Dodging blue bottles

We live in a beautiful city. I was doing another ocean training swim the other day and it struck me again how privileged we are to live in this city with easy access to the beach and an incredible outdoor lifestyle. The ocean is warm all year round and still teeming with life.

The water was crystal clear that day and I started the swim by swimming over our local reef. What a way to train, seeing fish scurrying over rocks and the sand get churned up by the odd swell that was rolling in.

This past week was the South African National Swimming Championships, a qualifying event for the World Champs to be held in Budapest later this year. I used to compete at that level. Swimming was a massive part of my life (it still is) but back then, it consumed me a lot more than it does now. I used to train no matter what my body was feeling. I never missed a session, I pushed and pushed and strived. I was driven by the desire to be the best swimmer I could be with little regard for the sacrifices I made and the impact it had on my body. I took it way too seriously to the point that I lost my joy in the sport. That was when I decided to call it a day. I was sad and disappointed in myself because I felt like I had failed to meet my own expectations, I hadn’t reached the best I felt I could be. It was a tough season I dealt with only about 18 months after the event.

When I was swimming and racing competitively, there was some attempt at creating a culture of team. It was an honour and huge achievement to be selected to swim for your province. We all travelled together and stayed together; there was a team mascot and initiation for new swimmers. We used to scream and shout for our relay team in the hopes to win the spirit trophy.

All that has changed. You can no longer even differentiate between the different provinces, there was no atmosphere, the stands are scattered with over anxious parents and bored siblings as they waited to watch their family member compete for a few seconds of an attempt at glory.

Most of the swimming was below average in terms of technique and speed. Something is very wrong.
What’s happened to the culture? School intehouse galas have more team spirit than an elite level national championship. This is not how it should be. As you get stronger, faster, more experienced as an athlete you sacrifice more and dedicate your life to the sport you love and the talent you’re blessed with, the support gets less and it becomes harder to stay motivated. Training partners start to drop off because it gets too hard.

We need to rekindle the culture of team and fun in swimming, bring back the mascots and initiation of new team mates, and bring back the badge of honour it is to swim for your province.

As I swam in the ocean this past weekend, I pondered my pool career as a swimmer. I have rekindled my love of the sport since retiring from competitive pool swimming. It is still a massive part of my life. I still make sacrifices for it, but my perspective has shifted. It is no longer performance orientated. It is about using my passion for the sport that has defined a large part of my life and using my affinity of the water to impact the lives of those around me by sharing experiences and imparting lessons I have learnt.
It’s about stopping to look at the fish and listen out for dolphins underwater. It is about appreciating the freedom of being able to do what I love in an incredible city with friends who have shared dreams and passions. It is about building these shared hopes and dreams together and occasionally lifting your head up to dodge the blue bottles along the way.

As I swam with my mates paddling alongside me, they whistled to warn me every time I was about to hit a blue bottle. They had my back in the water and saved me from some painful stings.

If they weren’t there warning me, I would have been ok, sore and stung, but ok, but it was so much better having them alongside me looking out for me. Life is so much better in community and with a team.

As much as swimming is seen as a largely individual sport, it cannot be done in isolation. We need our team to have our backs. To cheer us on when we do well and to hold our hand when things get tough.

Every now and then, life will throw us a couple of blue bottles, but it is so much less painful having mates around you to help navigate you around them and ease the pain of the uncontrollable occasional sting. But most importantly, it is about learning to laugh again while doing what you love, maintaining the joy that you had when you started your sport. Protecting the passion that fuels you and not forgetting what it is all about.