have miraculously become a swimmer.
Day of challengeD-Day came, and apart from a few nerves, everyone flew through their mile – much faster than any of us had expected to. You can’t beat a good dose of adrenaline it turns out. Seeing Sonia O’Sullivan (is there anything that woman can’t do?) zoom through her lengths also concentrated the mind.
Some of us did a second mile the next day in the 50m pool in the National Aquatic Centre. For me, this was the one I had been focusing on, and although I found it harder, and it took longer – a whole six minutes longer – I was chuffed to have finished it.
The Swim For A Mile challenge is an annual event. The next series begins in January 2017, but you don’t need to wait until then to get started in the pool.
You can find details of your local pool at swimireland.ie, and there’s also lots of useful information on swimming coaches and classes.
It’s a cheap, easy way to exercise; you need minimal gear (although I would recommend paying a few quid extra for some good goggles), and after a few lessons you’ll be able to practise in your own time. There are no injuries to worry about, so you are never too old, too unfit, too out of shape to swim.
This challenge hasn’t been easy, but it’s been incredibly rewarding, and learning a new skill has proved immensely satisfying. I can’t recommend it enough. I’d been making noises and excuses about taking swimming lessons for years, so if you’re even half-way tempted, give it a go. You can find details at swimforamile.comSo now what? Well, there are rumblings about doing an outdoor mile this August. That’s a whole other kind of swimming apparently, and I’m not entirely sure how I’ve been roped into it. Back to school for me.
Will I never learn?