There are so many answers to that – from glib to profound. From because I want to, to searching for the perfect stroke; to experience inner silence, to fulfill a life’s dream, and because I believe I can.
In truth the answer is all and none of those things. The training alone (I have been training for 6 months and there’s 15months to go) throws new challenges and questions in your path. That’s without life’s little ups and downs along the way.
I guess I was a water baby, most early years photos (pre-5yrs old) involve water. I sat in puddles, streams, even buckets. I was obsessed with washing up (that hasn’t lasted) and invariably soaked myself doing it. I don’t remember a time I couldn’t swim, I learned before my earliest memories. I also don’t remember a time I didn’t have the urge, when at the seaside, to walk in to the water and head for the horizon; just keep going. Not in a melodramatic heroine sense, I wanted to swim til I got somewhere. I can still recall the sensation – like having itchy skin. What would happen if….
I love water. The sensation of being surrounded, supported feels safe. Curling up on my side in the bath, underwater, or lying on my back, with only my nose above are memories from childhood so very vivid, and still enjoyed. Although it’s not the same as feeling yourself adrift in a vast expanse of water as you could when little.
And then, when I was 10 years old, I felt suddenly and inexplicably heavy, fatigued beyond words; painfully so. Indescribable and unquantifiable. I rallied against the soup I felt I was wading through, wanting to keep being able to enjoy the open air childhood I was used to. Months of this brain draining lethargy ensued, unsupported through uncomprehension. I was latently diagnosed, after 10weeks with probable mononucleosis (glandular fever). I and my parents were told I would gradually improve to full health. I didn’t.
Sporadic and sudden, I would get fits of fatigue that could last a weekend, could last for months. So deep was the pit I fell in I became detached from myself to cope with not feeling myself in the realest sense. I didn’t understand my own sensations let alone the barrenness of my cognitive functioning. This pattern dogged my school life -I would go from captain of sports teams to withered sack, slumped pathetically in a heap. Instead of progressing, these peaks and troughs deepened. I pushed harder when up and sank lower when down.
I can’t remember which Olympics it was, I could maybe work it out, that the 1500m swimming event was added for women. There was controversy since it was thought that no one would watch it, it taking too long to complete and was it too far? I was so caught by this that I worked out how many lengths it would be in our 12.5m outdoor swimming pool my dad had built. Lots. I set myself the target of swimming that far before the summer was out, this mythical distance that was too far for women. I must have been 13 or 14 at the time. I found I could swim it. It was possible, and more than that, it felt good! it didn’t trigger a down spell, I wasn’t really aware of what did, then, only physicality didn’t. But then, down I would go again and swimming a length would be unimaginable.
I was told I was lazy, it was all in my mind, that I was a typical adolescent choosing to lie around like some Victorian heroine. And this by those in authority. I recall this without judgement, as the syndrome ME is still to this day very ill understood. I was left without diagnosis until I had complete meltdown at the age of 17. I was playing hockey for the college, enjoying my social life as well as studies, but had felt increasingly unstable energy wise. I had meningitis and recovered to a large extent, then woke up one morning unable to support myself on my legs. I screamed at them in my head, but there just wasn’t the strength.
I remained bed ridden or wheelchair bound for months. I changed doctor 3 times until I found one willing to offer some kind of diagnosis. After all tests had come back negative, he suggested Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome, or ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis). At least it had a name – even having it called yuppie flu was better than nothing!
During down periods, when I was weak from the age of 15 to 18, I created wishlists. I had read many self help, self healing guides that seemed to suggest that keeping positive and having goals to aim for after illness was a good thing; so I had amazing days of fantasizing about what I would do beyond illness. Who I would grow to be, what life I would live. When I was ‘up’ these fantasies and lists disappeared. For me, they were largely a means to an end. Something to evade despond. But over time, common threads repeated themselves. Certain recurring ideas crystallised themselves and became what is now termed a bucket list. Things to do before I die.
And then, I got busy getting better. I’m not really sure of the process exactly, and it is unique to myself, so I won’t go into it now, but I left the country and left ME behind. I forgot about my wishlist entirely. Then I turned 30. It crept up on me since my 20’s were so full. I remember looking back over my life so far and a strange feeling crept over me. I had done nearly everything on my list.
I had swum with wild dolphins, walked on warm lava, climbed a mountain, built my own house, ordained into a monastery, lived on a tropical island and even had a baby. There were only 2 things left undone. To cross the Sahara on camels, and to swim the Channel.