‘It’s a colossal relief to finish. I feel 10 feet tall’

Orna Mulcahy

The day has finally arrived and, frankly, I'm dreading it. After 12 weeks' training with Swim Ireland coach Peter Conway, the one-mile challenge – 64 lengths of the 25-metre pool – seems do-able. Just not today. I want another week, preferably another month, of lessons, or at the very least another hour in bed.

“You’ll be grand,” says Peter, whose mantra all along has been “look how far you’ve come”. Back in January I hadn’t been able to swim a single length of the 25-metre pool without coughing and spluttering and sinking.

My swimming style was all about keeping my face and hair out of the water, and I had no idea about the whole breathing bit. But we dealt with that in lesson one. "Just put your head down under the water now and swim," said Peter, and I did. It felt awful, but I got used to it, very slowly and with a lot of practice.

As well as the two-hour long session with Peter, I began swimming every weekday, and then at weekends too. I got more used to looking down at the bottom of the pool and continuing all the way to the end, and then back again. My strokes lengthened somehow and my push-offs took me further. Every so often Peter would tell me I had a “lovely stroke” .


What was amazing was to watch the rest of the group progress. Saturday Magazine editor Rachel Collins forged ahead of us and graduated into a different group, leaving us behind. Then arts editor Laurence Mackin, who started out in January like some mad thrashing creature in the water, transformed into a swimmer of great style and stamina. Sports writer Malachy Clerkin started out as a one-lap man but, by the end, was racing up and down the pool, barely stopping to draw breath.

Some of the best times were spent hanging onto each end of the pool, cursing among ourselves. The thing about swimming is that you can have a great day’s training and think you’re really getting there, that you’re actually a good swimmer, and then the next it can all go wrong; you’re out of breath for no reason at all, and you get very tired.

We all went through that, and, all I can say is, thanks guys for the cursing and the encouragement. Practising alone is no fun. It was great to be part of a group and to share stories of how just how bad we were, and how great everyone else seemed to be.

We started watching the other swimmers underwater for tips. Everyone has a different underwater style that can range from the elegant to the downright bizarre, like the man I’d encounter every so often whose stroke ended in an underwater, full fist downward punch, or the woman with amazing flappy hands who moved like a rocket.

Pool etiquette

There's the whole question of pool etiquette, especially in open pools where people are swimming at a more leisurely pace. I was lucky enough to be training in a recreational pool that was often cluttered up with canoodling couples and other swimmers who would see you snapping on your goggles as a challenge to beat you to the end and back. Oh, it can get very childish.

But to the big day: we find ourselves poolside with Peter and a team from Swim Ireland. There are others swimming alongside us, and oh my God, is that Sonia O’Sullivan? There she is in her togs, taking part too. Matt Cooper from Today FM appears in the lane beside me, and says he did the challenge four times last year. But no more time for chatting.

We’re off. Any sense of style goes out the window. I just swim, any old way, for what seems like a long time, but then realise only 10 minutes have passed. So I stop watching the clock. At the 800-metre mark, Peter says, “That’s the hard bit over.” But unfortunately it isn’t.

Two hundred metres later I’m feeling faint and sorry for myself. Others are passing me out and good luck to them. Will this ever be over?

But, amazingly, Peter’s telling me I’ve just 100 metres to go. I’m able to summon up a little speed and flourish for the finish. I just do it.

My target was to finish in an hour, but I do a bit better than that. It's a colossal relief to finish. I feel about 10 feet tall.

Orna Mulcahy

Orna Mulcahy

Orna Mulcahy, a former Irish Times journalist, was Home & Design, Magazine and property editor, among other roles