What Do We Think About When We Swim?
A few years ago, I was interviewed with other ice swimmers by ARA, the Catalan newspaper, on what we think about when we swim. The resulting article (in Catalan) started with a story I told them on swimming in Yosemite National Park and I thought that it was time to publish and update the whole interview so that I could share it in English.
Unlike running or cycling, swimming is a rather lonely activity as you’re immersed in the water. This means that your mind spends a lot of time going places, sometimes bad places, mostly good places or blank places. What’s going on in everybody’s head when they swim? Everybody’s answer will be different and I’d love to hear from others on this topic. This was the interview.
What Do You Think About When You Swim?
When I swim, I spend a lot of time writing and rewriting text. It can be a blog post, a plot twist in my book, a marketing message for my company. It can even be a letter to a friend, letter that I never actually write and that fades as I dry myself out of the water. My mind is incredibly busy when I’m on a long course that nothing interrupts. Some people sing in their head, some memorize poetry. I’d love to do that but I’ve got no memory for lines. However, writing I can and swimming is a great time for my brain to get creative. No phone calls, no emails, no social media. It’s a time when I can unplug completely and let my mind go free.
Of course when I swim in the winter and the water is (very) cold, I spend quite a lot of time telling myself “Shit, this is cold” or “Another 100m, almost there” or “Can I feel my fingers? Yes, I can. Carry on.” But most of the time when the water temperature makes a long swim tolerable or pleasant, it’s really lovely to think about all the things you don’t spend time on during the day.
I don’t feel sad but depending on the environment, I can feel scared. When I swam the English Channel with my relay team, I swam at night and each time the boat’s lights shone on me, they also illuminated thousands of tiny white specks floating in the water. I felt like I was swimming in a plankton soup and that was odd as it was messing up with my appreciation of distance. It was always the same plankton soup and it was so literally in my face that I didn’t enjoy it. I much preferred to swim in the dark and tried to swim out of the light to not see ahead of me. Indeed in the middle of the English Channel, it gets very dark without light pollution and when you swim, you can’t really tell where the water ends and the sky starts. Blurred lines, eh?
Another time, I spotted a huge jellyfish down below and that really freaked me out. I wasn’t afraid of being stung but I was afraid of heights and seeing a jellyfish roughly 20 meters below made me realize how much deeper the Channel was. Ironic, being afraid of heights when you swim. But generally, my mood is very creative and when I get into a nice rhythm, that’s when I write really great stuff. The only problem is that it all disappears as soon as I get out of the water and start drying myself. It’s like a daydream interrupted.
How Do You Prepare Psychologically to Swim in Cold Water?
I usually feel something close to stage fright on the night or hours before the event but right before swimming, my mind settles down and I become very quiet and focused. If I know that the water will be very cold, my mind goes blank to forget about the temperature and focus on the water. I just block out my thermal sensors mentally and go in, no questions asked. It’s actually better not to know what the temperature is ahead of getting in.
I’m not sure that I prepare much at all but I focus as much as possible on the elements I can control. The water temperature is out of my hands, so to speak, so I look at the swim course, the colour of the water, how clear it is or not, the noises around and I look for an end goal or at least, a turning point. Open water can be very intimidating that way, it never ends.
What Are the Main Differences between Swimming in Cold and Hot Water?
I pay a lot more attention to my stroke and my body in cold water. I am very aware of my surroundings. I know to look for signs of hypothermia and it’s always in the back of my mind. My fingers ache after I swim too long in cold water, they swell too and that usually makes me get out quite fast as it’s unpleasant.
In warm water, I know that I can swim as long as I want and that the only limit is the one I set. In cold water, my body sets the limits.
How Important is for you to swim in an open, natural space?
Very. Swimming inside is not as therapeutic. I love to swim under open skies outside. Sometimes it will be very wild, like a mountain lake, other times it will be more urban, like a river that goes through the city, but I love the freedom that you enjoy by swimming outside without having to follow black lines, swimming lanes or the speed of other swimmers.
It’s basically you and only you, with perhaps a few ducks, fish or other aquatic friends. I also love watching trees from the water or swimming through a whole field of blooming water lilies. Open water experiences can be so varied, it’s a wonderful way to experience the world.
How Does It Affect Your Health, Your Mood or Your Life?
I am proud to report that I can’t remember my last cold or flu. Definitely over two years ago. My spring allergies have improved as well. Swimming outside exposes my body to homeopathic doses of pollen, allergens and germs, which means that I progressively build up immunity over the season. I definitely feel great after swimming and I swim every week of the year, regardless of the weather.
I’m always fit (or I feel like I am) and if the sun is shining, it’s even better. Swimming has also greatly improved a lower back problem. With two spilled discs, I used to have excruciating bouts of sciatica but building up muscle in my core and my back has definitely helped manage the problem and I am – for the time being – lower back pain-free.
Why Did You Start Swimming?
I grew up in New Caledonia, on a tropical island, so swimming was pretty much a daily activity for me as a child. My mother would pick us up, my brothers and I after school, and drove us to the beach where we spent the rest of the day. Since Sundays were dedicated to exploring neighboring islands and snorkeling, swimming was definitely part of our lifestyle.
I moved to France and Thailand in my teens and early adult years, and body image issues helping, I stopped swimming. Sure, I went to the beach but I didn’t do laps or see it as an activity. When I moved to California in 2001, I picked it up again as a personal challenge. I wasn’t a very good swimmer but I wanted to prove to myself that I could complete a swim from Alcatraz and I did my first escape from Alcatraz in 2009.
Do You Feel Addicted to It?
I miss it when I don’t swim so I always try to have swimming opportunities nearby.
What Does Swimming Give You That It’s Exclusive of This Sport and You Can’t Find in Others?
Swimming is incredibly accessible to all ages and all shapes. The oldest swimmer in my club is 82 years old and he swims every week through the winter. We also have swimmers with missing limbs or formerly injured swimmers. You don’t have to be very fit to do it but once you can swim, it opens up so many possibilities. All you need is a swimming costume, goggles and the water is yours. You can swim anywhere if you are careful.
What Is Its Magic?
It’s magic to float in water and not feel gravity pull you down. It’s magic to be able to exercise outside and be healthy doing something fun. It’s magic when you lose track of time and for a split second, you’re just connected to the water and nothing else matters.
Can You Tell Us an Anecdote; Funny, Curious, Amazing that Happened To You While Swimming?
In 2009, I decided to swim the length of a mountain lake called Tenaya Lake in the Yosemite National Park with my friend Christine. The swim was about a mile and the lake being at high altitude (8,150ft/2,484m), so the water would be cold. Back then, I was not a regular cold water swimmer and got cold even wearing a Farmer John wetsuit. We went to the Ranger Station at Tuolumne Meadows. Nobody had swam across the lake to their knowledge and the rangers had no guidance to offer to us. Thinking common sense, we just looked at a map, picked a start and end point, a vague route in between and that was that.
About two thirds through, I noticed sticks in the water. There was an underwater forest in the lake and as a hiker, I had of course never noticed it! It was invisible above the surface. One of the trees barely showed at the surface and I didn’t see it coming until I was literally within arm’s reach. It freaked the hell out of me as I extended my hand and saw this super long leave-less tree that seemed to go way deep in the lake. I definitely picked up the pace and though it always comes as a surprise, I now know to look for unexpected underwater obstacles!
Your turn now. What do you think about when you swim?