Friday 13 December 2019

Brendan O'Connor: It's time to dive in and try to get fit

Brendan Hyland, Tallaght swimming club, on his way to winning the Men's 200m Butterfly A Final at the 2014 Irish Long Course National Championships
Brendan Hyland, Tallaght swimming club, on his way to winning the Men's 200m Butterfly A Final at the 2014 Irish Long Course National Championships
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

SO I WENT back to my mentor last week. A few years back, Marie Wade did what no one else had managed all my life and taught me to do a physical activity. I don't do it well, but I do it, and that is better than nothing. And I am even making slow progress. But I felt I was coasting a bit with the swimming, so I decided decisive action was needed. It was time for boot camp-ish.

I sold it to the family as a holiday and off we went down to Kenmare. If it was one of those high-energy TV shows, it would have been billed as 'Two nights! Four lessons! One sh*t swimmer! Can she take him to the next level? It's luxury hotel swimming bootcamp!'

The torturous nature of the whole boot camp side of it was dissipated somewhat by the fact that when I wasn't in the pool being tortured, I was eating. Breakfast in the Park Hotel in Kenmare is probably intended to set you up for the day, so that you would just have a mild collation at lunchtime while walking 20 miles through the hills, before dining well that evening. Because I would be fresh from the pool and virtuous at breakfast, I would give it a good old go, smug in the knowledge that I had burnt off all the calories already. I would make a pig of myself at lunch again based on a similar rationale – still coasting off the morning swim. And then there would be more swimming before dinner, so I had another free pass.

Indeed, I was so glad to be in Packie's in Kenmare – which would be three times the price and renowned as one of the capital's best restaurants if it was in Dublin – that I ate two starters and one and a half mains. In fairness, I shared the dessert, so I only ate a four-course meal, net. For buoyancy purposes, I stuck to wine. For some reason I imagined beer might weigh me down in the pool the next day.

The end result of it all was that I have hopefully taken swimming to the next level, but I put on four pounds in three days while doing so. I should say that we can't blame Kenmare entirely for that. Boot camp was also sandwiched between two visits to the mother, who is the embodiment of what scientists call the Irish Mother Paradox. They like to see you lose weight but they also like to see you eat.

Various people who witnessed my flailing humiliation in the pool would approach me around the hotel to ask me nervously how I found the swimming lessons. I would tell them, great, and then they would get to the real point they wanted to make – she seems quite strict, they would say. Some men were clearly horrified by this while other men seemed to be quite intrigued.

And I realised that, to the outsider, it might have looked as if she was overly stern. To me, that's how it is, and we like it. I need to be taken in hand and ordered around or I'll never do it, and she is used to teaching kids, and to shouting over the noise of the pool. That's our dynamic.

During the little breaks between sets of lengths, I often try and engage her with distracting little chats about the meaning of it all and the whys and wherefores of swimming. She humours me briefly before making me do more sprints. Anyone less stern, I could tie them up in chat for the whole lesson. Wade is immune to my charm. She is a 'just do it' person. And I fear and love her for it. Because if she didn't make me just do it, I just wouldn't do it.

If I can stop eating now and do every morning what Wade made me do, we could be looking at an interesting new prospect. I could become fit. For the first time in my life.

It is quite an emotional prospect. It involves saying goodbye to the comfort of who I have been all my life, and saying goodbye to all the reasons and the excuses I have used all these years. It involves breaking it off with the biggest lie that has sustained me, that I cannot be fit.

All these years I have convinced myself that it is simply not possible for me to be a fit person. It just isn't who I am. Even at boot camp, I sabotaged myself with two starters, one and half mains, and half a dessert. Just in case it would look as if I was trying and then I failed.

The time has come now to bite the bullet, to just do it, to let go of excuses, and to entertain the possibility of failure. And if I fail, I will throw myself back into eating, secure in the knowledge I gave it a go.

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