“How’s the water?”

My apologies for not having posted in so long, the exams are over now though and I’m back in the land of the living at last! I’m pretty much a full-time swimmer for the next three months which is a nice change, though it’s not that easy at the moment with water temperatures well below average for the time of year…

Open water swimmers all around Ireland and the UK go to great lengths to avoid the tabooed use of “the ‘c’ word”, i.e. “cold”. The current unwillingness of the water to heat up reminded me of a great word that is possibly confined to use by a particular generation of swimmers on the River Blackwater in Fermoy.

When asked “How’s the water?” or “What’s it like?”, my grandfather, Leo Bartley and other such swimmers would often give the ambiguous answer “‘Tis holding”. This would leave the innocent enquirer none the wiser as to the actual conditions.

What exactly is meant by the word “holding” depends on what the water has been like over the last few weeks, so it’s completely meaningless to anyone who hasn’t been swimming in the area long-term, let alone those who don’t swim at all! I had planned to do a 3 hour training swim in the river this morning but had to get out after 1 hour 45 minutes. I think “holding” was appropriate in the negative sense here as it hasn’t warmed up for ages. “Holding” is a good thing in August and September though when it should really be getting colder. In summary, “holding” is a very welcome temperature in Autumn, but not so welcome in Spring!

Other words used locally to avoid saying “cold” include: fresh, refreshing, bracing, hot, boiling, gorgeous, beautiful, te, too warm, roasting and many, many others. This is possibly a reflection of a habit of doing a lot of talking about swimming and maybe not so much actual swimming!

The Gift of Open Water

We often talk about the contribution that people have made to the life of open water swimming, but seldom about the contribution that open water swimming has made to the lives of people. Today, I think, is a good day for me to reflect on the contribution that open water swimming has made to my life.

Today is my 20th birthday. It’s also a dark, wet and windy day here in Cork – so in-keeping with the fallás truamhéalach that generally surrounds my birthdays (in reality, this has more to do with the time of year). How does this relate to swimming? Well, since I became a member of Fermoy Swimming Club, as a nine-year-old, I have made many great friends. Many of these were/are much better swimmers than myself. However, once we finished school, swimming ceased to be part of life for a lot of them. Why? That’s just how it worked: you swam with the Club until you finished school and if you didn’t have a swimming “career” by then you had no more business in swimming…

I was lucky, though. I was very fortunate to have a grandfather, Tom Baker, who was – and still is – very enthusiastic about swimming. Though never having swum very seriously himself, he is well known in Fermoy for his long-standing summer ritual of swimming in the River Blackwater twice a day, Monday to Saturday, and in the sea at Ballycotton on a Sunday. In 2006, his friend, Leo Bartley, another regular Blackwater swimmer, asked me if I would like to do the “Vibes & Scribes” Lee Swim in Cork City. After some cajoling, I eventually decided that I would give it a try.

A friend of mine from Fermoy SC, Bryan Dillon, agreed to join me for that first Lee Swim. Before we could register for the event, we had to go to Sandycove to prove that we could swim. There we met the great Ned Denison and had a great swim around Sandycove. After doing the Lee Swim, I was completely hooked on open water swimming and had a great time swimming through the best Irish summer in recent years. Swimming was the only sport that I was good at and open water was the only thing that I [relatively speaking] excelled at. My six and a half years open water swimming has been of incalculable benefit to me and I genuinely cannot imagine life without this sport and the people in it.

Because open water has given me so much, I have always tried to make other young swimmers aware of it’s existence. There are many talented young swimmers, who find that racing in the pool is not for them, whose lives could be greatly enhanced by finding their niche in the open water. I was one of those swimmers (okay, maybe not so much the talented bit) and it pains me to think that a few swimmers are being actively discouraged from exploring this avenue of swimming, but that is a whole other post! For today, I’m just thankful for having this sport in my life.

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Ag machnamh seal liom féinig… | Reflecting for a while…

The above photograph (that’s me sitting on the big rock) was taken by my father, George O’Keefe, at Trá na Binne Báine (Beenbane Strand) near Dingle, Co. Kerry in June 2006, just one month before my first open water event. I think it encapsulates the theme of today’s post very well and it’s an image that I often come back to. On very good advice from Donal Buckley, it’s to the boy in that photograph that I write posts like this one.