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Swimming into strength

i wrote this article for Swimzine - a few years back. It was written after my dad died, and I had just buried him. Re-reading it today, a few weeks after my mum's funeral I am reminded of how swimming and yoga have supported me through my grief all these years. I have so much gratitude for my practice and, having just signed up for the Dart 10k 2024, I am also struck by how the journey of my grief so often matches the swimming training journey I go on when training for these long events: sadness, heaviness, flow and freeze, exhaustion, aches in strange places, doubt, fear and then a look back at how far you've come, with incredulity, sorrow and joy all at the same time

Enjoy the read!

17th September, 2017. Bantham Beach, South Devon. A hundred or so swimmers, a huddle of neoprene and swimsuits. Nervous giggles, sunlight glancing off goggles. Overheard snatches of swim chatter. A starter's gun shatters the reverie. Nothing else matters at this moment. We are here, we have to swim round a small island for half an hour, to raise money for charity. I have swum longer and harder events, swooshing down the River Avon out onto this very same beach a few months earlier. 

But tomorrow I will bury my father. Tomorrow I have to put my grief in a hole in the ground and stand tall, alongside my brother and read an eulogy. We will show our respects, honour the dead, ‘celebrate the life of’. Funerals, whatever they are for the ones left behind, mark a passing and are tangible and solid, a physical place to turn up to and weep, sing or shout. We have been there through a long mental illness, uncomfortable and uneasy but always with unconditional love. 

I remember the spliced seconds of the swim. The huddle moving as one towards the sea. Setting out was easy, finding a space amongst the flailing arms and gasping mouths. Feeling the sand disappear from under my feet and the cold water trickling down my neckline. My breath found a rhythm and my limbs settled around it like a hug.  

Going round the back of the island, away from the shore and all that anchored me, was liberating and terrifying. With a river swim, you see the banks on either side, earthing you to something solid. This was a new feeling, like the dark side of the moon where the sun doesn’t reach. I felt like an astronaut, out of radio contact with all that I knew. My family waited on the beach expectantly. I found my stroke, smile sliding seal-like onto my face as a swimmer next to me grinned with pure joy, and in that moment as we headed back towards shore, I knew I had found that Ready Brek glow that I would need the following day. 

At the funeral, I stood taller in church. I felt surer. I spoke the words I knew people needed to hear, but in my head the eulogy was different, true to my own grief skin. My journey round Burgh Island, to the moon and back, had given me a solid edge, sealed my watercolour in with oil paint. It gave me dignity and clarity when I really needed it, but cocooned within me, formed in the cool channel waters, was my own goodbye from a daughter to a father. Since then It has stretched and shapeshifted into a myriad of refracted, snatched thoughts and memories. Goodbye to a brilliant mind, a kind man, full of christmas cracker jokes and punchlines. Troubled, cerebral and never really present, always light years ahead, leaving his body behind. 

Now, the water calls to me in challenging times, bringing me back to my body. I dip at dawn regularly, mainly in my swimsuit, all year round. Feeding my circadian rhythms in the Bristol Estuary waters.  By journeying to the sea or river, I feel stronger already. Maybe it’s muscle memory of that day, as sometimes I don’t always swim. If I feel too tired, or sad, I can just be there, and watch the ebb and flow, the whorls and eddies. Time and tide are a constant reminder of flow, that everything is in flux, including our emotions. We can draw on this state of change in nature and experience that flow in ourselves, knowing that this too, will pass. 

Amelia Paul is a yoga teacher and an outdoor swim coach based in Bristol -

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