Week One: Our swimmers take the plunge

Every week, you will hear from The Irish Times journalists who have taken the challenge to Swim for a mile

Irish Times (soon-to-be) swimmers Laurence Mackin, Malachy Clerkin, Rachel Collins and Orna Mulcahy at training. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Irish Times (soon-to-be) swimmers Laurence Mackin, Malachy Clerkin, Rachel Collins and Orna Mulcahy at training. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


As we kick-start out Get Swimming campaign, a team of Irish Times journalists have agreed to take to the water and take up the Swim Ireland Swim For A Mile challenge in 12 weeks.

Follow their exploits in Health+Family every week and online at irishtimes.com/getswimming where you can also sign up to ... Get Swimming! In April, you too can take the ‘Swim for a Mile’ challenge.

Come on, take the plunge.

Malachy (boggle-eyed breather) Clerkin

Years ago, I went on a skiing holiday. And as with most first-time ski holidayers, the first two days of it were a falling down holiday, a spitting snow holiday, a sweating and slipping and careering holiday. It was only when we got a new instructor on the third day that it clicked. “You need to learn to turn,” she said. “If you can turn, you can ski.”

I come to the ‘Swim for a Mile’ challenge not quite the novice I was as a skier, which is my first mistake. “Swim a length there,” says Peter The Coach. I swim a length as though Ian Thorpe, The Hoff and Jaws himself were chasing me. “Yeah,” muses PTC. “You like to try and get it done as quickly as possible, don’t you?”

The problem is that while I can swim a length handy enough, swimming for a mile calls for 64 lengths. This has to be slow-cooked rather than flash-fried. And for that to happen, I need to learn how to breathe. To turn is to ski, to breathe is to swim.

The problem is, I breathe frantically. Desperately. Maniacally. It’s not so much that I gulp in air as though fearful every one will be my last, it’s more that I hoover it in as if I know for certain that this will be the last breath taken by any human this side of armageddon.

I am a boggle-eyed breather, making a holy show of myself every time my head comes up out of the water. My legs stop kicking, my body starts sinking, my head follows it downwards and I start slurping in water. And there are 63½ lengths to go.

“Turn your head to the side, look back at your shoulder, breathe,” says PTC.

Yeah, like it’s that easy.

Rachel (no more excuses) Collins

To completely mangle Stevie Smith’s poem, ‘flailing but not drowning’ best describes my swimming style. Childhood summers spent happily shivering through water safety classes at the Pier in Tramore (wetsuit? What’s a wetsuit?) have turned me into a very successful ‘not-drowner’, but ask me to swim lengths of a pool and I become a sploshy mix of gulping, flailing arms, and what is that thing I do with my left leg?

I’ve been threatening to do adult lessons for years. I want to be “a swimmer”. Friends who can legitimately claim the title emerge from the sea ruddy cheeked and glowing. Other healthy-looking sods drop “oh, I just did 30 lengths before breakfast” into conversation.

I want some of that action.

I have no excuses for my laziness, and yet I have made ALL of them. Not enough time (a lie), don’t have the right gear (bought it, it sat in a drawer), no pool near my house (eh, there’s one next door to work, Rachel) or my most recent gem: “Sure I can’t be coming back to the office with wet hair” (yes, that one was met with much eye-rolling from colleagues).

But now, I’m told, I’ll be swimming a mile, weird left-leg thing and all. Peter Conway, our incredibly enthusiastic Swim Ireland coach, tells me there’s no reason I can’t achieve this. I’ll have twice weekly lessons, a training plan. There’s even a What’s App group to keep me in check.

Drat. I’ve run out of excuses.

Luckily, just as my pathetic excuses scooted out the door, the perfect motivation ambled in.

My mother celebrates a special birthday this September. Mad woman that she is, she announced over Christmas that to mark this occasion, my family – all seven of us, one more competitive than the next – will take part in the Kilkenny triathlon this year. All of us. Together. Or more accurately, pitted against each other to the death.

So now I not only want, but need to become “a swimmer”.

And I have 12 weeks to do it.

Laurence (of noble navy tradition) Mackin

Look, I’m going to be honest here: I can’t swim.

Yes, I’ve been surfing in several countries (that doesn’t mean I can do that either). I know I told the fella that gave me the free-diving lessons that I “would be grand” in the sea (thank Neptune for the added buoyancy of wetsuits). Yes, the stand-up paddle boarding had its intrinsic calm, Zen appeal sharpened a little by the potential for disaster just two inches to my left and right. And jumping off that boat off the coast of Turkey into the deep blue younder might not have been the best idea in the world. But did you see the colour of the water? And you have to admit that dive was pretty sharp? The terrifying struggle to surface and dog-like paddle to the shore somewhat less so.

But look I’ve gotten this far and I haven’t died yet. Yes, I know my father was in the merchant navy for years and is currently a pilot for Dundalk harbour. And perhaps my lack of being able to swim is just one of the many shameful family secrets I really should keep in the closet with our favourite skeletons instead of printing them here for financial gain. (Editor’s note: You’re not getting paid. )

But isn’t there a fine and noble tradition of hardy sea-faring men (and their lazy offspring) not being able to swim for fear of offending the sea gods? (Editor’s note: No, there most certainly isn’t.) And doesn’t the whole not being able to stay afloat like a normal adult/ordinary child make every trip to the seaside as exciting as a rollercoaster ride?

Oh god. You’re going to make me learn how to swim, aren’t you? And just what makes you think you’ll succeed where others, my father included, have failed?

Two words: Peter Conway. Game on.

Orna (slightly shocked) Mulcahy

I thought I could swim. The deep end doesn’t faze me, nor does the open sea, and on holidays I wallow in swimming pools and do water aerobics with the best of them.

All the while keeping my head well clear of the water so as not to ruin my hair.

As it turns out, that’s not really swimming. It’s just faffing around and getting a stiff neck into the bargain.

“Just put your head in and breath out,” Peter Conway, our coach from Swim Ireland tells me. More in shock than anything else, I do it.

It’s day one of our programme to take the Swim for a Mile challenge and I’m looking down a 25-metre lane. There are four of us in the group and the other three are good, strong swimmers. Competitive with it. And young. So no way was I going to bleat on about hair. Down goes my head, off I go, and for the first time in decades of swimming I actually get it.

You breathe OUT under water.

Bubbles burst out from the mouth and nose. It feels amazing! And then it’s time to surface and all hell breaks loose. Quick, breathe in any old way. Water cascades in and feeling my throat burns brings me straight back to long ago swimming lessons in Marian College.

I thrash about and finally make it to the end of the lane, completely out of breath and frankly scared.

A mile equals 64 lengths of this pool. I’ve an awful lot to learn.

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