I am writing this blog entry in early January 2021 looking back on that year of 2020, which will be remembered by so many people as a year of loss, isolation and lockdown. It was of course the year that a virus swept the world to create a pandemic with a range of responses around the world. My nation of birth Australia quickly went into full quarantine quite early, closing its internal and external borders, with a working track and trace system, with around 900 losing their lives. My adopted country of the UK adopted an approach of exceptionalism, kept its borders open, reluctantly entering into lockdown too late, and having an ineffective track and trace system, with around 70,000 deaths.
But I think it is far too early to make judgements as that will take more time to develop. No this blog is about the impact of the virus on my swimming adventures in 2020.
The year started with a midnight swim in Loch Lomond to watch the various fireworks displays to bring in the New Year. Later in the day I joined the loonies for a swim at Duck Bay on Loch Lomond, and then the annual dook with the Wild West Swimmers at Luss. Three swims on day one was a great start to the year.
My birthday was celebrated with a visit to Pembrokeshire in Wales with the Welsh Mermaid, with winter swims at Barafundle Bay and Broadhaven South Beaches. The walkers rugged up for winter could not believe it when we exited the water wearing only our swimwear. It was great to be back swimming amongst small clean waves in the sea again.
The end of January was a visit to Armagh in Northern Island for the Irish Ice Swimming Championships, where the mild winter meant the water was not cold enough for the 1km swim attempt to be recognised. It was 5.7c which was 0.7c too high, but we still had a great time, enjoying the warm towels, sauna and hot tub for the post swim recovery. The highlight was seeing Dave slash five minutes off his one km time, which was a reflection of how much work he had undertaken and how much his stroke had improved with some coaching from me.
February was highlighted by a visit to Cheltenham in England for the GB Ice Swimming Champs in a 50m unheated lido. After all my training in Loch Lomond in temperatures just under 5c, it was disappointing that the mild winter meant the event was held in water of a tropical 6.4c. Once again I competed in the one km event, but my time was fairly slow, even with a cheer squad present.
The first weekend in March had the Scottish Winter Swimming Championships at Loch Tay again, and I competed in the 450m, the 50m freestyler and the 4x50m relay. This year we had an outdoor hot tub to ease the pain of the 4.2c water, and even picked up a medal. Little did I know that this would be the last event of the year.
I had planned to visit Australia the week after the Scottish event to attend my son’s wedding and to stay with my elderly father, see my new-born granddaughter and catch up with old friends. This would have been my first trip back to Australia since my departure in 2014, and I was looking forward to it immensely. But the virus had other ideas, and I decided to cancel my trip 24 hours before my planned departure. The last thing I wanted to do was to expose my father to the virus as I would have been on planes for 24 hours and who knows what I could have picked up.
In the end that weekend I spent having one last night in my local pub, and sure enough about a week later came down with the dreaded cough. Luckily, that was the only symptom that I had, and while I could not get a test due to a severe lack of them, it felt like a very mild case.
In late April I received news from Australia that my father had suffered a stroke and was admitted to hospital. I had lengthy discussions with my family about whether I should make the trip down under, but as I was would have to spend two weeks in quarantine in a hotel, it was felt that it would be better if I stayed in the UK. Then just as he was getting ready to be discharged and admitted to a nursing home, he suffered a relapse with his health taking a turn for the worst. He declined the operation offered to him, and passed away 36 hours later. I had missed my chance to spend one last time with him due to the virus, and now I could not even make it to his funeral. I watched the streaming of his small funeral at 2am UK time in early May, with tears in my eyes and a very heavy heart, feeling so far away from them all.
A lockdown, meant we could only go outside for one hour a day for exercise, and no travelling to the loch for a swim. As the rules were eased, I did make it back to the loch, and we formed a pod of five who started swimming several mornings a week, with swims of around 2km in the warming waters of Loch Lomond. Over the summer we did the circuit of Inchtavannach a few times, and of Inchconnachan, a 8km swim around Inchmoan, an end to end of Loch Lubnaig (6.7km), and an end to end Loch Venachar with visiting Cate and Rob from England (5.5km). At times it felt like the virus had receded and perhaps we were through the worst of it. As the summer continued, I had my busiest August and September ever coaching clients, helping them to understand the risks and rewards of swimming outdoors.
I had expected to be working with Big Blue Swim again for the month of September in Lefkada Greece, with Cate and Rob. Two of my Scottish pals Vin and George had booked on the last week of the season and we had planned to spend some time in Kefalonia afterwards to finish off the summer. However, the virus meant these trips were cancelled so there was the real prospect of no work at all for me in Greece in 2020. Then in mid-August I was offered the chance to work in Crete for one week as there was the real prospect that I would have to go into self-isolation upon my return to the UK. This was not an issue for me, as I live alone, and my day job was performed from my home office. That 10 days in Crete made the summer for me, and I felt extremely lucky to have been able to make the journey to this special place full of such wonderful memories. The journey through Heathrow was a delight, with the terminal very quiet and the flight to Greece only 30% capacity. To get off the plane and feel the sun and warm air on my skin was such a delight again.
Once I had returned to the UK, the swim pod and I continued our swimming in Loch Lomond, aiming to swim once again in skins throughout the year. As the water temperature slowly dropped to 10c and then 8c, our swims became shorter and shorter. We even started night swimming with lights in our tow floats lighting us up like Chinese lanterns, and a light on the beach for reference. Before this I had not been too big a fan of swimming at night, and I know that is growing up in Australia played a role in that. However, once I got over my nerves, I found that I really enjoyed the sensation of swimming, as it felt like you were actually not moving at all, until you noticed that you had got to the turning point. We were lucky to swim under clear skies a few times, and to have starlight and even moonlight to steer by was a sheer delight.
I did manage to keep swimming right through December 2020 as the temperature of the loch dropped to 8c then to 5c. There were times when it was difficult to get in, as I knew it was not going to be easy. But, the feeling of achievement is huge after challenging the body to perform things that I would have thought were impossible not that long ago. When I think about it I think it is mundane that someone would swim for 30 minutes or so in water around 6c in only a swimsuit. But then I have to think of where I came from, where the only time water was this cold was when the bathtub was filled up with ice to keep the tinnies cold for a bbq. I can remember swimming at Bondi in 16c water in a wetsuit and looking at a fellow swimmer in just his speedos with a sense of awe that anyone could swim in those cold temperatures. But the human body can adapt to many things and learning to swim in cold water is one of those. When I stop and reflect I have to recognise that an average swimmer like me, brought up in a warm climate, could take up cold water swimming and enjoy it and achieve a number two ranking for his country.
So in summary 2020 started well, until the virus came. The resulting pandemic prevented my visit to my homeland for a family wedding. It prevented me from attending my father’s funeral. It meant working from home for at least nine months. It forced me to learn to live by myself again. It saw my coaching business having its busiest ever months in August and September as people took up open water swimming. It meant the five person swim pod was able to stick as a small group and support each other as we swam in the beautiful Scottish lochs. However, one of the best things was the support I gained from a very special person, who was there for me every single day. Thank you to all of you who shared a swim with me in 2020.
Let us hope that in January 2022 we can look back on 2021 as a better year than the one before.