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As this is my seventh article submitted to the HOWSC editor (including the “too hot to touch” unpublished fifth it's coming soon, ed), I thought it may be time to share how my life has changed over the last few years and the part open water swimming has played.
So suddenly taking up an extreme-ish* sport mid-way through my 35th year, a classic mid-life crisis, an attempt to recapture lost youth. Maybe if you thought that you wouldn’t be completely wrong, I joked to myself at the time that it meant I would live till I was 70; although, my dad later passing away at that age gives this thought a very different tinge. *depending on how far/cold you go

At the same time, you would be completely wrong, there was no swimming crisis and for that matter I didn’t really have a wild youth to recapture; the swimming was the distraction I needed to keep going, the real issue lay elsewhere. To find the start of that story you have to go back another 6 months (see I do know that two times 35.5 doesn’t equal 70) or maybe over two decades.

Approaching my 35th birthday I had set myself a challenge, something to change the course of the rest of my life. No not to become the world’s greatest open water swimmer (that goal came later), but instead to dedicate a year to see if I could find love. I had finally reached a point where I could admit to myself (although not yet more publicly) that I didn’t want to spend all my time alone and that this would require taking active steps to change things.

Prior to this my thoughts had always been that I would always be single. Not necessarily that it was something I actively wanted, just something inevitable. So, did I succeed, I’m sure you can guess the answer isn’t a simple yes otherwise this article would be rather short and lacking on insight into the addictiveness of open water.

However, based on the target I set myself I did succeed, it’s just the love I found wasn’t the happily ever after type, it was the unrequited type that brought heartbreak and pain. Life-changing, maybe, but not in the desired way. So, to the crisis, was it realising I had been wrong all those years or maybe, after being turned down by one and many, it was closer to fearing I had been right.

At emotional times people can often seek out distractions, drink, drugs, hobbies, sport; for me, my outlet was swimming. No more gentle swims twice a week it was every day as fast as possible. No real aim but a chance to be free and just think of length after length after length.

The switch to open water was rather accidental, the first time it came to my attention was in an on-line dating profile, one of the few positives that came out of my first attempt at connection, shortly followed by a poster in the pool asking for sponsorship for some 10k swims. Curiosity was stirred and I had entered the Henley swim Bridge to Bridge.

A challenge and something a bit daunting, but a genuine distraction with plenty to do and only three months to get things sorted. Find a wetsuit, find somewhere to train, enter a short event to try things out first, add a 10k to bridge the gap. In the water things were clear, events to finish, skills to improve, dry land things could be ignored, a few more events entered.

The first event, nice, first 10k (small field) and fourth after drafting the third placed swimmer most of the event, a big turning point. Suddenly I wasn’t just there to finish, I could compete, maybe even win. The contrast was huge, success in the water and a disaster on land; it was almost as if it would be easier to win a 10k (or longer) event than to go on a date. How easy it is for thoughts to get stuck in your head. Enter a few more events, and within a couple of months it had been a 10K per week for seven successive weeks. A couple of second places, but the top spot was elusive.

I was hooked and with a new-found target stuck in my head I spent the winter working hard on my ill-conceived prediction. In 2016 I was back, a good minute per km faster, a focussed racing machine, everything else was gone. Race twice every weekend, no emotions, just dreams of PBs, good results and the elusive win. In Swimming you can’t control everything like competition or the conditions but you can work on everything else.

Everything was fine, until it wasn’t. Hiding from yourself while your spending all your free time in the water is one thing, but when September draws to a close and your body needs a rest it’s completely different. Swimming is great, but it can’t be everything.

When things have been with you a long time, it’s not always easy to make changes, talk or ask for help. For some the best person to talk to may be a friend or family member or maybe a counsellor but it’s important to take that first step. Talking won’t solve everything over-night but having someone know a bit more about who you really are makes a real difference. Things may be a bit up and down at times, but important things in life are never easy.

While I’ve been trying to re-balance things, I have swum a bit less, got a bit slower, but the social side has got so much more important. Maybe there are times when you’re feeling down and getting in the water doesn’t change your mood, but most of the time it does and it brings amazing people a shared passion and challenges that can be met.

As some of you may know, last year I did finally hit my swimming goal of winning a long race at the 2017 Humdinger. So, did it turn out I was Mystic Andrew; actually no, although there was only about a month in it so let’s say half Mystic-Andrew or Andrew. Maybe it wasn’t the right match but a step forward, the first of many steps but a path worth following.

Just looking from a swimming point of view, I’m now on the eve of my fourth summer season and there are still new challenges out there. Each year so far has built on the last but also had its own flavour reflecting my swimming and life more generally.

•    Year one: The new guy. New places, new people
•    Year two: Speed. The fastest I’ve ever been, swim hard and try and outlast everyone
•    Year 3: Tactics. Analyse the competition, draft, wait, seek out small advantages. A bit slower and less consistent but still competitive.
•    Year 4: Skins. Let’s see…

To wrap things up, do I think open water races can be addictive, for me the answer may be yes. Feeling down, enter a race, a good result, enter a race, a bad result, enter a race, a free day enter a race. However, as we all know, open water swimming in all its forms is amazing in so many ways so a little drive isn’t a bad thing providing you don’t exclude everything else from your life.
But, would I say that I set out to find love but ended up in love with a sport; I do love swimming but I wouldn’t equate those feelings. If time suddenly rewound a few years and things could have turned out differently, I’m sure the last few years would have been happier if the right person had said yes even if I had never found open water. However, looking forward the aim isn’t to choose between love and swimming it’s to find space for both. Maybe swimming won’t be the number one focus but it’s still part of life to savour.

Which would you pick?

AS YOU'RE HERE: The HOWSC website is maintained and run by HOWSC members and relies on voluntary contribtutions.  Do you have something you'd like to share?  Maybe reflections on a recent swim, tales of adventures in far flung places, an account of your watery accomplishments? Photographs, videos, poetry, prose, art and more will all be gratefully received and published on the website for all to admire.  Contact Mark Reed to discuss or submit your contribution.  We look forward to hearing from you.
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