Tuesday 25 July 2017

The rise of open-water swimming: 'You can find yourself in rough water but you make progress'

People of all ages are diving in at the deep end to Ireland's open-water swim spots - because it makes them feel so good

Roisin O'Doherty from Ballybrack, Dublin at the 40 Foot. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Roisin O'Doherty from Ballybrack, Dublin at the 40 Foot. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Open water swimmer Mark McCollum from Ramelton, Co. Donegal.
Kay Brennan, Swimmer, Claremorris, Co. Mayo. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin

Kathy Donaghy

At a certain time every morning, a figure will alight from her car in Dublin's Sandycove, towel underarm, and bravely disrobe before plunging in for a swim.

It's a ritual that Róisín O'Doherty, now in her 70s, has been performing for many years. From Ballybrack village in Dublin, she says swimming wasn't always part of her life, but as a mother to four children who were learning to swim, she thought she'd better learn to become a better swimmer if she was to keep up with them in the water.

Róisín is one of a growing number of open-water swimmers of all ages around the country. Although she's not formally part of any swimming gang or group, she tends to swim with one or two friends of a similar ability.

This is the time of year open-water swimmers look forward to. The open-water swimming calendar of events around the country typically kicks off in May. The warmer water, the long evenings, the warmer air temperature when you get out again all mean that more people will flock to seashores or lakeshores all over the country.

Open water swimmer Mark McCollum from Ramelton, Co. Donegal.
Open water swimmer Mark McCollum from Ramelton, Co. Donegal.

But if you have ideas of open-water swimmers as muscle-bound triathletes plunging into the icy depths, the open-water community in this country is made up of men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes, with one big thing in common: being in the water makes them feel good.

While many of us may baulk at entering the frigid waters around this country at any time, for open- water swimmers, the lure of the deep sea or the murky lake is as strong as getting into the Aegean on a hot day to cool off.

In his book Blue Rooms, author John Jerome wrote: "The thing about the ritual morning plunge, the entry into water that provides the small existential moment, is its total privacy. Swimming is between me and the water, nothing else. The moment the water encloses me, I am, gratefully alone."

For Róisín O'Doherty, having learned to swim in her 30s by taking classes, it wasn't until she was in her 50s that she began to swim in the open water more regularly. "I heard of these swimmers at the Forty Foot who swam all year round. I remember my eldest son still was at home and we decided to swim all that winter. It was so cold, we'd only get in every two to three days. It became such a challenge," says Róisín.

"I would watch people arriving at the Forty Foot - people of all ages, shapes and sizes - and be amazed. They would look terribly respectable and they'd come down and take their clothes off and jump in," she recalls.

After that first winter of braving the cold with her son, swimming became a daily ritual - in the deep winter only staying in for five or 10 minutes and going for long 40-minute swims in the high summer, as far as Coliemore Harbour from Sandycove.

Kay Brennan, Swimmer, Claremorris, Co. Mayo. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin
Kay Brennan, Swimmer, Claremorris, Co. Mayo. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin

"There is an exercise element to it, of course. But people who swim love the sea and are fascinated by it. It can be dangerous at times and you can sometimes find yourself in rough water but even when it is rough, if you know the current, you can see yourself making progress. Every swim is always different," says Róisín.

"My routine is to get out afterwards and walk for about 20 minutes. You would be like a block of ice in the winter. You get out of the water and it's a relief and then the real cold sets into your body.

"I don't get colds - I'm not saying all swimmers don't but I don't," she says.

Róisín believes her swimming is a form of meditation. "It is a kind of mindfulness: that concentration on the stroke. Everybody feels so good and so well afterwards. Swimming is a way of practising mindfulness. You are concentrating on your breathing and on your stroke. You're not thinking about anything else," she says.

"The other aspect of swimming is the social one. I could not walk down to Sandycove without knowing most of the other people. To be 60 there is to be a kid. There's a man in his 90s who's there. Age isn't a question, really. You could be swimming no matter what age you are. People talk to one another - there's great companionship. You could be there on your own and you'd immediately strike up a conversation.

"I know one man whose wife died and he came down about four years ago. He was so sad. He got in with a group of swimmers and now he's one of the regulars. He's just turned his life around. That's the story for a lot of people," says Róisín.

"I'd say to people, 'Give it a go'. If you can swim, take a few more lessons and try it over the summer. Everybody will be so encouraging to you. It's great for the mind and the body. I'm so used to the benefits at this stage. It becomes addictive after a while. I'd say to people, 'You're missing out by not trying it,'" she says.

For Mark McCollum from Ramelton in Co Donegal, swimming outdoors and diving had been a huge part of his life. But 10 years ago, Mark - who was then a fit and active 41-year-old - found himself needing to undergo a quadruple bypass as a result of aggressive congenital heart disease, which left him with four totally blocked arteries in his heart.

While he says he accepted that life could not be the same again, he was determined that his love of the water and of swimming would remain a big part of his life.

"It was life-changing. You think you're perfectly healthy when in fact you're actually not. It was scary," says Mark of the time.

Ten years down the line, Mark, who runs the Bread and Roses Theatre Company in Donegal, thanks swimming for helping him recover and keeping his passion for fitness alive and well.

"There's something special about getting in the sea. It grounds you. For the first 15 minutes, it's okay, then something clicks and you're swimming, knowing that this is not something many people see. We are so lucky to have an amazing coastline. It's a whole other world," he says.

As well as undergoing heart surgery, Mark has also had major surgery on one of his knees after a biking accident. But despite his setbacks, he continues to take part in big swimming events around the Donegal coast and every year organises a swim series at Gartan Lake outside Letterkenny. One of the events being planned is a night swim where participants will be guided with glow sticks and which Mark says he's really excited about.

The challenge of an open-water swim is what he believes really motivates him to keep getting back in the water. "If you're cycling or running, you can take a break. If you're in the middle of the Atlantic, it's a different story. In Gartan Lake, it's a bit like swimming in black coffee," he jokes.

"My wife, Breid, and my daughters, Jade (15) and Lauren (13), are resigned at this stage that this is what I do. I'm not foolhardy. I don't take unnecessary risks. Maybe in the past I would have challenged myself more. I would have gone into water that's choppy or rough," says Mark.

"The thing about swimming is that it's getting away. You can't think about the office or about work. It's a complete distraction, when you are completely in the moment. It's not about what you are doing afterwards. You are totally in that moment. A lot of the time in our lives, we are not present because we're too busy worrying about tomorrow. Swimming focuses the mind greatly," he says.

"There are two ways life could have gone for me: I could have sat in the armchair and every twinge I felt, I could have thought, 'This is it'. Or I could have built myself up and got the confidence back to exercise safely. There's a great bunch of people I swim with. It's a diverse group. We have nothing in common except swimming. We don't talk about politics or work. If you're on the dole or you're a millionaire, it doesn't matter," says Mark.

Kay Brennan (60) is a big fan of a sip of brandy after a bracing swim in open water. If there's any bugs, the brandy will kill them, she says. A keen open-water swimmer of 15 years, Kay can be found of an evening on the shores on Lough Carra, Co Mayo, with a group of friends who swim together.

Kay says she first became aware of open-water swimming when she met her friend Maura Brennan. Their children took swimming classes together and Kay remembers watching Maura with envy when she first saw her swimming. "The feel-good factor is why I keep going back. For me, pool swimming is like a cage. It facilitates keeping fit for the summer swimming outdoors. It's the feeling of the open water, the freedom of it. Lots of people think I'm mad but I never get sick or get a cold," says Kay.

She is currently preparing for the iconic Liffey Swim but first has to qualify by participating in a number of open-water events. "Swimming is my meditation, says Kay. "It's a great form of exercise and it keeps you in shape. I haven't passed Maura out yet."

Always consult your doctor before taking up open water swimming.

For information on open-water swimming, see openwaterswimmer.ie and swimireland.ie. To find out about the Gartan Lake swims, visit facebook.com/GartanSwimChallenge2017

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