I did it! I had set a goal for myself of doing a 10k, or marathon swim, this summer. I fell somewhat behind on adding distance each week, but I was doing decent weekly totals. I had experimented with drinks and snacks, and had a good idea of what I would need. My best swim buddy had told me a few years ago that if I could swim 5 or 6 k, I could do 10, and knew I had that solid base of conditioning. Then I got scared.
Why? This was my own personal goal with no expectations of speed or fundraising or any other external pressures. Except that I was afraid I would fail in front of the friends who have been so supportive about doing this. Last week, I told one friend that I might just go and do it at my local pond when no-one was paying attention. So this week, that is exactly what I did.
On Thursday I rode my bike to the pond, and coated as much of my back and shoulders as I could reach with diaper rash cream. It looks ridiculous but it is better for the environment than sunscreen. Then I laid out four bottles of various liquids (tea, a juice, honey and water mixture, and plain water) plus a packaged of golf ball-sized energy bites and a banana on the rocks at the edge of the beach, convinced myself to stop hyperventilating and started to swim.
I went around and around in circles 29 times before the pond closed at 2 pm. I stopped about every 2 loops for a drink, and every kilometre or two for an energy ball. I ate my banana after loop 14, which was my estimated half-way point. It took 5 hours and 23 minutes, but I swam 10.5 km. Most was freestyle, but I did switch to breaststroke from time to time to rest my shoulders and back.
I felt great! I could have gone further, had there been more time. 12 km felt completely within my abilities. My strokes were still regular, smooth, and strong. I was sore, but not in great pain.
So what’s next? I may try another 10 in the river, with friends, now that I don’t have the fear of failure. I may just do shorter swims and shift my focus to a cycling goal.
Or I may go back to my Alice Dearing and FINA watch. The Olympics have started. The women’s marathon swim is scheduled for August 3rd. Will FINA allow Dearing to wear the Soul Cap after banning it because “there is no demand”? What will she use instead? I have been checking for updates daily, but there is still no word on this.
FINA has reportedly apologized for the exclusion and invited Soul Cap to reapply for approval in September. Too late #FINA. Dearing and other athletes with voluminous hair that grows up should be able to use a #Soulcap now, rather than caps designed for Caucasian hair. If you really were concerned about inclusion, you would use the opportunity of the Olympics to encourage Black swimmers, by allowing a cap designed for their needs.
Not the fear that open water swimmers might feel about sharks, jellyfish, tides, weeds, or snapping turtles. This is the fear that open water swimmers might have too much fun. Or start a lawsuit. Or something. It is rapidly becoming a trend and I am not happy.
First up, Walden Pond, the idyllic home of philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Last week, state legislators in Massachusetts banned open water swimming there, as part of an effort to address water safety following a spate of drownings across the state. Of note, I could not find reports of any drownings at Walden Pond itself. Thankfully, as of July 9, open water swimmers will be allowed back in, only at times when there are no lifeguards on duty, and only if using a swim float (which most already do).
Then we have the Cam, where people have been swimming at least since the time of the poet Byron in the early 1800s. Technically, Grantchester Meadows, the access area, is owned by King’s College Cambridge, but they are managed by the local council as public space. King’s College abruptly put up no swimming signs last week, as they said their legal advice was that “use at own risk” was insufficient. Again, no evidence of actual drownings. Following another outcry and 18,000 signature petition (known as the peasants’ revolt) the decision was reviewed but the ban will stay.
A spokesperson for the university stated “We have every wish to temper the language of ‘no swimming’ to a less prohibitive form of words, but feel unable to do so without the express support of the [district and parish] councils and their health and safety officers. We hope they will be willing to co-operate on this and bring the ‘ban’ to end.” But it will not officially reinstate swimming unless its insurers agree the college is not liable should anyone be injured while swimming. Meanwhile, there are no plans for lifeguards, patrols, or any of the normal provisions to increase water safety.
The Hampstead Ponds near London are former water reservoirs, originally dug in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are three separate swimming ponds: for women, men and mixed. Access to ponds has been cost-free since at least the 1920s; though a fee had been charged since 2005, payment was not enforced. Last year, a mandatory payment system was put in place, and prices more than doubled (and were subsequently raised again).
Some free swims were still available, but times did not align with when low cost public transit was available, which meant those with mobility issues or low incomes could not benefit. According to the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association (KLPA), the ladies’ pond had historically provided a sanctuary for women and girls, including those with disabilities, victims of violence and abuse, and those from faith groups that demand modesty, but the new charging system was proving exclusionary for many people. Even before the most recent price rise this year, the KLPA conducted a survey of 600 swimmers and that found the charges had affected affordability for 58% of them. As a result, more than half now swim less often and 25% can no longer afford to swim at all.
Closer to home, several lakes managed by the National Capital Commission (NCC) and used by open water swimmers for many years are now under new rules that limit the ability of open water swimmers to train. At Meech Lake, the most popular spot, parking hours have been shortened, and swimmers must either swim along lanes marked by buoys, or within 30 metres of the shore. This seems to be counterproductive, since one of the main issues noise complaints – until now, most swimmers have preferred to stay nearer the centre of the lake). Swimmers must wear a colourful cap and a float, which most already do.
The conflict arose because of complaints by homeowners about noise and traffic on the main lake late at night. I can’t speak for all swimmers, but all those I know prefer to swim early in the day, so I suspect swimmers are getting the blame for other partiers. But really, it seems to be boiling down to the NCC’s unwillingness to uphold its mandate of protecting the ecology of the area. Why are all these new monster homes and powerboats being allowed? What will it take to stop power boats from traveling at speed through the designated swim lanes? So far, complaints to the NCC, supported by photos and videos, have not been effective. But there is an active alliance of open water swimmers on Facebook that is working hard to make the best of the situation.
And just down the street from my house, we have the Pond. It has always been an elitist spot. When I first started swimming there, I was questioned about how long I had lived in the area. It was nice to be able to say “25 years”, but it would have been nicer to have known about this closely guarded secret much earlier. I found out about it because my son hung out with the rich kids and mentioned it. It only became popular after a local blogger spilled the beans.
The swimming hours are from 7am to 2pm, supposedly because it is a conservation area. But really, turtles and herons can’t tell time. It is more about keeping out potentially rowdy teenagers who don’t wake up before noon.
Now, thanks to complaints about overcrowding, one or two Bylaw officers are at the beach every single day, to keep the numbers down to 10 in the changing area and 10 on the beach. I just love seeing my tax dollars at work (insert sarcasm emoji here).
As one of my friends said, “In every one of these cases, the increased access to information has in many ways just underscored how actively shitty so many people are.” Keep on shining a light on inequity and fight on for access to public swimming spaces, my friends!
Last week, FINA (the world governing body for swimming) rejected an application by Soul Cap to have their caps authorized for the Olympics. The reason given was that they do not conform to the natural form of the head and no athletes “need caps of such size”. Really? The application was brought forward because Alice Dearing, a UK swimmer and co-founder of the Black Swimming Association, had just qualified for the Olympics. She has natural hair and swims using a Soul Cap to accommodate her hair.
Soul Caps were developed after the two founders decided to take swimming lessons as adults and discovered there was a big demand for caps that accommodate Black hair. Black hair tends to be more easily damaged by chlorine, it is more voluminous because it is curly, and many wear styles associated with their heritage, such as braids and dreadlocks.
Historically, there has been a lot of systemic discrimination against Black swimmers, and larger caps such as Soul Caps are just one small piece of getting kids (and adults) into the water and learning a sport that can literally save their lives. But they aren’t just for recreational and learn-to-swim programs; they are worn by competitive swimmers around the world. Let me repeat that FINA: they are worn by competitive swimmers around the world. Claiming that there is no demand is simply nonsense.
FINA’s ruling has sparked a huge backlash in the swimming community and the media. There have been petitions, many critical articles, and much commentary on social media. The good news is that FINA seems to be backing down. It has promised to review the ruling, but there are only three weeks left until the competitions begin. I’ll be watching closely.
In an article on how burqini bans prevent Muslim women from enjoying the health benefits of swimming, I found this: “A woman playing a sport and using her body for her own pleasure and power is transgressive. Historically, a woman doing this, especially if it falls into public space, has been met with resistance. Violent, verbal, all forms of resistance.” – Victoria Jackson, sports historian and clinical assistant lecturer of history at Arizona State University.
In Hydromania, an essay by Robin Jarvis, we have “In the eighteenth century, cold water bathing, largely for medicinal purposes, became increasingly popular, and this trend was accelerated and transformed by the Romantic cult of wild nature. Swimming was now deemed productive of a range of bodily, mental, and spiritual pleasures; at the same time, it was a source of anxiety on multiple grounds and held a transgressive potential.” I’m guessing the transgressions related to the activities reported in Victorian-era Ramsgate, a seaside resort in England, where, according to a local journalist quoted in The New Yorker, “the men gambol about in a complete state of nature, and the ladies frolic in very questionable bathing garments within a few yards of them.”
Roger Deakin, and his book Waterlog, are widely credited with the current upsurge in open water swimming, which is transgressive in that many open water swimmers push back against privatization of waterways and water access, environmental degradation, and government overreach in regulating swimming activities.
I see this in my local swimming environment, where an association of swimmers has been formed to negotiate access to a popular lake; open-water swimming has been a popular activity in that government-owned park for decades, but some of the cottage owners are pushing to remove their rights. So far, we have managed to secure swimming “lanes” marked by buoys in two areas, with anyone swimming outside those lanes required to stay within 30 metres of the shore. All must wear a swim float and bright cap. The last two are not bad things, but weren’t really necessary until one cottager decided to bring in a speedboat and use it recklessly.
I have chosen to stay away from that lake for now, because the reduced hours combined with more limited swimming areas make it a less viable option to get in longer swims on a schedule that works for me. Instead, I swim in the river, where there are three marinas and several spots for seadoo launches. Last year, that river spot was mostly for me and a few friends. This year, there are many more individuals, plus swim club training groups and even a water polo team. As I do my laps from the beach to the nearest marina to a channel marker and back, I wonder what the sailboat owners think about all those swimmers taking up what was formerly their exclusive space.
A couple of weeks ago, this question came up as some of my friends and I were swimming. None of us are particularly large, but definitely at the top end of size ranges for most manufacturers (40-42 European, or 14-16 Canadian). Often, it is a luxury to be able to pick a suit because you like the colours rather than madly clicking away to get it in your shopping cart before someone else does. Supplies are extremely limited even though we are pretty sure there is a huge demographic (pun intended) that swimsuit companies are missing out on.
We want actual swimming suits because we are athletes. The roundest in our group is also the fastest and, around the age of 60, she completed SCAR. That’s a four-lake challenge over four days, for a total of 40 miles swum.
I put the question out to medium-larger swimmers who identify as women on Did You Swim Today, a very popular Facebook group for swimmers from around the world. I asked for their favourite suppliers of suits suitable for more athletic swimming, with a preference for companies worldwide or shipping to Canada.
Most of the answers were for brands I already knew, with maximum sizes being 40-42. A few people commented about specific challenges even in those sizes, such as having a longer torso than average. Others noted that options for fun prints disappear in the larger sizes, with most offerings being in plain blue or black.
Many commented on the difficulties of finding a suit to accommodate larger busts. One company was suggested because it does three versions of its suits, to accommodate a broader range of bust sizes. But expensive and maybe not really for athletic swimmers.
There were a few other interesting suggestions, though I’m not convinced that they offer the flat seams and snug fit with no chafing that I would require. One was for a company that has a unique fabric capable of stretching (and returning to its original size) to accommodate life changes including pregnancy. Another does bespoke suits catering to women above UK size 14, at fairly accessible prices but in only one style.
The last word goes to a contributor from Australia: At size 18-20 Australia (14-16 Can) it’s rare for companies to even stock suits in my size (and I can’t afford to order from overseas – shipping is a killer). If I do find something it’s plain black and I suspect not so much a ‘swimmers’ suit as something a more mature swimmer would like (ie lots of coverage, low leg cut, wide straps). It’s so annoying not being able to choose from the same range as my smaller friends. I compete in half Ironmen – I may not be the fastest but I’m definitely fit under my extra layers. Don’t get me started on trying to find a swimming wetsuit (I’ve so far managed to avoid needing one). I’m sure the demand is there – but it’s hard to measure demand if you don’t make the product available…
That last point bears repeating. It’s hard to measure demand if you don’t make the product available.
I have dreamt about doing a marathon swim (10 km) for several years now. I have done a few 8 km swims and they were fun. But in late July two years ago I broke my arm, so no serious swimming for quite a while. Then COVID hit, which put training on hold for last year. At first it was fear of potentially adding to the health care burden. Then it was the difficulty of getting to my usual lake to train. I did manage a 5 km swim in the Ottawa River, but that was it.
This is going to be my year! I turned 60 on my last birthday, so I zcan make this a birthday goal of sorts. Many swimmers do 100 M for each year of life for their birthday. That’s a mere 6 km, a reasonable training distance for later this summer.
Instead of simply swimming lots, I’m going to try following an actual training program. I’m going to aim for a mid-late August swim date, which gives me about 14 weeks to get ready. My first two weeks will be about establishing consistency, with two or three swim sessions per week (average swim distance 2.5-3 km each time). I’m not quite up to 3 km per swim yet, but I know I can do that pretty easily this week, if the weather holds up and I can get into the water.
My challenge will be getting the training done before the water starts getting cold. One training plan suggests 13 weeks, with at least one 8 km swim before the big day. The other suggests 20 weeks, with more frequent but shorter swims.
My friend Aimee has agreed to be my support, in a kayak or on her SUP so she can carry a phone and my snacks, watch out for boats, and help me keep going in a straight line. I’ll need to figure out feeds and water. The swim will likely take me 5 hours (maybe a little more). What does 0.8 to 1.0g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per hour translate to in snacks or gels? 500 to 800 ml of fluid per hour is on top of that, but at least I can do the calculations.
Now that I have written it all down, I feel a little intimidated. No matter. I will enjoy the swimming. Whether I actually complete a marathon swim is almost irrelevant. It would be a nice accomplishment, but I swim for fun.
That advice came from a session on safety when open water swimming I attended this week. The session was organized by the Rideau Speedeaus, an Ottawa swim club, and there were three presenters.
Chris Wagg has been with the City of Ottawa as a lifeguard and trainer for 35 years. She started out with some drowning statistics for Canada. Next up was Nadine Bennett, a well-known open water and cold water swimmer in Ottawa, who blogs at https://www.wildbigswim.com/. The last speaker was Jeff Mackwood, a lifeguard and the person who set up the Swim Angel program for Ottawa’s 3 km Bring on the Bay swim, which has made it very accessible to those with disabilities, recovering from injury, or nervous about open water swimming.
On average, there are about 500 drownings a year in Canada, with 64% in May to September, 64% in lakes or rivers, and over 60% when swimming alone. The percentage of drownings among middle aged and older people swimming alone is much higher. Obviously, not all of these drownings are among open water swimmers, but it was a good jumping off point for some basic swim safety when swimming outdoors.
Swim with a buddy. If you can’t then at a minimum let people know where exactly where you will be swimming and when you expect to be back.
Medical emergencies are more frequent as you get older – have a buddy who can call for help, loan you a float, or just coach you back to shore.
Make yourself as visible as possible in the water. Wear a brightly coloured swim cap and a tow float. If available to you, especially for longer swims or where there might be boats, having a kayaker to go alongside is even better. If you are swimming early in the morning or late in the evening, invest in some lights you can attach to your wrist and swim goggles
Tow floats are not official flotation devices, but they do float, so you can use them to rest on. They are also good for holding snacks, drinks, your car keys, phone and other valuables (be sure to put them in a waterproof bag just in case the float leaks). Write your name and a phone number on the float, in case of an emergency.
If you don’t have a tow float, tie a rope to a pool noodle. It won’t hold your keys, but it will make you visible and you can rest on it in the water.
If you are new to swimming in open water, or out of practice, start out easy. Do short loops. Stay close to shore. Stop for a rest or snack as needed, then go back in if you are ready. If you are nervous or out of shape, find a supervised beach and swim along the buoy lines.
Learn to breathe regularly even when there are waves (bilateral breathing is a really useful skill). Also practice swimming in a straight line by picking a target, then peeking up every few strokes with “alligator eyes” just barely out of the water to make sure you are still heading in the right direction.
Listen to your body. Especially if you are going in the shoulder seasons of May or late Fall, pay attention to your breathing and heart rate, and whether you are losing the ability to move easily in the water because you are cold. Make sure you have a plan to get out and changed into warm dry clothes quickly. You may experience “after drop”, shivering as the blood starts circulating. Wait until that has passed before trying to drive home.
Pay attention to the weather and be prepared to get out quickly if a storm rolls in. Swimming in the fog or dark can be dangerous. This is what can earn you that Darwin Award.
Above all, have fun. Practice some drills. Do other strokes than freestyle. Take pictures. Admire the scenery. Revel in the freedom of being in a wide open space with glorious water all around.
Diane Harper is a long-time open water swimmer from Ottawa. She isn’t fast, but she has a lot of fun.
I have been joining my swim club at the indoor pool for three weeks now. It mostly feels wonderful. It is my big social event of the week, and it feels great to catch up with friends. On Saturday I was so keen to get going that I wore my mask right into the pool! Luckily I realized it before putting my face in.
I love getting feedback on my strokes. I am frustrated with how tired I am afterwards. It has been ages since I needed a nap after practice, but I’m back to napping. I am a little frustrated that I am the fastest person in my lane, and I need to wait for the slower people because we can’t pass for COVID reasons. A swimming friend from the UK shared this image today after her first swim in a year. I feel that way too:
We have all forgotten so much – technique, lane etiquette, and occasionally how to stay apart safely. Some of our muscles and organs seem to have forgotten how to worksuspect that will be a challenge for many sports going forward, assuming we get to keep doing sports indoors or in groups.
In anticipation of yet another lockdown – and because open water season is almost upon us – I met up with a couple of friends on Sunday to see if we could get into the river. Sadly, the open water was only knee deep and none of us had remembered to bring an ice chipper. Aimee was the only one who bothered to get in.
Still, it was nice to get together and compare notes about how different pools and clubs are managing through COVID restrictions. We will try again next weekend. Hopefully we will still feel safe standing or swimming two metres apart with no masks.
For the first time in just under a year, I swam at a pool today. It was glorious. The safety protocols were great. We go to the pool already in our suits, and enter through a separate entrance that leads directly to the pool (to avoid going through the community centre). We had a COVID questionnaire before going into the change rooms. We wore masks except when actually in the water. There were three double lanes, with eight swimmers; my lane had three people. We were never less than 6 feet away from the others. Our coach had pre-printed workouts laid out at one end of the pool, so we just read what to do next and swam, rather than having the usual huddle for instructions between sets. Afterwards, a few of us grabbed a quick shower though technically I think we supposed to just change and go. The two women’s change rooms at this pool are huge, so it was easy for the six women to maintain our distance.
I was so excited to be back in the water I forgot to take off my glasses and put on goggles before taking a picture.
My last practice with the club was March 14, 2020. Then the pools closed. I swam outdoors until October 26, but then the water started freezing up. The pools were open in the fall, but I was nervous and dithered about registering with my club until all the spaces were gone. I did sign up for January, but much of the city (including pools) has been locked down until this week. Despite doing lots of other activities, including dryland workouts for swimmers, I had to work hard! I could barely do 25M of butterfly, and I needed a nap after lunch. Did I mention yet that it was glorious?
As I swam, I noticed something that reflects a real change from my own days as a lifeguard. One of the guards was a hijab and burquini-wearing black woman. You can just see her on the right in the picture.
Diane Harper has has loved swimming for over 50 years.
When you’ve been blogging for six years you notice trends. It’s September and I’m nervous about losing the evening light. I’m sad about losing some of my favorite activities. And worried about the effect of fall dark on my mood. I’m also happy about riding in the fall, cooler temperatures, no big goals, and beautiful colours.
Those are feelings now and they are also frequently the topic of fall blog posts through the years.
You can get a sense of the flavour of fall sadness by reading this piece The Summer That Never Was. It beautifully connects end of summer melancholy with thoughts of mortality.
I suspect that the way I feel now, at summer’s end, is about how I’ll feel at the end of my life, assuming I have time and mind enough to reflect: bewildered by how unexpectedly everything turned out, regretful about all the things I didn’t get around to, clutching the handful of friends and funny stories I’ve amassed, and wondering where it all went. And I’ll probably still be evading the same truth I’m evading now: that the life I ended up with, much as I complain about it, was pretty much the one I chose. And my dissatisfactions with it are really with my own character, with my hesitation and timidity.
2. Autumn and evening dark: The pictures at the top are from the last weeknight of Snipe racing. We barely got two races in before we lost our wind and our light. It’s too dark now in the evening to make it worthwhile to start racing at 6:30. There are some weekend afternoon races but the regular Tuesday night club races are done for the season.
Last week I got caught out on my bike without headlights. I forgot how early it was getting dark now. I won’t do that again.
Partly for me it’s also about driving. Because of my eye condition, I can’t drive at night. When night comes before work ends, my life can feel pretty limited. It’s a good thing I ride my bike well into the winter. I’m also walking distance from work, downtown, and the mall.