Society likes labels. Man/woman, working/unemployed, old/young. We like to categorise and put things in boxes. I guess it helps our brain to compartmentalise, sort some order from the chaos. When we label things they’re often grouped together, positive or negative connotations about that group are often applied to all that “fit” in that label. Grouping and ordering is a great thing, it gives us an easy, simple way to navigate the world but it can lead to assumptions and conclusions being made that aren’t always right. It has led to many bad things in society………..racism, sexism, ageism, many of the other “isms”.
So what labels do I use for myself? I’m a Mum, a woman, a walker, a swimmer. I’ve often felt the need to qualify that last one though. Why? What makes me feel the need to explain?
In the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to be part of focus groups and consultations that have questioned this kind of thing and it turns out I’m not alone in my uncertainty or surprise at being labelled a swimmer.
When I was at school there was a competitive swimming club based there. I played around in the sessions either side of them. Fishing bricks off the bottom with my Dad, trying to swim widths and eventually lengths without coming up for breath, enjoying that now rare thing, diving boards! We swam lengths a bit but there was a lot of just mucking about. To me, the swimmers were those people who were training. Following unfathomable numbers and codes written on a whiteboard propped at the end of each lane. They took it seriously, they got out of breath, sweated, swam beautiful perfect swim strokes, had bodies like gods and goddesses, never seemed to stop or chat. I was not that. I was a pudgy teen who floated well, and found a space I was comfortable and happy just being me in.
As I got older I carried on swimming. Ploughing up and down as one of the few forms of exercise I actually enjoyed. But if anyone ever described me as a swimmer I was surprised.
I’ve accepted now that I am indeed a swimmer but the hard wiring that only the competitive swimmers are real swimmers is still there. I often find myself saying “well yes, I swim, but I don’t take it seriously, I don’t train and stuff”. Generally I don’t, I’m a bit of a “wing it” kind of swimmer. Longer swims are often led by whatever training swim The Short One needs to do, I just tag along and make sure she doesn’t get hypothermia or push herself too hard. I have trained for events in the past but it’s always been a pretty informal affair i.e. can I actually swim 10k? There are also lots and lots of short dips, heads up breastroke, bobble hatted chatty swims, dive in off a rock and get straight back out swims, muck about in a mermaid tail swims. My swimming is much and varied.
It’s all still swimming though. Albeit in different guises.
A quick google search tells me that to “swim” is defined as “to move through water by moving the body or parts of the body”. So, basically anyone who gets into water and can move around is a swimmer.
It reminded me of a conversation I heard at school when a friend complained that they couldn’t draw. The art teacher very kindly said “Can you make a mark on that piece of paper with that pencil? If you can, then you can draw.” It didn’t matter that it wasn’t necessarily what he wanted or expected to draw but it was still drawing. That friend went on to study art throughout school.
So if swimming is just moving yourself through water I could, in theory, tog someone in buoyancy aid and wetsuit, throw them in the water even if they claimed they couldn’t swim, and the chances are they’d swim. Putting aside the panic such an incident might induce they’d probably be able to move through the water somehow. They’d definitely be swimming. They’d be a swimmer!
So it doesn’t matter how you swim. If you can get in, float and move through the water in whatever way works for you then you’re a swimmer. You don’t need the perfect breastroke, front crawl or backstroke and you most certainly don’t need to be able to swim butterfly. Just get in and move, enjoy the water on your skin, the weightlessness, the support on your body. The enveloping hug of water transporting you away from the everyday burdens of gravity. That for me is swimming and that’s what makes me a swimmer.