Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Swimming

Photograph: Anna May Trogstad

Exercise, as has been made clear in my previous columns, has never been my forte. After attempting a week of running last term, it became clear that my dreams of becoming an athlete were short-lived – after half a lap around campus in week 1, my trainers were banished to my wardrobe where they have been gathering dust ever since.

The first term of my third year, unfortunately, has not been kind to me. Despite contact time being laughably minimal, I found myself cripplingly and inexplicably stressed from the very start of Freshers’ Week. As the weeks progressed I would leave my flat as little as possible, taking meals to my room and avoiding talking even to my best friends, but equally not finding any motivation to work. After countless instances in which I thought I was about to keel over, it became apparent that perhaps I was not dying, but experiencing frequent panic attacks from unprecedented anxiety. It was difficult to accept because I’m normally a sociable, extroverted person who would need paying to raise my stress levels from ‘lacking in shits to give’ to ‘infinitesimally flustered’. Acknowledging this put everything into perspective, and I vowed to do everything in my power to get back on my feet. Exercising seemed like a great incentive to get up in the morning, so early one Monday I marched my student loan down to the gym and bought a term’s membership and a pair of goggles. With several weeks’ worth of food and alcohol money invested, I would have no choice but to make the most of my new purchase.

I have never been a strong swimmer, and at 7.30 on the first morning I eyed the water with trepidation. There were people in it. Why were people awake and exercising before midday? Why was I awake and exercising before midday? Casting these thoughts aside, I found myself a nice clear lane to swim up and down, and pushed off from the wall. I was not an elegant swimmer; nor, I discovered, as a much older man overtook me, was I fast, but I swam doggedly on until exactly 8am when the lifeguards cleared the pool to make way for a cohort of people with canoes. I’d have attempted to stay in longer were I not afraid that I would be mistaken for an orca in my black swimming costume, and harpooned. The following morning I stuck two fingers up to all my alarms and stayed in bed until some inconsiderate bastard set off the fire alarm at 10am. Already I felt as though I had failed, as I had no motivation or inclination to embark on the short walk to the gym. But Wednesday came, and, if anything, I felt more determined to prove myself wrong. Having completed 30 lengths on my first swim, I decided to push myself. In the open half of the pool, free from the constraints of roped off lanes, I ended up wedged between my elderly friend from the previous visit, and a bloke in a banana hammock. Fixing my eyes firmly forward, I ploughed up and down until they both vacated the pool, giving me some space to refine my chaotic breaststroke, and finally got out of the pool after swimming 50 lengths. For the first time in weeks I felt accomplished and positive, and so made a point of spending time with my friends for the rest of the day instead of secluding myself in my room.

On Thursday morning I was actually looking forward to my morning swim, and enjoyed how clear my mind felt when all I had to concentrate on was counting lengths. Unfortunately, the water was less clear, and this meditative experience was scuppered by the sight of various flakes of skin, and strings of what looked like snot floating past my goggles. I tried my best to ignore the fact that I was swimming in a hotpot of human debris for the ensuing 60 lengths, before hobbling off to the showers to rid myself of other people’s grime. The next day neither Banana Hammock nor my speedy old mate were in the pool, and I relished the opportunity to have my own space. I even attempted front crawl, but that lasted for just one length when I arrived marginally faster, but totally exhausted at the deep end. Why sprint when you can take a leisurely walk?!

Even in my primary school swimming lessons I was painfully slow; I chose to blame the fact that I was considerably smaller than most people my age. At 21 years old, and just 5 feet tall, I am still not gifted in the height department, so I took some solace in this when contemplating why I was still slow in comparison with my geriatric (but taller) pool partners. I then remembered that Ellie Simmonds, who is 4 feet tall, can swim 50m in 35.23 seconds, and came to the conclusion that my lack of speed probably isn’t down to my lack of height. I chose Saturday as a rest day, and headed to the Sports Centre on Sunday afternoon to round off my week. After my tranquil morning swims, I was perplexed when I heard noise emanating from the swimming pool into the changing rooms. Walking in, I was met by a fleet of buoyant orange orbs, and realised with horror the cause of this noise. Children. It’s a well-known fact that humans under the age of 10 produce approximately 94 times as much snot as adult humans, and as a result I was pretty sure that, despite the eye-watering amount of chlorine in the pool, I would be lucky to reach Monday morning without a super virus. The water was noticeably warmer, and I shuddered to think how many of these screaming, armband-clad piranhas had weed in the shallow end. I was left with no choice but to swim in one of the lanes, which, it turns out, are reserved for athletic, streamlined individuals. These speedy people are the antelopes of the human species, darting gracefully along, while I’m more of an escaped warthog with limited control over my limbs. Nonetheless, when my elegant lane-partner left the pool, I felt the pressure subside, and managed 70 lengths before heading home to gorge my body weight in the contents of my fridge.

Swimming has by no means eradicated my anxiety, and I would have been naïve if I thought it would. It has, however, given me an incentive to get out of bed in the morning, it has vastly improved my mood, and has made me realise that while some days I will struggle to find the willpower to leave the house, it does not mean that I have failed, or let myself down, because I can try again another day. I’ll have to; I’ve paid for my gym membership!