This blog had a very different working title when I started it and then I watched Channel 4’s Stand Up to Cancer series Sink or Swim. Keri-anne Payne and Ross Edgely have 12 weeks to get non-swimming celebrities ready to be in a relay team to cross the Channel. I was lucky enough to spend three days with Keri-anne, back in June, as she facilitated my Level 2 Open Water Coaching award course. Since then all of the participants and Keri-anne have stayed in touch providing each other with overwhelming levels of support. So when we knew the Keri-anne was involved in the SOS programme we naturally all tuned in.
I undertook the Open Water Coaching course so I would have the relevant skills, knowledge and qualifications to run courses to encourage other people to try wild swimming. I swim for my mental health and am an advocate of it’s wellbeing benefits. Doing something on my own, away from home, is something I am not always able to do. Sometimes my anxiety wins. Sometimes it is all I can do to leave the house to walk the dog. (This is the very reason I have a dog!) I am not even always able to to head down to the beach for a swim. Fortunately this is rare but it does happen. So turning up for the course was a massive achievement for me.
Initially I felt like a fish out of water amongst my fellow course mates. They were/are swimmers extraordinaire. But they soon had me at ease and we’ve all stayed in touch since the course providing each other with advice and support. Some of them have gone on to achieve incredible feats. One has relayed around the IOW, one has relayed across the channel and another has relayed there and back across the channel, to name but a few. Things I could never dream of achieving. But I have achieved, in my own way and their cheers were just as loud.
I’ve been thinking a lot about achievement lately. I am surrounded by people I admire who have achieved impressive feats of human endurance. But also other, smaller but just as significant achievements. Achievement is something very different for every individual. I can swim and I am relatively fit for my age yet I would never consider swimming the channel. Yet swimming without a wetsuit all year round in sea temperatures as low as 3 degrees with snow on the beach does not faze me. Entering a rough sea does not concern me (not life threateningly rough). Not knowing what lies beneath the surface and being touched by a creature of the sea does not bother me. My friends and family see this as an achievement and I brush it off. Not arrogantly, it’s just I know it’s within my limit and therefore I can achieve it.
I know that swimming the channel is not within my limits of attainment. I would not be able to swim in the dark, I would be distracted by jellyfish and try to catch them, and I would be risking my mental health by spending that much time alone in my head. So I stick to doing things that push my limits outside of my comfort zone but are achievable. And what that looks like for me is something very different to what it looks like for other people.
I watched Sink or Swim already in awe of the celebrities that had signed up to do it as I wouldn’t ever consider it. Some of them couldn’t swim, couldn’t float, had previous bad swimming experiences, had physical challenges and mental challenges. Yet they agreed to give it a go. What an achievement. They had just 3 months to learn to swim and train for it. Can you believe that? What an achievement. As I write this I have no idea if any or how many drop out, or if they make it, as the swim is scheduled for next month. But because even contemplating it is beyond my limit I already see them as achievers.
I have been able to achieve my year round skin swimmer status by getting to know my limits. This wasn’t initially a conscious decision, I just didn’t put my wetsuit on one year when the temperature began to drop. However, it did allow me to really reflect on what my body is capable of and get in tune with what it was telling me without words. In the sea you are able to really focus on yourself, your whole self, and start to see what it can do. I soon knew I would be able to skin swim all year round – my limit was how long I could last in the water. This I was able to push, within a limit of being safe, and soon my body just adapted to the cold.
It’s hard to see achievement when somethings are comfortably within your limits. I can run. I am one of those annoying people that can talk while they run and can run substantial distances with little training. I have done a couple of marathons and although one year I was plagued with IT band problems I didn’t find the training or event too arduous. So I made the decision to never sponsor anyone, unless they were doing a marathon or more. If you wanted sponsoring for a 5km you could jog on. I completely failed to see that running a 5km could be a massive achievement for someone that had only started running 2 weeks ago, was recently bereaved, had no childcare, had agoraphobia, had heath issues, the list goes on. I wasn’t intentionally being unkind or dismissive, but I was, because running is comfortably within my limit.
What was interesting on Sink or Swim were the number of athletes taking part. Linford Christie was was once, the fastest man in the planet, but he couldn’t swim for toffee (Sorry Linford). Then there is Greg Rutherford and Tessa Sanderson. All achieved huge accolades at the pinnacle of their careers but struggled to swim 500m in the open water. Yet they have signed up to swim the Channel. What an achievement. Georgia Kousoulou, is a reality TV star, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. She is on TV without make-up, in a swim hat and unflattering neoprene, which for me is no big deal, but for someone like her, who, by the nature of her fame needs to always be insta-ready this is an achievement. Her experience resonated with me in others ways though, as she struggled to regulate her breathing. Controlling your breathing is the best tool in your toolbox if you suffer with anxiety. It’s also the key to being able to swim front crawl. Having you face in the water means you cannot decide when you are going to breathe. Yet she still signed up to do it. What an achievement.
Since swimming in the sea with a huge variety of people, I no longer have a fixed idea of what an achievement is. We are all unique individuals so it makes sense that our achievements would also be unique. One individual’s 500m swim is another individual’s Channel swim. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, achievement is; a thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage. Using this definition, many things individuals do in their day to day is an achievement. Some of the people I have coached with acute anxiety have turned up, that took effort and courage. Putting on a wetsuit for the first time, that took effort and skill. Swimming in the open water, that took effort, skill and courage. Therefore, by it’s very definition, it is an achievement.
The toughest battle most people face is with their own mind. We all have that voice that sometimes tells us we can’t do something. If the voice shouts loud enough, some people don’t even bother to try. I know there are a lot of things I do not do because my head tells me I can’t. But those that do, despite the internal dialogue, even if they ‘fail’, have achieved. They tried and sometimes this is the only way to push your limits to know if it something you can achieve. The difference between try and triumph is a little ‘umph’.
The all or nothing approach to achievement is something I always have to keep in check. I am, by nature a sink or swim person. I either swim 1km as planned or I have not achieved. This can be really detrimental to my wellbeing. So I have had to adjust the way I view and approach achievement. I now count every step forward towards my end goal as an achievement. I am still trying to achieve, but to remain positive and engaged in the process as I am able to celebrate each incremental step in the process. In this way I am able to maintain some semblance of resilience if things do not go according to plan as the smaller steps of goal setting allows more flexibility.
What I have learnt through my consideration of achievement is that I need to be kinder to myself and kinder to others and recognise achievement in all it’s forms. I firmly believe that if at first you don’t achieve, try, try again. Being afraid is OK, but it shouldn’t stop you from striving to achieve. Just by trying, you have achieved.
Author: Seabird Kath
NB a significant achievement for me was being able to spell achievement by the time I had finished writing this blog! I before E.