My wife had just come back from a mindfulness class and mentioned that she had been talking to someone whose husband had died last year. The person was explaining that one the hardest thing that she had to deal with was learning patience. She either had to learn to do more things herself or she had to ask somebody else to do it, whether a trades-person or a neighbour. Things that she hadn’t done before took longer to get done. The story triggered a reflection in me over what we gain from adversity.

This echoed with me when I was doing some swimming training in the pool the next morning. The last few weeks there have been a couple of teenagers getting some coaching in the same lane that I swim in. I was in the pool later than usual, which meant that rather than overlapping at the end of my session with the coaching, I pretty much started at the same time as the youngsters. Now whilst I am a competent swimmer, I am not a particularly fast one. Most people concentrate on swimming front-crawl, some will mix the crawl up with breast-stroke, and fewer will mix it up with back-crawl. Front-crawl is the most efficient of the four main strokes so it makes sense that people find it the easiest for longer distance fitness swimming.

I on the other hand, like to mix up my strokes. My warm-up always consists of the three easier strokes of front-crawl, breast-stroke and back crawl swimming over the same distance for each one. I would like to be able to do butterfly over the same distance too but since I tend to do at 250 or more metres of each for the warm-up, I do not have the strength in butterfly to manage that. Basically I swim my front-crawl less than most regulars and together with a lack of sprint practise in that stroke, means that I am not speeding up much. As such I tend to slowly drift away from the fastest swimmers and will eventually get lapped.

Now teenagers that belong to swimming clubs tend to be faster swimmers than me. They can push harder for longer periods and also recover much quicker than I can. There is no competition full stop. I don’t have a problem with this, I push myself hard and make slow progress on my own time-scale. It does mean that swimming in the lane at the same time as a couple of teenagers is full of negotiation.  That’s probably not the right word. It more about me watching out for them and making sure we don’t run into each other. The teenagers do what their coach asks them so he does the looking out for me and always tells me to let him know if there are any issues.

And of course there are issues but I don’t they are anything the coach has any power over. Perhaps the most difficult one for me is making sure that the kids don’t run me over. I make a judgment call over how much gap to leave but the longer I swim without a break, the more likely they are to catch me up. This puts an added stress on my swimming which combined with the pushing I am giving myself, can feel too much. This was the case on Saturday as I was doing my warm-up. It is about being in control really. I can feel the anxiety building and it unsettles my stroke and breathing. I lose confidence in my ability to do what I am doing. To a certain extent this is always the case when I am swimming. Despite the hundreds of hours I have put into swimming, there is always a period of time when my body is adjusting to the demands of the exercise. It takes time for my body to settle down and relax, and I have to push through the rough patch to reach calmer waters. As I get older, the rough patch seems to get bigger.

The rough patch isn’t just about the physical demands on my body, it is about the mental ones too. If the lane is busy (greater than four people in total), the anxiety comes from “overcrowding” too. There can be too many people to track and gaps which feel too small to fit into. One either conforms to the crowd, which means doing front-crawl at the pace the lane settles into, or you find some other lane to swim in. Such overcrowding has been my experience for the last few Mondays and my solution is to move to the next slower lane and do kick or pull drill exercises. I never really settle into such situations though and usually feel dissatisfied afterwards.

Yesterday, as I was trying to get through my rough patch, I could feel I was beginning to lose mental control from the perceived pressure of the younger swimmers. However, I was still aware of the thoughts I had about strength through adversity. I took strength from the memory of overcoming life threatening illnesses, the facing of my depression and the life I was carving post autism diagnosis. I found confidence in myself then. It was enough to help me keep swimming and eventually get through the rough patch to a calmer self.

I spent an hour and a half in the pool and was pleased by what I had accomplished by the end of my session. Counteracting the anxiety was the right thing to do in that situation but I don’t think that is always the case. Anxiety and panic is there for a reason, and I think it is important to try to discern what is going on. That means feeling the anxiety and letting it speak in some way about the situation I am in. It isn’t about ignoring it and carrying on regardless. I am happy that I can push through the anxiety when needed but I think it takes more courage to own that vulnerability and accept it as a teaching point to lead a more self authentic life.