An alligator for swimming / by Crispin Thorold

An early morning swim off Yas Island, Abu Dhabi (April 2016) (Photo: Mark Preston)

An early morning swim off Yas Island, Abu Dhabi (April 2016) (Photo: Mark Preston)

Since I started swimming seriously in 2012 I have been very hung up about the speed at which I swim. In part, this has been positive - by keeping copious records of all my training, including regular time trials, I have been able to chart my progress over the past few years. Yet, despite dramatic improvements the fact remains:  I am still really disappointed with how 'slowly' I swim.

This has been particularly acute in the past few months.  I was delighted to complete a Rottnest channel solo, but it still took more than an hour longer than I had hoped it would (in pretty much perfect conditions). And this week I found myself even more conscious of my speed than usual. I have been in email contact with a couple of swimmers to see if we can arrange a small relay team for an English Channel crossing.  This has led to lots of conversations about swim speeds.

Trash talking my swimming

During the course of the week it dawned on me that every time I talk about my open water successes I always start by saying something along the lines of, "I was really slow but I managed to finish".  While this is often factually correct it's also indicative of a limiting mindset, which means that I am often not relaxed when I swim (stressing about how slow I am) and I pretty much never pat myself on the back for the progress that I have made.

Given that Channel swimming is in large part a mental game I am determined to overcome this.  Without descending into psychoanalysis of my childhood I do think a large part of this may be down to a traditional and strict British education.  Where I went to school the first fifteen rugby team were demi-Gods. I was uncoordinated and pretty incompetent on the field, and would always rather be reading a book than dragging my feet in the fifth fifteen - where there were no plaudits to be had, only the thrice weekly humiliation of being at the bottom of the pecking order.

If you could survive this feral environment there were some long-term benefits. I grew up with a highly competitive streak, which has served me well in many aspects of my adult life. But given that I was not a natural born sportsman I have also brought some of those negative experiences of my early 'sporting' life into my mid-life swimming.

The French Fish

This weekend I returned to 'Noukhada' Island, which I swam for the first time a few months ago. Once again I was supported by Mark Freeman from Noukahda.  This time I was joined by a fellow member of my masters swim team, David Beau - who is a flying Frenchman in the water.  Sure enough it didn't take long for David to speed off ahead of me as he circled the island with no apparent effort.

Now you see him, now you ... - the five minutes where I was vaguely on David's heels (Photo: Mark Preston)

Now you see him, now you ... - the five minutes where I was vaguely on David's heels (Photo: Mark Preston)

During the course of the swim I dwelled upon my attitude towards speed.  It occurred to me that rather than focusing on being the fastest swimmer, which is a fool's errand when swimming with former competitive swimmers, I should instead concentrate on being the "fastest improving swimmer". At the end of the day my swimming ambitions are to complete channels and other marathon swims, not to set records or win races.

An Alligator for Swimming (Photo: Zazzle)

An Alligator for Swimming (Photo: Zazzle)

Which brings me to the alligator.  My wife and I have a long running joke about education systems where every child is given a reward (like an alligator sticker), regardless of their performance, instead of just focusing on the kids that excel. Our shorthand to describe this type of education is "giving a child an alligator for spelling".  Having been dismissive of the everyone deserves a reward approach I'm now starting to see the value of this kind of praise - and particularly self-praise - even when you have a long way to go to achieve your ambitions.

So in that spirit today I am awarding myself an alligator for swimming, and promise myself to focus more on improving my swimming, rather than obsessing about my times.