A new love affair

Adam Benjamin, who is registered blind, describes how he discovered open water swimming

Tim Marshall

Swimming has been a big part of my life. As a young boy, I spent endless hours frolicking in the shallow end with my dad; in my teens I raced for my school; in my twenties I swam to keep fit and in my thirties I taught my own children to love the water. But in my forties, I began to question the point of swimming back and forth in the same stretch of chemical soup without ever actually getting anywhere.

Yulia Sobol

To the outsider, my mid-life crisis may not have seemed too serious, but to me, it was a big deal. Although I wasn’t considering packing my bags and running off with the au pair, I was falling out of love with a sport that had helped define me as a child and given me confidence as an adult – a sport that, as a registered blind person, I could enjoy just as much as any sighted person could.

Despite being very aware of the positive impact that swimming has traditionally had on my emotional and physical wellbeing, try as I might, once my children had begun to shun my offers of a trip to the local pool, I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to don my speedos. Where lane ropes had once guided me, they now seemed to constrain me. Where the other swimmers had once encouraged me, their errant feet and elbows now left bruises. And where the ends of the pool had once been another length done, they now seemed to taunt me. Try doing a tumble turn with your eyes closed.

I was falling out of love with a sport that had helped define me as a child and given me confidence as an adult – a sport that, as a registered blind person, I could enjoy just as much as any sighted person could.

Adam Benjamin

For a while it seemed as though me and swimming would be going our separate ways. The divorce after the mid-life crisis. But then Melanie, my partner, suggested going swimming in a lake. At first, I thought she was joking. Who swims in a lake? Hippies. People who like getting their bits out in public. Superhuman Olympic triathletes. Yes, said Melanie, plus lots of other types who value nature and space in this all too hectic world.

Still skeptical, I logged on to Google, where thanks to various software tools I can enlarge the print to the size I need. Quickly, I discovered that there’s a whole community out there who swear by this outdoor swimming thing. Some of them sound quite normal too. I couldn’t deny that there was something to be said for swimming with the sun on your back and with birdsong providing the soundtrack as you paused to enjoy your surroundings. I also liked the idea that you could go as fast or as slowly as you wanted, without fear of disrupting other swimmers.

Melanie, my partner, suggested going swimming in a lake. At first, I thought she was joking. Who swims in a lake? Hippies. People who like getting their bits out in public. Yes, said Melanie, plus lots of other types who value nature and space in this all too hectic world.

As my heart rate began to quicken, I read about a lake not too far from my South West London suburban home. Who knew? The more I read, the more I wanted to give it a go. But before I could dive into the crystal clear waters of this newly discovered oasis in the Surrey countryside, I had to ponder a few more issues. How would I know what part of the lake I was in? How would I find my way out? Would they even let a registered blind person swim in their lake?

I make a point of not letting my lack of sight stop me from living my life in the way that I want to live it. I once had a flying lesson so how hard could outdoor swimming be for a registered blind person?

So one sunny Sunday morning, without dwelling for long on the practicalities, Melanie and I got up at too-early-O’clock and headed for Shepperton, a lake in Middlesex. Even I could see that the lake was stunning, the water reflecting the blue of the sky, fringed by mature trees. We immediately fell in love with the place. It was abuzz with triathletes, casual swimmers and family groupings sitting on the grass waiting for the swimmer amongst them to complete their morning exercise, each and every one of them enjoying the idyllic surroundings.

Feeling a tad ridiculous in our newly purchased wetsuits, we made our way past a couple of swans, as you do, to the reception desk next to the shimmering water. Once my long-suffering partner had filled in the forms, we listened intently to the safety briefing.

“Swim to the first buoy so we can check your swimming ability,” the helpful volunteer requested at the end of the briefing.

“OK,” I said, and then quietly to Melanie, “Where’s the buoy?”

At this point, I should tell you a bit about my sight. Being registered blind doesn’t necessarily mean you can see nothing at all. I actually have enough sight to avoid lampposts when I am walking along the pavement, but nowhere near enough to spot a buoy a hundred metres or more away through fogged up goggles. The M40 looked like a runway during the aforementioned flying lesson, but I shouldn’t digress.

Taking my first steps into the soft sand at the edge of the lake was like taking a leap of faith into a new world. The swans were apparently still watching as I followed Melanie down the gentle slope and felt the water gradually making its way up and eventually over my wetsuit. Boy was it cold!

Taking my first steps into the soft sand at the edge of the lake was like taking a leap of faith into a new world.

My senses felt alive as I tentatively acclimatized. Having swum for the past thirty years to the accompaniment of the hum of ancient pool heating systems, the lack of noise was refreshing, as was the water itself. The total absence of the chemical miasma so synonymous with my normal swimming experience was a welcome relief too, replaced instead by a not unpleasant silty aroma. The increased buoyancy that the wetsuit provided was also a welcome surprise.

On the journey to the lake, Melanie and I had spent an inordinate amount of time working out a coping strategy for me to be able to get by in the water.

“I’ll follow you,” I had suggested.

“Ok,” she replied.

What we hadn’t factored in was that, with my poor eyesight, one dark neoprene wetsuit looks much like another. And one bright orange hat looks just like the rest. Somewhere during the first lap, without intending to, I ended up following someone who was much faster than Melanie. Much faster than the speed I could comfortably swim at as well. But what great exercise I had trying to keep up.

A partially sighted friend of mine once went swimming in the Mediterranean. Before he knew it, he couldn’t see the shore. Eight hours later, worn out and delusional from sunstroke, he stumbled onto some rocks a few miles down the coast from where his anxious wife was waiting. Thoughts of this friend went through my mind as I tried my best to keep up with the wannabe Michael Phelps in front of me. I lost him but soon picked up the chug, chug, chug of an active leg kick. And then another, and another, until eventually I had made my way around the 750m course.

That first lake swim was last year. Melanie and I now go to Shepperton whenever our schedule allows. I have even discovered that when Melanie isn’t around to give me a lift, I can get to Shepperton Lake via public transport, although negotiating South West Trains is often more of a challenge than the swim itself. Because I am now familiar with the layout of the lake, I don’t need to follow other swimmers to navigate successfully around the marked course. I know the water. I know when to swim towards the sun and when to look out for the shadow of the trees as I breathe.

The more I swim, the more I discover that I am not the only one who has issues sighting the next buoy. When I do occasionally swim off-piste, which I now consider to be part of the adventure of outdoor swimming, I am often doing it because I am following another swimmer into the reeds. You lot need to get your eyes tested

Melanie and I are now mildly obsessed with outdoor swimming. We have even branched out from Shepperton. Our itinerary this year included the Windermere swim run and the Bantham Swoosh.  Next year, we hope to make it to Loch Lomond and maybe to places even further afield. It really pleases me to declare that my mid-life crisis is officially over.

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Words : Adam Benjamin