Swim or Sink?
Blue; it is all blue. When I think about swimming, what first enters my mind is the colour. Whether I’m heading for my local pool, or daydreaming about the sea on holiday, what fills my imagination is all blue. Then there’s the smell: familiar, pungent. Rather than the salty taste of the sea, it’s usually the sour tang of chlorine in local pools, which have changed little since I first discovered swimming as a boy. The echo of old-fashioned changing rooms; the muggy warmth contrasting with the stark, sterile coldness of tiles that cover every inch of the walls, floors and the pool itself. Predominantly, though, it is all blue – even down to my towel!
The colour blue symbolises many things. For me personally, first and foremost there is my beloved football club QPR. But blue has also become an emblem of royalty, Conservatism – and male gender stereotyping. It is also the colour often used to symbolise sadness, which is a somewhat poignant dichotomy in my head: blue is associated in my mind both with the pleasure of swimming, and the challenge of balancing my mental health.
I first became aware of this symbolic connection through my experience as a dad – specifically, swimming with my daughter, which I have done since she was six months old. I still remember the time I first held her in the water: her trepidation as I lowered her into the bath-like baby pool; the feeling of my skin against hers, the water holding us, bonding us.
As she has grown up, swimming with my daughter has meant so much to me. It is my time, and to share it with her feels incredibly special. It is when we swim together, side by side, lane by lane, both in our local pool and on holidays, that I feel most connected to her. Similarly, with my son – with both my children together, in fact. They see me at my best when I’m in a swimming pool: playful, engaged, refreshed and fully present with them, focused on their enjoyment and our happiness as a family together.
Now my daughter is a teenager, and swimming with her dad is a less frequent occurrence. As I plough through the pool alone, length after length, I often glance to the side and miss her being there. Blue. Nevertheless, I keep swimming, not just for fun or fitness, but as much if not more for my mental and emotional health. The feeling of buoyancy in the water isn’t just physical: it feels almost spiritual. Indeed, if I think about the importance of Mind, Body and Spirit – the three key areas of our existence – for me, they come together most powerfully through the experience of swimming. Let me explain:
BODY: swimming is recognised as one of the best forms of exercise, facilitating cardio fitness without putting load-bearing pressure on our joints. It helps burn calories and keep our muscles toned, and it loosens our bodies, relieving the tension-related pain. My back and joints often ache when I get up in the morning, but by the time I get out of the pool, the pain is gone. For this benefit alone, I will keep on swimming for the rest of my life. But it is not my main motivation.
MIND: the positive impact on my mental and emotional wellbeing, and the chance to recharge my batteries as a dad, is the real benefit of swimming for me. It helps on so many levels:
- The sound: the muted hum in my head when I submerge between strokes and breathing during freestyle is like nothing else. There are no phones or emails, no chatter or any real noise, just an uninterrupted, semi-hypnotic hum. It is magical, almost eerie; it is a beautiful, rhythmic nothing. Just being.
- The feel: the first shock of cold as I dive in, followed by the cool rush of water across my skin. It soothes, cleanses and refreshes my mind.
- The rhythm: swimming is the perfect act of mindfulness. I focus my mind on counting laps, one at a time, staying acutely present in the moment. I allow my thoughts to wander where they will, but I never lose count. The monotony – even the boredom of repetition – is the whole point: it wipes the mind clean of clutter and allows it to fill up with thoughts, ideas, even dreams.
- The process: problems and questions that bunch into knots in my head at night will gently, gradually unravel as I swim – especially as I usually swim first thing in the morning, before the rest of my family is even fully awake. By the time I pull myself out of the pool at the end of a long swim, not only does my body feel stronger, my mind feels ready to face the day ahead.
SOUL: swimming cleanses and nourishes me; it revitalises my sense of purpose and restores my sense of self. After the stresses and strains of daily life, it helps me to shed the ‘dark’ blue and once again embrace the ‘bright’ blue: to become me all over again. Swimming has now become such an important part of my daily routine that if I don’t have the chance to get to the pool – or, as during the recent lockdown, it was closed – I find that the ‘dark’ blue can linger: the world will feel slightly muted and my thought processes, energy levels and mental verve slightly dulled.
So, swimming works for me – and if you, too, would like to discover (or rediscover) its magic, here are my top tips to find your own bright, beautiful blue:
- Start slowly and set small goals, without putting pressure on yourself
- Commit to your routine
- Free your mind: you can’t take your phone in the water!
- Always count your laps: it will help you discover and keep to your own rhythm
- Don’t stress about the getting changed thing! Wear easy-to-change clothes
- Aim to swim a couple more laps each time you go
- Be brave: get your head under the water for the full immersive sense of escape and that magic watery hum, that total meditation.
- Remember and reflect on family times – fun with your kids in the pool
- Most important – relax and enjoy!