Saturday 22 October 2016

Brendan O'Connor: Maybe the hardest thing I've ever done

Published 25/01/2016 | 02:30

Misty waters: The outdoor swimming pool at Wild Water Armagh
Misty waters: The outdoor swimming pool at Wild Water Armagh

It had been agreed it was better that the children did not see me in this state.

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Now I understood why. The little cabin had the alert, slightly tense but fast-moving and efficient air of an operating theatre. I was shaking uncontrollably as Molly and Olive, looking serious, kept layering warm towels on me in a matter-of-fact but urgent manner. As soon as the towels cooled down, which was quickly as my freezing body drained the heat out of them, they whipped them away and replaced them with more from a huge cauldron of hot water over the stove. They kept checking in with me, asking if I was OK. To which  my response was to keep asking them back, "Is this normal?" They would assure me it was, that the violent shivering was a good thing. One good thing is that I was mentally clear as a bell.

I was told to move over as my companion Pawel burst into the sauna, having done the full kilometre.He got the same treatment. The checking in with him involved repeatedly asking him "Where are you from?" "I know where I'm from", he answered eventually. I sat there next to him reflecting on the extraordinary journey he had taken me on. The latest stop of which was here, in a sauna in a cabin in Armagh. At the start of the summer, when the doctors had told me I could breaststroke gently up and down the pool, Pawel, who teaches my kids to swim, had gently suggested to my wife that I should come and see him. He had me front crawling on the first lesson and before the end of the summer he had me doing a 50-minute open water swim in Dublin Bay.

And last week, as you were probably sitting reading the paper, we were getting into a beautiful natural outdoor swimming pool in an incredible spot called Wild Water Armagh, where the water was between two and three degrees. On the 19th of January, Eastern Orthodox Christians in Russia and Eastern Europe celebrate the baptism of Christ, their Feast of the Epiphany, by plunging into icy water. So here we were, close enough to the 19th, and I was having my own baptism into ice swimming, which is technically swimming in water that is below 5 degrees.

I had prepared as best I could. The sea had been getting colder and on Thursday night we had picked our way painfully across the stones in Sandycove, wading out until we could start swimming. At between seven and eight degrees it was the coldest water I had swum in. But that doesn't acclimatise you for ice swimming.

Nothing does.

The atmosphere at Wild Water was very special. Not only is it a really unique place, but the team there - Ian and Paula Conroy who built this dream, Ian's daughters who are accomplished swimmers, and a few other accomplished ice swimmers - are all incredibly supportive and encouraging. Patrick, an experienced ice swimmer who would be watching us from the edge of the pool, explained to me that he would be checking in with me all the time during the swim, and when he said I had to get out I had to get out. It was his call. I asked him what symptoms he would be looking for. He said he would be generally checking that I knew my name and where I was. I thought he was joking. I don't think he was.

I didn't think I'd make it past the first two lengths. I swallowed some of the freezing water early on and it felt like it closed up my airwaves. But I decided there was no way I was coming all this way to fail, so I got the gulping and spluttering and hyperventilating under control, composed myself and kept going. My goal was 450m, 18 lengths.

The second problem I encountered was that I forgot how to swim by about length four. It was purely about survival. Each time I managed to drag myself to one end of the pool I was amazed I had done it. And I'd resolve to just do one more. As I went on I no longer felt I had any control over the lower half of my body, which seemed to be numb apart from my feet, which were biting hard. My hands were a similar weird combination of numb and biting pain and they felt like they were the size of shovels. But on I went, losing count of my laps, just putting one arm in front of another.

I made the 450. At least they told me I did. Part of me still doesn't believe them. And then Patrick said I should get out. Part of me felt I could have gone on but you have to do what you're told. You'll be the last one to know when you've had enough. So I got out, couldn't walk, was helped into the cabin, and they put my hands and feet into what felt like scalding water. In fact, the water was tepid. These are the tricks your freezing body plays on you.

I only found out afterwards that the recovery is the most dangerous bit of ice swimming. But in general there is no danger once you have loads of people around who know what they are doing, who can yank you out of the water any time, and who know how to bring your body gradually back up to some kind of normal temperature.

There is elation afterwards, a huge sense of achievement. And then, for me, it gave way to lots of hard questions. I beat myself up about my swimming, my approach to the whole situation and how I allowed it to happen to me instead of me happening to it. Fundamentally, I think it caused me to ask myself: Who are you? And it made me determined to up my swimming game.

I still haven't figured out who I am. But I do know that sometimes the universe sends people to you, and it was a lucky day for me the day that Pawel watched my banjaxed body trying to swim in the pool, and said to my wife, "tell him to come and see me".

Apparently, swimming the channel is next. In a relay, I hasten to add. That seems like a wild distant dream right now and I have no notion of it. But then again, last summer when I got back in the pool I had no notion that half a year later I'd be sitting shivering in Armagh, having had my ice swimming epiphany.

Wild Water Armagh will be hosting the International Ice Swimming Ireland 1K National Championships next Saturday, January 30, with Camlough Water Festival Committee and International Ice Swimming Ireland.

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