On loss, wild women and the big why

Back from another big event – the Outdoor Swimming Society’s Dart 10k – and thoughts of being carried in a deep and wide ripple.

Normally these blog posts about my experience of a big distance event, like the Ötillö or the Swoosh, follow something of a pattern: of dealing with nerves, of getting into a rhythm and then swimming or running through fatigue to make it to the end.  And true to form, a story could be told around going in with doubts (I’d been unwell the week before and knew I hadn’t fully recovered); of losing myself in the movement of each stroke, the beauty all around; and the enveloping tiredness until finally finishing exhausted and, if not elated this time, at least feeling something big had been accomplished.

I’m feeling though the big story really belongs to the night before and its ripple effects through the next day of swimming and beyond.

Photo by Allan Macfadyen OSS

Photo by Allan Macfadyen OSS

The Outdoor Swimming Society laid on a book launch for the posthumously published diaries of Lynne Roper Wild Woman Swimming: A Journal of West Country Waters.  Lynne was an inspirational figure and a key driving force in the Outdoor Swimming Society, the founder of two local swimming groups, a daring wild water swimmer who plunged into even the coldest of rivers, pools and choppy seas and a wonderfully captivating chronicler of her experiences in nature and in the company of other wild swimmers. She died in August 2016 from a brain tumour, her funeral held the day before that year’s Dart 10k.

At the book launch her editor, Tanya Shadrick spoke movingly about the promise made to Lynne from her hospice bed to have the Journal published.  Before starting Tanya asked the hundred or so people attending how many had come across Lynne in person, swum with her or knew her.  Almost every hand rose up.

Even before the launch got underway I was struck by the sense of a community – of people being at ease in each other’s company, animated conversations at every table no doubt sharing stories of recent dips and discoveries.  Maybe plunging in cold water seals in a common bond.

Photo by Allan Macfadyen OSS

Photo by Allan Macfadyen OSS

It goes without saying Lynne Roper was also very present in the room – through the readings of her escapades, her vivid observations of nature and the small, sometimes comical details of a life lived to the full.

I bought the book and arriving ridiculously early next morning for the big swim settled down to read it, as the Dart flowed by and more and more swimmers gradually arrived.  The tales of swimming in each wild location are fun and captivating - how did she do that? In such cold water?! The book also set me thinking about the loss of my wife also from cancer twelve and a half years ago, of what gets left behind and how we keep going.  Maybe not the most conventional of motivational boosters before heading off for 10kms of swimming.

And here there’s something very special about Lynne Roper’s story that I feel a strong connection with.  Her passion and joy for wild water swimming, that comes through every page, started as she sought to regain her physical and emotional health after a double mastectomy.  As it says on the OSS site: “For her, wild swimming was never about how far or fast you swam, or how cold the water.  It was always about the experience itself and the connection with the environment.”

In this respect my own motivation for all the activities I do has changed over the years.  And I’m very conscious of the very different drives and purposes each person has when they come to me for coaching for their big challenges.  Unlike Lynne, in my younger, speedier days as a skinny runner, it was definitely about seeing how fast I could go – not so much to beat anyone else (though that was exciting); much more about the thrill of discovering just how good I could be.  I was so driven – training longer and harder, focused on bringing it all out in the next race.  I loved the feeling of being right out there on the edge of sustaining a high pace – taking the same obsessive drive into triathlons when I found I couldn’t keep up the same intensity in running.  To be painfully honest: family life too often came second.

“Why did wild swimming become so central to my life, so cathartic? I think it has to do with needing to feel alive. It’s a spiritual experience, sliding through wild water. Worries dissolve, my mind is liberated; thoughts flow and glide and play like dolphins. My soul swims wild.”
— from @wildwomanswims

All this changed with my wife’s illness, the long, difficult treatments and her inevitable, eventual death.  In my faltering attempts to regain a life afterwards I’ve sought out experiences and activities that take me from a state of just living each day to finding those moments when I can feel truly alive – much as in the beautiful quote opposite from Lynne.

I remain very driven to find myself at my very best in all the activities I do, continuing to train hard for each event.   And I carry that same ambition into my coaching, to reach for being the best coach I can possibly be and in that way to help others find their very best.  A big difference now is that I am more discerning and open about what being at your best can be and less judgemental when things don’t go as well as I’d hoped.

I’ve found I’m also much more appreciative of the environment around me. Instead of getting my head down and single-mindedly blasting away, I find myself looking for and drawing on the natural beauty around and to some extent other people in the same flow. As a result I feel somehow calmer and whole, whilst still able to give my all.

To bring that into Confidence Centred Coaching means several things.  First is a principle I work to of respecting peoples’ ambitions.  At its most basic this simply means making the time to find out what drives someone, of being curious and ready to hold their goal as a precious gift that has been shared.  It also means suspending judgement and not being dismissive if someone has decided on an unconventional path that doesn’t quite fit what one might think of as the “normal” route.  As an example, have a peak at Brent’s story on the ZigZag Alive stories page.

Second is nurturing an ability to be wholly present in the moment.  As set out in the Coaching for Confidence Learning Zone, this focuses on attuning those we coach and ourselves to form, effort and movement.  Form is about having a relaxed alertness (to borrow a phrase from Erich Fromm) to your body position and posture; effort is about being aware of and in command of your intensity level and energy without the need of a gauge or meter strapped to your wrist; and movement is about the fluency and balance as everything comes together.  How much more creative and satisfying our coaching can be when we encourage an emphasis on these things, rather than just on isolated technique, times or tactics.

And it goes without saying that there’s an all important element of fun - of allowing oneself as a coach to make space for being creative, for exploring what helps those we coach connect with and experience the excitement of things coming together.

Photo by Vivienne Rickman-Poole OSS

Photo by Vivienne Rickman-Poole OSS

So, back to the Dart 10k.  I’m feeling very tired, the last gel doesn’t seem to have given me any boost, I ache all over and there’s still 3kms to go.  I play “Moon River” in my head but its really not helping.  There’s a steady flow of swimmers all around: yellow, red, white and blue caps all moving at different speeds. And there I am with a few others, proud as can be with our VIP gold caps for being a regular.


On to the Hurly Burly in under two weeks and the chance to be immersed in beautiful Snowdonia, swept along in the wide ripples of being alive and well.

You can order a copy of Wild Woman Swimming by Lynne Roper (The Selkie Press) here at the OSS site: £8.99. Its a super read.