Review

Shelf Help: Leap In - a woman, some waves and the will to swim

January 12th 2017 / Victoria Woodhall

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Alexandra Heminsley challenged herself to overcome her fear of the sea - but first, she had to learn front crawl. Can her memoir inspire our pool-phobic reviewer to get her goggles on?

I was drawn to this book because, like its author Alex Heminsley at the beginning of her journey, I can’t really swim - unless you call granny breaststroke in the pool once a year on holiday. Last summer, I realised I’d been outclassed by my children, who would probably be saving my life if we went overboard rather than the other way around. I resolved to do something about it and next holiday to be the one effortlessly slicing through the water while barely breaking a splash. So far I haven't ventured outside a hot bath, but this book holds the promise of change.

While Leap In talks about technique (catch, army recovery etc) google-choosing, wetsuits and why you’re always hungry after swimming (it’s dehydration apparently not hunger, but you don’t notice you’ve been sweating in the wet), it’s also about what’s going on in Alexandra’s life as she challenges herself not only to master front crawl, but to do it in open water.

Despite having lived in Brighton for five years, she’d never actually been in the sea until an impulsive moment on the morning of her wedding – the wedding she thought she might never have. “I was glad that today was the day I made the leap, I had held my heart back for long enough. I now felt a visceral urge to seize everything that life was throwing at me and live more intensely than I ever had,” she declares optimistically.

But life, like the sea, can turn. When, barely a week into marriage, an ‘out-of-nowhere’ wave knocks her husband’s wedding ring off his finger, Alex develops a fear of the sea and determines to conquer it. As a marathon runner (documented in her 2014 book Running Like a Girl), she is used to the pain and graft of serious fitness, but she soon realises that there are few transferable skills between the sports. Learning front crawl has to be approached with a beginner’s mind, if she’s ever to master that effortless crawl technique that others make look so easy.

From her wincingly funny first lessons in the pool to the ignominy of squeezing herself into a wetsuit ("the loneliest place on earth is halfway into, halfway out of a wetsuit") we follow her through the triumph of swimming from Kefalonia to Ithaca, the sheer terror of broaching the flinty waters of the Lake District and the exhilaration of night swims around Brighton pier. Swimming becomes her sanity as she undergoes IVF; the challenges her body faces both in open water and during medical treatment become intertwined – one giving strength to the other.

Her story may imply that all those all those clichéd life metaphors about choppy waters and calm seas are true, but she studiously steers clear of obvious comparisons. She reflects on how open water swimming has helped navigate (sorry!) life’s uncertainties with a mindset of strength and flexibility and given her the courage to change her plans "depending on what the weather, the tide or my own body had in store".

What the book has taught me is that what's behind total lack of front crawl is the fear of not being able to breathe. Alex's experience, as well as her practical insights, show it's all conquerable with technique, persistence and just leaping in.

Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves And The Will to Swim by Alexandra Heminsley is published by Hutchinson. (hardback, £12.99).

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Interested in a taster? Read this extract from the opening chapter below.

I thought I could swim, I really did.

It may have been because I could run. It may have been because I wanted to swim. It may have been because I only ever did ten minutes of breaststroke at a time, or splashed and bobbed off a warm beach or in the pool at the gym.

But I really couldn’t swim.

I used to watch them, The Swimmers. I used to see them to my left when I got in the pool to do my three or four lengths after a session at the gym doing weights or trying to use the running machine. Or, even better, I’d see them in the sea when I was running along the beach. There was something other- worldly about them, as if by not actually being on the earth but being in it they had become somehow more than human.

The pool swimmers always had a specific brisk walk as they came from the changing rooms. It just oozed ‘I’m not here to fuck about’. Their goggles would usually be on already, making eye contact with them impossible. Their gift, their glamour, lay somehow behind their rubber and plastic eyes, shielded like a superhero’s. Then they’d just slip in and . . . start. The transition from poolside human to slick, slippery silverfish took seconds. Their faces vanished beneath the surface, their arms pulled the water ahead of them away as their front crawl effortlessly propelled them forward. It was beyond me. Where was the bit where they emerged, panting and ruddy- faced, needing to break into breaststroke after three-quarters of a length? Or hung around at the end of one of the lanes and stared into the middle distance, catching their breath and rolling their eyes at the unholy effort of it all?

They never did. They’d just get in and get going. I would console myself with what I told myself was my strong breaststroke kick and glide along, the water dividing my face at my nose, leaving me looking and longing, a covetous hippo. My eyes swivelled and my heart yearned.

The sea swimmers were another species altogether. I would only know them by the steady rotation of their arms and perhaps the neon of a swimming cap. Often they swam so far out that I could not tell if they were in a wetsuit or a regular swimming costume. They would slide through the sea, ageless, genderless, a part of the water, a part of the view. It seemed rigorous, but also peaceful.

As the skyline bobbed up and down in my vision, bouncing with the gait of my run, the sea swimmers seemed to exist in a world somehow less aggressive than the one I ran in. I knew the ache of ankles, knees and hips after hitting pavement or tarmac for hours on end, and I had grown to love it – I associated it with warm baths after battles won, with the meditative state that running gave me and with the huge emotional lessons it had taught me. Within five years I had gone from someone for whom any sort of exercise was theoretical – a nice idea, but something for others, for the ‘sporty types’ – to someone who had run five marathons. Running had been my entry point into a world where I understood both my body and the elasticity of my limitations so much better. It improved my confidence, it improved my relationships, and it improved my body. But now I had grown a little impatient with the burgeoning running industry, with its endless heavily marketed events, its relentless reliance on technology that cost you a week’s salary to tell you that you weren’t quite as good as last week, and above all its obsession with time and distance.

I began to wonder about the freedom, the less jarring tiredness, and the sense of well- being that swimming out there in the deep might give me. It looks wonderful, I’d think, but it can’t be that easy to become part of the ocean.

An extract from Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves And The Will to Swim by Alexandra Heminsley (Hutchinson, hardback, £12.99).


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