There is a first time for everything by Matthew Davenport
20th September 2018
August has been a scorcher, weather wise and swimming wise, for me. Whilst the sun has been burning through my factor 50 sun cream, I have been burning through swimming achievements. There are many things I achieved in the month of August that I had never achieved before, either because I had never had the confidence, the ability or the opportunity to do them before. Not only that, but I also encouraged other swimmers to push their limits along the way.
The month started with what I knew was going to be a busy weekend. On the first Saturday I competed in a 2 km race down the river Dee in Chester which despite the fact I had entered last year, was going to be my first ever river swimming race. Last year I had been all set for the race but had to cancel on the day to respond to an incident at work as I was the ‘on-call’ manager.
This year I made sure I was not on call and I also made sure that I had a lot of fun with my #ChesterFrosties friends. Apart from a shared love of the water, we also have a shared eccentricity when it comes to swimwear which has led to the informal nickname of the ‘Fruity Frosties’.
As soon as I was out of the water in Chester though, I was straight into my car to drive down to what was going to be my second ever river swimming race : a 14km marathon swim from Henley-on-Thames through to a place called Marlow.
To add to the ‘first’ factor this event was also going to be my first ever swimming competition in a wetsuit. I had been talking about this event with my fellow #teamselkie swimmer Sam McNair for the last year and though both the price and the distance seemed prohibitive to me, an opportunity to do it came up and I snatched my chance.
Before the event my furthest ever swim had been 6.5km and that had been completed only once in my life. Since deciding to actually do the Thames Marathon event, I’d only had a month to get ready and despite entering the wetsuit category, I found out less than 48 hours before the start that my sleeveless, shorty wetsuit did not meet the organiser’s minimum standards.
Thankfully, Selkie Swim Co came to my rescue and agreed to lend me one of their ‘Spirit’ wetsuit, which I was grateful for but slightly anxious about, as I had never worn one before and if it chafed in the first kilometre, the other thirteen would be a problem. Amazingly it did not chafe at all during the swim. Having ran marathons and ultra-runs in my past, I knew that the key thing in any endurance event is to keep a manageable pace. There was a mild current for the first 10km of the event which really helped but the last 4km meant digging deep into my mental reserves. I finished in 4 hours 40 minutes and 10 seconds which works out at 3km an hour. Not bad for an ill-prepared first timer.
A week later and I was back in the water taking part in the Big Brutal Swim in Llyn Padarn, Llanberis, competing in the 2.5km swim ‘skins’ and safely back in my comfort zone.
Though the Thames Marathon had not been at all about speed – it was an endurance event – it had taught me a lot about my mental and physical reserves and about planning.
In this event, I had a plan of hitting the first 500m hard, settling into a steady pace for 1500m and then hitting the last 500m with everything I had. Amazingly it worked and as I crossed the finish line I was given my finisher’s souvenir. But then I realised it read ‘1st Male’. I had actually won my race for the first time in my life! It took a while to sink in and I was rightly proud when it did hit home. I stayed on to cheer and support friends and fellow swimmers taking part in the 5km and 10km events.
A few days after that I took a friend swimming at Liverpool Watersports Centre and as my friend was nervous about swimming the 750m, I lent her my tow-float. The friend actually managed a whole kilometre having never swam further than 25m from shore before in her life. When she told me this, I gave her my tow-float and encouraged her to push her boundaries. Last week she wrote to tell me she’d done multiple 2km swims at her local outdoor swimming venue. She also said that before she had the tow-float she’d have never even tried the distance.
In the last full week of August I spent some time in Berlin having been inspired by numerous swim books like Jessica J.Lee’s ‘Turning’, newspaper articles like the Guardian’s guide to Berlin swimming spots and having met members of the German ice swimming squad at this this year’s Winter Swimming World Championships.
I had never been to Berlin before but was aware of the legacy of WW2 scars on history, society and architecture. Each day I was there I swam in a different place but never indoors. With my guide books, newspaper articles, autobiographies in hand, I duly found different waters to swim in each day as well as following my nose and local knowledge to places I hadn’t expected to find. Naturally enough, some locals embraced nature fully and wore no clothes. They had full confidence in who they were and what they looked like. If someone had a problem with that, it was their problem not the naked person’s. However in the whole trip and all the swims I was most inspired by a 4 year old boy, who was on the 3 metre diving board at the Olympiastadion Schwimbad. This was where the 1936 Olympics had been held and it was steeped in history ; a history the 4 year old neither knew nor cared about as he peered over the edge of the board into deep abyss of blue water below. In the end, he decided not to jump and returned safely to the arms of his mother behind him. But I respected him for trying and having the confidence of having a go.
At the end of a month of swimming, I have achieved more than I ever thought possible in the water, I have medals and trophies to prove it. The 4 year-old on the diving board has also achieved the same spirit, he had the courage to try. Whatever your swimming ambitions are, whatever your confidence levels in the water are, please be encouraged to try something you’ve never done before, it will take you through places and experiences you have never had before and on adventures you cannot yet imagine.