Sometimes walking along Brighton sea front, I see them out there, the swimmers. In between the piers, or coming out, skin pink from the cold, scrambling up the shingle. I want to join them but I’m scared. One of the main reasons I moved here was that I wanted to live by the sea – I love seeing it at the end of the road, how different it looks each day, how inviting. And yet I’ve never swum in it once.
This is me talking but it was also Alexandra Heminsley’s feelings as she ran (rather than walked like me) along Brighton seafront, looking longingly at the groups of swimmers out there beyond the waves. Alexandra has already made running seem far do-able with her book Running Like a Girl which expounded her sunny mantra – if I can do it, so can you – and her new book, Leap In, looks set to do the same for swimming.
After two ominous events – her new husband looses his wedding ring in the sea, and she wakes up to find her flat flooded after a severe storm – she takes this as a sign that the sea is actually against her – and decides to overcome it. She challenges herself to take up open water swimming and enrols on a course that will teach her to do just that.
Her account begins with lots of hilarity; getting stuck half in and half out of her wetsuit, sticking her head in a washing up bowl full of water to learn how to exhale, but as the actuality of what she has taken on hits, things get more serious. It is far, far harder than she realised and she is paralysed with fear, suffers panic attacks, really struggles with her breathing. But she keeps on, and keeps on.
As well as all the mental and physical hurdles, she is also having to face up to the fact her body is not doing what she wants it to – she and her husband are trying for a baby without success. She undergoes gruelling IVF treatment. She feels the body she has learnt to accept and the strength it has given her, is now betraying her.
The word ‘inspirational’ gets bandied about a lot but this is one book where I think it’s justified: it’s not so much a story about conquering fear, although it is about that, but about learning to adapt. No one knows what’s coming for them, no one knows what shape their life will take. It’s about how to change your plans when things turn out differently from what you expected, how to trust yourself. It’s about trying to find that thing – call it inner strength or resourcefulness or whatever you like- that will propel you through. And finding joy in something that will stay with you forever.
Part Two is more about the history of swimming and her own recommendations as to the best goggles, the best wetsuits etc and some practical things about events and societies to join – all really useful stuff.
Leap In is published by Hutchinson and thanks to them for my review copy.