So. I’m injured. Don’t get me started: like every sportswoman or man, especially we older sporty types, I love talking about my injury and can go on for ever about it. I’ll just say it’s a hip labral tear and it’s been six months now and I’ve only recently had the diagnosis. So for six months I haven’t been able to run or to play tennis, my great love.
And it’s been one massive learning experience, I can tell you, as well as a pain (lit and fig). This is what I’ve learned.
Despite having a library full of gratitude books and living-with-joy stuff, I can see that I’m only just learning to walk the walk rather than talk the talk. I have spent over four months of these six focusing on not being able to run and not being able to play tennis. On the not side of things, that is; the stuff I can’t do.
I missed my solitary runs around the Downs here in Bristol, I missed Park Run on a Saturday at Ashton Court and all the lovely community there, I missed my muddy trainers and the getting hot-and-sweaty of it all. I missed the thwack of the tennis ball on my racket and continuing my lifelong, but still elusive, pursuit of a reliable backhand. I missed feeling fit or at any rate fit-ish and the way I enjoy a late breakfast after I’ve exercised first thing and am properly hungry.
Try swimming, people said. I don’t want to swim, I replied. I want to do what I can’t do. I want to run and to play tennis. And then one day, I thought OK, let’s wake up early and get in the pool. Let’s give it a go. Let’s make it before all the aqua-aerobics lessons start and the families with small children arrive. At least it’ll be some sort of exercise. And friends, I’m a member of a health club that actually has a beautiful 25m pool. I didn’t even have to hunt one out. That’s how negative and mentally lazy (and grumpily ungrateful) I was.
Here’s the thing. I’m pushing 70 now. Got my big birthday this year. And I used to swim competitively in the Under 10s. So we’re talking over 60 years ago. Haven’t done much really since then. Swimming in the sea never works for me – I need a black line on the pool bottom to follow and no waves and no fish. I’ll splash about in the sea but quite frankly it bewilders me. I don’t really know what to do once I’m in. I rush in with enthusiasm and then stop, bemused, turn around and amble back out.
But what I’ve discovered is what you learn as a child never leaves you. Fortunately I was a crawl swimmer – front and back. I say fortunately because my hip thing means that breaststroke is a no-no. For some reason butterfly too (I used to enjoy the individual medley where you do all four strokes. But breaststroke was always my weakest). So I started that first week back in the pool going up and down and I knew (from my under 10 days) a little bit about how to break up a training session. So I set myself a target of 1000m, thought in terms of 100metre sets and started doing some gentle full-stroke work, then some arms only, then some kicking only, then a few sets at speed, timed against the clock.
It was hard and easy at the same time. I’m actually (I’ve discovered) a much better swimmer than I am runner (not that I’m a star at either). I started running in my 60s whereas I was a swimmer as a kid. It’s all still there. Put me in a pool and I know what to do.
At the beginning it was tedious. I was grumpy and didn’t really want to be there. I was counting those 100metres and willing the 10 sets of them to be over. And then one day, something magical happened. As I entered the pool and pushed off along the bottom of the pool for my first length, I started to feel a new sensation. I felt relief, I felt safe, I felt the worries that had been cluttering my head the night before just ease away. What on earth was it I was feeling, I wondered. Then I realised. It was joy.
Gosh. I didn’t expect that. I realised that I was starting to swim longer – the 1000m was still my basic swim, but sometimes, quite often in fact, I’d do 1300m or even 1500m. I just didn’t want to get out, to finish. I’d been doing sets of 25m on the clock and now I was doing sets of 50m. I’d been doing 100m kicking on my back and now I was doing 200m.
I’d seen a woman in the pool wearing small fins and I asked her why she wore them. They exercise your legs more, she said. Well this is just what I’ve got to do to get my hip working again. So I got some myself and now I incorporate them each time into my session. I love the feeling of speed they give me, especially when I use hand paddles as well. I whizz down that pool!
Thank you swimming then! You’ve given me back physical exercise, you’ve proved to be a balm to my worry-prone mind and you’ve turned me around from being a person who focuses on what she can’t do to one who celebrates what she can do. Pretty basic stuff, but when the chips were down, friends, this wasn’t my default go-to button. My hip issue doesn’t affect my swimming and my swimming actually is helping my hip issue. And it’s helping my head space and my general well-being and my productivity and my all-round happiness. Am I grateful for what I still can do? Yes! Am I grateful for what swimming in particular has given me? You bet your life I am. That’s a big, fat resounding YES. Thank you swimming. And sorry it took me so long to appreciate you once more, 60 years on from when you were my first big sporting love, you’re coming to be the sporting love of my life once again.