Life in the slow lane: embracing the leisurely swim

I am in awe of speedy swimming. I have seen it done, and it can be a thing of beauty to behold, like going to the ballet, I imagine, only cheaper. And fast swimmers do have the casual grace of dancers, using the lightest touch to propel themselves forward like, well, I guess dolphins is a more appropriate simile than torpedoes. It looks trouble-free, relaxed, easy – and I know this because I've watched and watched. Then watched a bit more, studying the arcs and lazy kicks as if staring intently would somehow make me faster by osmosis. (I know that's not proper science, you don't need to tell me.) If you were that speedy swimmer, wondering why the hell some woman was staring intently at you – hello! Research!

I am not a fast swimmer. "Slow" is a relative term, but if I wore Speedo I might well be going against the Trades Descriptions Act, so I'm considering launching my own Slowlio™ range of swimwear (it'll have pockets). I'm not so slow as to be vertical in the water, and yes, thanks, I've tried moving my arms quicker, but I only have one speed and it's not fast – my times in "races" are a matter of public record, if you can be bothered. I put "races" in parentheses because while I do enter public swimming events, the only medal it's going to get me is for Pluckily Joining In. I thought I was fine with it and I mostly am, though I did find myself overtaking a swimmer recently and getting that small buzz of glory, even when it turned out she was 10 years old. I felt no shame as I let out a small hissed "yesssss": a win is a win. And OK, so I yelled "you're twenty years younger than me" at someone racing past and it probably did sound bitter but I meant it purely factually.

I have been known to blather on about "not being competitive" and "only really competing with myself" in defensive mitigation. I recognise it's a tiresome position, the "oh, I'm not competitive" one, particularly when it's said to people who clearly are. It sounds like, "I'm superior to you, because being competitive is so not cool" when in honesty it's more, "Oh god I wish I was you, please be my friend even though you could swim the distance four times before I've even got in the pool." It's chippy. (Fortunately I have a chip on each shoulder, so I'm balanced in the water. Badum tish.)

So – I did a race recently and my provisional time was posted up online. I'll admit, I was disappointed. Blimey it was slow – much slower than I thought it would be. I tried and failed to get the internet shut down so no one could see it, then went on the defensive – it was too early, yet too late; I was deliberately being slow; it was the wrong kind of water; I was cold and hungover and hungry and did I mention I'm old? This was an internal monologue, you understand. Then they posted the actual times, and mine had magically improved. I felt great! In comparison, so fast! So the blather is all fakery. Turns out I am competitive, as much as the next person. Probably more.

The question is: if you swim slowly, why even enter a race? You're never going to win it. Races are for fast people – aren't they? It's a pertinent question as we frontcrawl at speed towards the end of the swim race season. The answer really, genuinely, is: for the taking part. I thoroughly love swimming alone, it lifts me, I need it. But every now and then, being part of something is fun. Sharing a goal (not drowning) is fun. The sense of exclusion is all in your (my) mind. Mostly they're called "swims", not races, but there are always lots of athletic people chasing their personal bests. (Tip: if you only ever do them once, your time will forever be your personal best. Result!) And doing public events is the perfect way to swim in places you might otherwise not get access to or feel too cowardly to risk. About a thousand people, me included, did the Hampton Court to Kingston Bridge swim recently, and I'm doing the Great London Swim soon. Frankly I thought I'd need a helicopter overhead, a Swat rescue team and a phalanx of kayakers guiding me before I'd reach the dark waters of the Royal Docks – but actually, all I needed was an online form, a bit of fear and smattering of "oh fuck it, why not".

There are downsides, though – or maybe just the one: other people. These are not peaceful swims down the Thames on a balmy Sunday morning with polite people all chattering about how uncompetitive they are. "After you. No after you." They are crazy jumbles of wetsuited limbs thrashing over you, under you, kicking you in the head, arms, wherever. That bit is horrible. Another tip: hang back, or to the side, let the personal besters go … then the water is left to you, the slower swimmer. Yes, when you hit the finish line, the "winners" may have been able to swim the race two and a half times (which is what my Hampton swim time compared with the fastest looked like) and already be on pudding. But you will, I guarantee, have a sense of achievement, and that's a winning feeling too. You'll have taken part – ditto. And until there are public swimming events that celebrate the slower entrant, you'll have a new "Pluckily Joining In" medal to go with all the others.

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