It SEEMS like a piece of madness, to swim in the lake or the sea outside of peak summer. Even in the spring, when the water starts to heat up, it is still quite cold in the north of Ireland.
So why do it, why go through this ordeal of fighting hypothermia, getting cold while changing in parking lots and trying to warm up, standing shivering in big coats?
This article is an attempt to explain this paradoxical lure.
It’s a summer evening and the sun is shining, casting its rays through the brown, peaty water of Lough Erne.
Riding the front crawl looks effortless and beautiful, really. It’s that feeling of freedom, well-being and just being connected.
Above your shoulder, the hands of other swimmers puncture the glassy surface as they too enter this underwater world, seeking air every few strokes.
It is a rare thing to be in the palette of nature in all weathers; but not only that, to be part of it, to be immersed in it and to engage in it.
There is a certain fear of unknown and hidden depths to be overcome, and the security of numbers certainly.
But it’s an adventure in a new world, where your swimming keeps you afloat and a healthy respect grows for this wonderful aquatic world.
Coming back to shore you are like a triumphant explorer, having found new worlds and brought it to life. The sense of solidarity with others and the world is exhilarating; indescribable, really.
The health benefits are plentiful, ranging from positive mental health, to fighting depression and dementia, and generally fending off all that Covid-19 apathy that binds you at home.
It is one of the few “socially distant” sports to have taken off during the lockdown.
What you don’t see, however, is the “being in the moment” immersion; a heat shock that almost takes your breath away at first, then as it calms down radiates relaxation and feel good hormones throughout the body.
Sometimes even a few minutes is all it takes to get that endorphin surge that can last all evening. A little bit of pain for a huge amount of gain!
One of the keys is being able to read your body and make good decisions about how long to stay, when to turn around and how to warm up quickly.
It is a lesson in awareness, mindfulness and individual discernment of decisions.
Not everyone is the same; some can wear a simple swimsuit for years and some need a wetsuit and all the extras just to get in the water.
It all depends on your own tolerances and limits, and the beauty of outdoor swimming is that it teaches you to respect those limits.
There is a direct connection between your body and limits, the consequences are keenly felt and being wrong can mean shivering by the fireside all evening.
However, you are learning, and there comes a happy day when you have a good understanding of the body’s signals and are able to operate in that zone of “feel good” where you get balance and make the right decisions.
Water is a great teacher and you need to be a humble disciple, learning, discerning, and implementing this wisdom – often others play a crucial role in giving advice, noticing symptoms when you overdo it, and watching over each other.
There is a great sense of community among outdoor swimmers that you only get somewhere like the Camino de Santiago, or a pilgrimage on foot.
It is a rare acceptance, openness and lack of judgment or competition.
The pure fun and madness that goes on between people alone is worth it.
He is a great leveler; everyone is equal in the water – no matter who you are or what you do, you are just one human who goes through this often daily ritual of rehumanization to remember what is important and precious.
It is a baptism in life and humanity which removes the pretenses and the superficial airs that separate people.
The standard uniform of a swimsuit or wetsuit brings attention back to the face, the person and the personality.
Strangers chat in seconds, talking about the water, the weather and real things. It’s liberating not to have to pretend.
Inevitably, there is a spirituality to this: it is a return to the womb in a sense, an escape from invasive technology, and an immersion in the foundational element of nature.
There is a natural reverence and awe for these wild places which encourage contemplation.
In addition, there is an essential earthy aspect in the body; its tolerances and limits induce a healthy respect.
You are not in control in many ways; there is a tremendous degree of surrender and commitment to water. You have to trust; trust yourself and the unpredictability of the powerful beauty of nature.
Every swimmer must exercise discretion and caution, recognize limits and risks, while experiencing the incredible gift and kindness of being able to operate within them.
Each swim is unique, another invitation to experience its mortality and fragility, and yet something divine permeates the experience in all its aspects.
There is a transformation happening: in mood and well-being, but also in learning what it is to be human and relate to others.
Many people reject it outright, ignoring the riches it has to offer, often on your doorstep.
It has been a blessing especially during lockdown, one of the few socially distant sports to have exploded in popularity. Be a part of it!