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Swimming is Just Part of Who I Am

Written By Victoria Leigh

I’m Victoria, I’m 46 and despite large breaks from the pool through my life, I always return. Swimming is just part of who I am…

The early years

My swimming career started at age 7 when I joined my local club, largely owed to my late mother who herself was a county swimmer.

Parents are often the forgotten heroes in a young swimmer’s career and if you want a life… don’t let your kids start swimming competitively! Travelling to the pool twice a day; for early morning training when you should be tucked up in bed like ’normal people’ and for evening training when others have their feet up watching TV… is not to be taken lightly. Whole weekends can be taken up by Galas or big Open Meets. Either the whole family went, or my mother would have to stay home with my brother. My life disrupted everyone else’s and if I wasn’t swimming, I had a hockey or netball match to attend. I owe everything to my parents for supporting me throughout and I honestly don’t think I could thank them enough for what they gave up for me. They were never pushy; they just gave me the encouragement I needed to succeed. They were there for the tears, and there were many, as well as the joy.

As your typical club swimmer, I spent years slogging up and down a pool singing to myself and often forgetting how many lengths I had done. Those were the days where there were no earphones, trackers, and any other technology that now help us achieve our goals. The days when all you had was your coach (who was usually yelling), a blackboard and a clock!

My earliest memory was my first Butterfly race. I was probably about 8, my parents didn’t even know I could do the stroke and it was at Reading, an old pool, so it was 33yards. Anyone who has been to a Diddy League Gala knows how loud and enthusiastic the crowd are! I will never forget the cheers as I raced down that centre line, I was way ahead of everyone else and a good 3 meters clear. There was no chance of anyone catching me. As the end got closer, the cheers got louder and as I hit the wall, I heard the gasp! The whole gallery seemed to go silent… I’d touched with one hand! DISQUALIFIED! Heartbroken, yelled at by my coach, I will never forget that day and I still don’t remember anyone ever telling me to touch with 2 hands… I obviously wasn’t paying attention in that training session. However, I never did it again!

My swimming career continued with many successes as well as failures, I even earned an England tracksuit, a dream come true. Don’t get too excited, I was good but not quite good enough and I never made it to any notable events. In those days’ swimmers peaked aged 15-18, now swimmers’ careers continue way into their twenties with some even into their thirties. I often wonder what would have happened if I had not taken that year out for my GCSE’s and discovered a world without swimming… as I didn’t go back to it until I was 39!

She’s back… briefly!

In 2013 a group of friends decided to do the Great North Swim. My life was pretty complicated at the time and I was fairly sure I wouldn’t have had the time to train, so I reluctantly declined. As the event got closer, I was beginning to regret my decision and then one of my friends decided to break her foot and put her feet up for a few months! She could no longer do the swim, so I ended up doing it for her. After 24 years and with only 4 weeks to train, I knew it was going to be tough.

I headed straight to my local pool to sign up, I still remember the smell, it felt like home! It turned out it was only 20m long, not ideal, but I wasn’t in a position to be choosy. My training began and it was hard, where’s I’d always been able to effortlessly move through the water, now I felt like a lump of wood who couldn’t do more than one length without being totally out of breath. I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t be fit enough for the challenge. I immediately started to think about my technique, if I wasn’t going to be aerobically fit, then I needed to make sure that I maximised every stroke. I spent time lengthening my arms making sure that I glided after each pull so that I was as efficient as possible when moving through the water. It worked and within 3 weeks I was easily covering a mile, I was ready.

Never underestimate cold water…

The day of the event came, and we had an early start to get to Windemere. I was stressed… in fact my friends would probably tell you I was a complete nightmare. I felt the pressure to perform, everyone knew my swimming history, I felt like I needed to deliver, and I was also concerned that I’d had no chance to do any open water training. Of course, no one expected anything from me apart from ME!

With reports of the water being 15 ͦ I knew it would be challenging, but my plan was to swim out fast to get away from the pack and warm up quickly before I set into a rhythm. That however, turned out to be a HUGE mistake!

With Queen’s Supersonic Man blaring out of the speakers, I was completely pumped up and felt invincible as I entered the water. I powered out freestyle to the first buoy to get ahead and the water was rough, choppy and freezing! Then something happened, I couldn’t breathe, I began to panic and couldn’t physically swim. For the first time in my life I thought I was going to drown; I was hyperventilating, and I couldn’t seem to move my limbs properly. A kayaker quickly came to my aid, and all that kept going through my head was that I needed to get out. An ex international swimmer and I couldn’t do more than 100m, I was mortified! The kayaker who ever she was, was amazing! She kept talking to me as I tried to keep my head above the water, telling me to breathe slowly and trying to calm me down. It worked, I started to feel like I could continue swimming, so off I went.  You couldn’t exactly call it swimming; I was just doing everything I could to keep my head above the water in a forward motion. What started out as doggy paddle, eventually turned into breaststroke, but I couldn’t put my face back in the water without starting to hyperventilate again. At the half mile point I was finally acclimatised and managed to start swimming freestyle again. Finally, I could swim, the current was with me, I was in a great rhythm and I made up ALOT of time! As the finish line approached, I began to feel relief that I would be able to complete the event.

I got out to the cheers of all our supporters… who at that point had no idea of what had happened. My first words were… “I am NEVER ‘%!@£%!’ doing that again!!!!”

We all went to check our times; I knew that I was going to be disappointed and I got told 42 mins (I’d aimed for 30). I was gutted, I’d built myself up for what felt like total failure and I went home with a heavy heart.

A few hours later I got a phone call from a friend who’d been online to look at the placings and photos. She told me I’d miss heard and to look at the times and results, I jumped onto my laptop and could believe it:

32.29mins

190th out of all females

650th out of everyone in the mile (approximately 6000 people)

I was over the moon, what seemed like an epic fail, turned out to be surprisingly good! Considering I couldn’t swim for half of the event, I knew that if I could just get the cold-water shock sorted, I could smash that time! Next year was ON!

Sadly, life got in the way and until a life changing event occurred, I didn’t get back in the water for another 6 years!

Once a swimmer… always a swimmer…

In 2018, my world turned upside down when I split from my husband and divorce proceedings started. I had no idea who I was anymore, and I was afraid. I knew I had to pull myself together and get on with my life, so I sat down and thought about what made me ME!

Swimming had obviously been one of the biggest parts of my life, so I set about looking for a suitable challenge. It wasn’t difficult… what could be better than being presented with a beer at the finishing line? So, I immediately signed up for the Henley Club to Pub.

Training did not go to plan… with 3 horses, 2 dogs, the cat (not demanding but I didn’t want to leave her out!) most of my free time was taken. I was running my freelance design business and I had also just set up my new sustainable clothing brand Tors&Co. Battling with the ups and downs of living with an autoimmune disease and endless meetings with my solicitor… I was struggling for time! With 3 weeks to go it was now or never…  and then I got sick!

So, training started at 2 weeks and it was all my own fault! I spent time lengthening my stroke again and if anyone is interested @adamoceanwalker is the man to watch for a beautifully efficient technique. He is literally magic in the water. I set myself the target of completing a mile in the week, if I couldn’t do that, I would pull out. I did it, so the event was on, but yet again I didn’t do any open water training! I knew I was setting myself up for a fall again, my only lifeline was that the Thames was a lot warmer than Windemere! That didn’t stop the fear though and I didn’t want a repeat performance of the Great North Swim.

The event day came, this time I was just meeting up with an old friend who was there with her girl gang… a group of open water swimmers who regularly swim in the Thames. I couldn’t have asked for a more fabulous bunch to be with. They did their utmost to try and keep my obvious nerves at bay. My fear of cold water was bordering on a phobia but with a water temperature at 19 ͦ and some swimming without wetsuits, I knew it wouldn’t be as bad as last time.

The Henley Swim was amazingly run, very relaxed and nothing like the Great North Swim.  Whereas Windemere you only got a 1  minute dunk in the water before your wave, and you actually dried off again before you started, at Henley you had a short swim to get into position and a good 5 mins treading water before the claxon went. This gave you a good chance to warm up, though it seems that this still isn’t enough for me. I treaded water for 5 mins I kept dipping my face in and trying to control my breathing before the start, but it wasn’t enough, the only difference was that I knew what to do. I had to not panic, control my breathing and remember that I would acclimatise eventually. I still could not swim properly after the claxon went off, but at least I managed to do breaststroke rather than doggie paddle! The start was hell on earth and all I could think about was why the hell was I putting myself through this torture again! I kept going slowly, trying not to gasp for breath and I dipped my face in every now and again to try and get use to the cold. Thankfully due to the higher temperatures that day, by the 450m mark I started to feel more comfortable and I could start powering along in freestyle.

The rest of the swim was heavenly, I got into a good rhythm and although I swim relatively straight the sun was setting in my eyes, so spotting was hard, I definitely went off track. I finished comfortably though and could have easily gone around again.

The moment I got out at the Angel Pub, I was presented with my medal and my beer, I met up with the girls and we then jumped in the water taxi to go and get changed before heading to the pub for well-earned food and wine!

Soon after, an email pinged through with my time… 31:27 I was ecstatic! But yet again it only highlighted that if I could overcome the cold-water shock, I would easily be doing sub 25.

And she’s back… for good?

After last year’s Club to Pub event, the girls and I immediately signed up for 2 events the Henley Classic and the Club to Pub 2020, with promises of them helping me with the cold water. I was even contemplating doing the Thames Marathon if all went well as I genuinely feel like Forest Gump when I get going… I could literally swim forever.

Obviously 2020 has not turned out like we all thought, the Henley Classic was cancelled and the Club to Pub postponed, but my local pool was not open in time, so I had to pull out.

So, here’s to 2021! A year where I am determined to get a grip with the cold water…

 You can follow me on Instagram @tors.and.co and if you’re interested in sustainable clothing find out more about my brand Tors & Co by heading to my website www.torsandco.com  My Al Fresco T-shirts and Sweatshirts are perfect for those who love open water swimming!

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