Sharing Flow and Joy in Swimming


Just back from another wonderful big event in a beautiful part of the UK - the Outdoor Swimming Society's Bantham Swoosh in South Devon - and relishing the memories of meeting true pioneering stars, seeing others do extraordinary things and everything coming together in my own swim.  Quite a trip!

Awesome Founders

Let's start with a star.  The evening before there was a lovely chance to meet the founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society, Kate Rew, at a special BBQ for those of us crazy enough to sign up to all three big OSS river swims.  She asked about the experience of events we'd done, each one being quite distinctive.  I only had a brief chat with her (feeling a bit in awe) but felt very welcomed by her and others in the team.  There's a warmth, openness and excitement in OSS events that, for me, is very special - no noisy hype that can sometimes overtake other big events.

The setting for some extraordinary stories

The setting for some extraordinary stories

Last month, in the previous blog post, I wrote about the founders of the Ötillö creating a space in which people can feel connected with nature, with themselves and others and feel joyously alive.  I had the same feeling at the Bantham Swoosh.  There we were, almost 800 swimmers getting ready to swim 6kms down a stunningly beautiful river, our safety assured, a chance to be utterly absorbed in the flow of the river and our own movements, with great stories and memories about to be crafted.

If you look at the OSS site you'll see its not just about such events - there's a whole, rich mine of information, inspiration and stories about open water swimming.  Great stuff Kate!

I also caught up with another pioneer - Ian Thwaites, the Director of Level Water.  In its own way Level Water is also about creating special places for great things to happen, in their case providing the means for children with disabilities to learn to swim and grow in confidence.  We had a good catch up about my experience of teaching children through Level Water.  And Ian generously shared ideas and offers of help to further develop Confidence Centred Coaching.

An Awesome Swimmer

On to the swim itself and worthy of special mention is our friend Marc.  He can tell his own story, but for me it started when he came to me earlier in the year as a relatively novice swimmer looking for some help with his swim technique, worried about being too slow and unsure how to prepare.  We did a Swim Analysis and I wrote a Swim Forward Plan, with the emphasis on an effective stroke to take him all the way, rather than speed (which I knew would take care of itself).  Earlier this month we also did an open water session together with his partner Emily, an old hand at the Swoosh.

After I'd finished my swim, my partner Anne and I first waited for Emily to come out - all smiles and grace (she's a very elegant swimmer) - and then the three of us stood waiting to see Marc finish.  And waited.  And waited some more, getting increasingly worried about where he could be.  The last swimmers had come in so we hunted around the site, eventually finding him, arm in a makeshift sling.

Photo by Vivienne Rickman-Poole, OSS

Photo by Vivienne Rickman-Poole, OSS

At around 4kms one of his shoulders (long ago held together with a metal plate) had started painfully freezing up.  The safety vessels had offered to take him out but Marc was determined to see it through to the end, somehow continuing with a one armed stroke.  Caught in the strong tidal swoosh at the end he overshot the finish but got out safely, going back to step over the timer mat just ten minutes after Emily in a respectable time, while we stood looking the other way up river for him!

Marc felt quite dejected (as well as very sore) while we were in awe of his one armed resilience.  I think there are some further reflections and lessons to be drawn, building on The Ultra Confidence Switch in our Summer Journal (related blog post here) - so watch this space (and sign up to access the Journal for free if you haven't already).

And an Awesome Swim by Colours

Maybe not as inspiring, but for me a super memory: everything seemed to come together in my swim, so worth briefly recounting.

I saw Emily and Marc just before the start as the elite swimmers were being called to enter the water.  Despite their urging - "Go on - you should be in there with them" - I held back a little, not daring to think of myself as elite.

Once in and settling into a steady rhythm I was struck by the amazing depth of colours: the light shimmering on the vivid turquoise water, green woods and fields either side, the sun already high in a deep blue cloudless sky and the flurries of neoprene glistening arms, white splashes and lime green swim caps ahead.

How can you not reach for swimming at your very best in such conditions? All the long training, all the attention to technique and the joy of being there came together, stroke by stroke.  I was overtaking people at a speed I didn't know was in me, casually observing their technique (its the swim coach in me) and choice of suit, then crocodile eye style, sighting others up ahead to take.

Photo by Vivienne Rickman-Poole, OSS

Photo by Vivienne Rickman-Poole, OSS

A kilometre or so in and looking ahead I glimpsed what I thought might be an orange buoy amidst the flurry of swimmers - then I thought it might be a tow bag.  Gradually catching up I could see it as a bright orange wetsuited arm.  And then Mr Orange was passed and gone.

On and on - now level with a women in a splendid turquoise suit.  She drafted at my hip for a while - stay with it Ms T - and then dropped behind.

Next up, a beefy bare arm of a Skins Swimmer (no wetsuit), red from the cold, swimming with great powerful, bear like strokes.  I swam behind him for a while, his big paddle steamer kicks making it easy to tuck in close enough for a draft but not so near to get hit.  Then to his side, sometimes up close, sometimes at a distance, overtaking others all the way with our contrasting styles.

Round what I thought must be the final big bend and I glimpsed a line of houses up ahead on the left shore.  Exhilarated by the thought of being almost there and still feeling strong, whilst also feeling the tiredness and muscle soreness grow, I swam even harder focusing on the rhythm and fluency of every roll and reach, tip of the hand and pressing back.

On and on... and I realised I'd gone hard too soon!  Mr Skins was moving ahead of me, opening a growing gap that I couldn't close.  Maybe our friendship was not made to last.  I was still overtaking others though and then spotted the pink boat house that marks the very last few metres before the big tidal swoosh.

And then I'm in.  Done.  Elated and exhausted.


I'm a believer in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's notion of flow, seeking it out and keen to find ways of engendering it in others - whether in running, cycling or swimming.  How brilliant to have that feeling in the Swoosh of it all coming together - the extraordinary privilege of being immersed in nature at its most beautiful; the feeling of all the training and preparation coming good on the day as one hand spears in and catches the water, the body slices through and every part of the stroke balances to go faster and faster; the sense of being utterly in the moment, body and mind attuned to form, movement and effort.

Photo by Vivienne Rickman-Poole, OSS - ready for my BBQ!

Photo by Vivienne Rickman-Poole, OSS - ready for my BBQ!

There are methods and insights here that I believe coaches from across all sports can use with those they coach to instil confidence and experience the sheer joy of being at one's best.  Dip into the Learning Zones on the site and sign up for more.

In the meantime, thanks so much to pioneers Kate and Ian, to heroic Marc and graceful Emily, to super supportive Anne and all the colourful people I swam with on an exhilarating day.