Tuesday 23 January 2018

It's all going swimmingly for self-help author

Non-fiction: Leap In, Alexandra Heminsley, Penguin Random House, hardback, 240 pages, €15.99

Making waves: Alexandra Heminsley went from marathon running to swimming
Making waves: Alexandra Heminsley went from marathon running to swimming
Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley

Tanya Sweeney

Building on the success of her first book, 'Running Like a Girl', Alexandra Heminsley takes to the water for another story of personal healing and hard-won triumphs.

Another January, another gelatinous glut of self-improvement books… except that in recent times, the self-help tome has shapeshifted somewhat.

Fuelled no doubt by the successes of Caitlin Moran, Joan Didion and Nora Ephron, we now have the memoir-slash-self-help tome, penned by journeywomen saying a variant of "look, I've been through what you're going through. We humans are all prone to failings and low points, and I'm here to show you through hard-won experience that you'll be fine."

Alexandra Heminsley has already written one to masterful effect: Running Like a Girl charted her arduous journey from couch potato to marathon runner. It was not a smooth transition, as Heminsley readily attests. On her first attempt to run, she was back home after less than a mile, sore and deflated. A frosty trip to a specialist running shop, where she met the business end of some elitist marathon snobs, also took the giddy out of her gallop.

Yet, five marathons later, Heminsley was stronger, fitter, faster, and a changed woman in many respects besides.

In Leap In, Heminsley realises that while she is certainly fit, the effortless swim still evades her. She may be able to tread water in a pool but one day finds herself out to sea, and flailing. After enjoying the spoils of the experience of learning to run, it's now time for her to turn her attention to another form of exercise: to conquer fears, to become not just good at swimming, but at one with the water. To not just survive, but thrive.

"I wanted to dive into water as I want to dive into life," she writes. "Filled with joy, curiosity, and the knowledge that though there might be dangers, they aren't daunting enough to make it not worth doing."

And much like in Running Like a Girl, the process is less than straightforward. There is much personal healing to undergo, for a start. And for all Heminsley's newly acquired athleticism on the track, learning to swim properly has been a battle.

There is the sobering experience of getting into her first wetsuit (although it does make for a humorous account). Getting to the start line of an open-sea swimming event proves to be another hurdle.

Yet, amid it all, she is touched by the endless patience and solidarity of the swimmers at the Brighton Swimming Centre, where she takes a sea-swimming course. And a swimming holiday in Greece proves to be more profound and affecting than she ever could have foretold.

By their very nature, Heminsley's books, in theory, teeter perilously close to 'smug Fitspo bore' territory.

And in a lesser writer's hands, the experience of perfecting one's butterfly stroke would make for a very flimsy premise indeed.

Yet in much the same way that Cheryl Strayed turned a 10,000-mile hike into a spiritual and philosophical odyssey, Heminsley has broadened her swimming lessons into something of wider, more profound significance.

There's the humbling realisation that one has to unlearn something and start all over again. There's bodily acceptance, plain and simple. There's turning over the idea of what a 'sporty' person is or looks like. Exercise isn't a punitive thing that women to do get 'beach ready' - it's something that can provide a psychological awakening that can go deep as wells.

Those looking for how-to practical advice get plenty of bang for their buck too. The second section of the book sees Heminsley offer advice and recommendations on sea swimming, from buying goggles and staying warm(ish) to breathing and tracking devices.

This really is a place where the novice swimmer will find out everything they ever wanted to know about learning to swim but were waiting for someone else to ask.

Heminsley has it all covered, including "Is chlorine bad for me, or will it ruin my skin, hair and nails?" and "Can I swim if I've still got my period?".

By her own admission, she didn't grow up with a natural ability for, or propensity towards, sport and had to fight her own ideas of exclusiveness.

And it's precisely Heminsley's everywoman delivery that proves to be the real strength of the book. A chummy, candid and convivial quality that will go down well with readers, certainly, but something else is afoot, too.

Since Running Like a Girl, Heminsley has become more assured as a writer too, her writing becoming stronger and more evocative. Ever mindful of its beauty and sheer majesty, she writes of the sea and its powers - both good and bad - wonderfully.

There are, predictably, several moments of jubilation. The journey is gratifyingly arduous, the triumphs hard-won.

And in her tale, Heminsley proves that it's not just possible to learn to swim, but to conquer fear and - if one clings on tight enough - to finally have dreams within grasp.

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