Oh, I love the coming of our southern winter. Already the mornings are crisp, and the verandah butcher bird’s sweet song is just a little sad. The sun is low enough in the sky to stretch into the house in unexpected places during the day, shining in my eyes in the late afternoon, but pleasantly, more like a friend dropping in for a cuppa. And then there’s winter swimming. Yes, swimming. Is there anything better to do in winter than find a body of water to immerse your own body in? For me, it’s the best way I know to cure the blues.
I swim in the lake at Southbank which is unheated through the winter and in the dam on the Mount Nebo Road. I’m often on my own by this time of year. For Southbank, I cycle from home before dawn wearing as many layers as I can to heat up and then strip off to my swimmers and go straight in. When you have all that heat in your core, it first rushes out to protect your extremities. Good God! your body is saying. Are you out of your mind? And that’s the point. You really are out of your mind and it’s a relief, at least in my case. If you spent ten minutes in my head, you’d understand why.
When you first put your head under, you get the ice cream headache to end all ice cream headaches. Your head feels as if it will explode. Once that settles down, you feel marvellous. But as your core begins to realise there’s no cavalry on the way, it starts to pull back heat from your extremities. Losing a hand or foot is one thing, but losing a heart or brain is going to cause you a problem. Your body consolidates, leaving your hands and feet to fend for themselves. They go numb. The first time, I stayed in too long. Afterwards I sat at breakfast with a friend and shivered for an hour. Now I know I need to get out when I start to feel tired in my bones.
I used to see another swimmer every time I swam, a barrel-chested chap who’d walk purposefully down the beach in his trunks, a little white towel around his neck. He’d hang the towel on the lifeguard stand, trot into the water and dive under before tracing his slow figure eights in the lake. If he arrived before me, he’d wave as he raised an arm on the stroke. Like me, he’d finish with the sun. As he was heading off in his trunks, towel back around his neck, he’d call farewell. Once he called me a little mermaid.
In a place like Brisbane where we have an embarrassment of fine hot days, why would you bother to swim when it’s cold? I hear you. And I can imagine the mirth among my Canadian friends if I said I swim when the air temperature is 6 degrees and I call it cold water swimming. They swim in water with ice floating in it. But I cannot describe to you the glorious feeling as blood rushes to your skin when you first hit cold water. It is illuminating and exhilarating and tells me I am alive and life is worth living.
When I started winter swimming, I was going through a period of grief that would not lift. I began to understand why those 19th century Scottish psychiatric hospitals used ice baths. When you’re this cold, you quickly forget what you were unhappy about. It reminds me that while I often live in my head, my body has things to teach me. When I swim, I am nothing but the swim. And, apparently, a trend setter.
Cold water swimming is the new thing, I read this week. The International Ice Swimming Association – yes, there is one – says the water has to be colder than 5 degrees. They do an ice mile which they believe should be an Olympic sport. They cut a hole in the ice first of course; it’s not for the faint-hearted. My cold water swimming sounds like a warm bath in comparison. But swimming is not something I intend to get better at. It just is.