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In at the deep end: Overcoming my fear of swimming

CAN SWIM, WILL SWIM: Andy Akinwolere (standing, far right) with members of Swim Dem Crew

AT THE beginning of the year, the first pledge I made myself was to avoid partaking in the tradition of making breakable resolutions. I had a simple mandate and it was to navigate the year fearlessly.

So it was quite fitting when I – a long-time non-swimmer – was invited to join Swim Dem Crew, an initiative that aimed to inspire youngsters to take to the water.

Prior to receiving the invite, the last time I had stepped in a pool was during a trip to Malia four years ago. The experience turned out to be a disaster.

Thinking we’d be cute (and safe) on a float, a fellow non-swimming friend and myself hopped into the water. It turned out, the float had its own agenda of sabotage.

Plunged into the deep end, surviving the ordeal remains a blue blur to this day. But I remember the moments of panic; the frantic kicking and gulping in our struggle to survive.

I remember an eerie voice in my head, asking: ‘Is this how my life is going to end?’ But thankfully, my resilient spirit kicked in and I decided: This isn’t how I’m going out!
Both myself and my friend managed to scramble our way to safety, but I swore to myself, I’d never set foot in a pool again.

Before my near drowning experience, I had made it to that point in my life as a non-swimmer. You could always catch me sitting at the edge of a pool, seething with envy as others successfully submerged themselves in the water and reappeared at the other side of the pool with ease.

For the most part, my fear of the deep end was based on the principle of control.
I am not a fan of circumstances that I can’t control or put me in unfamiliar territory, and that was exactly the situation that a pool created.

But I reached a point where I decided it was time to be fearless and get back in a swimming pool.

After a conversation with my colleagues, in which I revealed that I couldn’t swim, the Swim Dem Crew opportunity presented itself two days later. It was as if the universe was orchestrating my chance to overcome my fear.

Joining the team relatively late into their training, my personal challenge was to swim a length of the pool – 25 metres – unaided, and I had five sessions in which to do it.
With the guidance of my incredible and patient coach Danielle – who I will forever appreciate – each week, I took on a new challenge and overcame hurdles both mental and physical.

Swim Dem Crew gave me the reassurance that I wasn’t alone. Changing room stories revealed that I was on a journey with some remarkable individuals who too had been involved in some sort of water-related trauma that kept them out of a swimming pool.

Now, with along with former Blue Peter presenter turned swimming ambassador, Andy Akinwolere, the group were preparing for the Great Manchester Swim; a challenge that would see them swim one mile in open water.


CONQUERING HER FEARS: Ade Onibada

While I wasn’t quite on that level, the mental process was similar.

Danielle helped me to eliminate from my mind the prospect of dying in a leisure centre pool, not just because I knew she would save me if I was in real danger, but because she instilled in me the skills that in time, made me believe that I could save myself.

My first session in the deep end began with me placing just my head underwater and ended with me leaping from the edge straight to the bottom of the 1.8 metre pool. With each session, every leap became easier and more liberating.

Swimming is known to be one of the most vigorous calorie burning exercises, and after my first session sent me straight to sleep, I knew that this was an experience that would demand everything from me.

With each session, I felt myself getting stronger and there was a satisfaction that came with my throbbing arms because I felt like I had earned this.

Back in the changing room, a second dynamic to the experience was the conversations with fellow young black women, all of us sporting our individual hair-dos.

Small afros, large afros, crotchet braids, a Mohican with curly hair running down the middle; as women of colour, we were all aware of the myths about our hair being the reason that so many of us avoid swimming.

Did my hair suffer? Yes it did, but I was a much better person for it. My Saturday mornings just adapted to include an additional wash and deep condition.

I also became more innovative with my hair protection options, whether it was a hat or scarf, or a blouse I turned into a scarf (desperate times, desperate measures).
By the final week, the nature of my challenge took an interesting turn when we were no longer at the leisure centre in Mile End that I had become accustom to.

My victory swim was going to be in a pool that I had walked past a few days prior and laughed at the prospect of ever stepping in. We were in Stratford at the Olympic pool.
With a depth of three metres all the way across, my ‘safe’ spot didn’t exist. The shallow end that I desperately clung to was nowhere to be found and the phrase ‘sink or swim’ couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Achieving my goal wasn’t just about the triumph. It was also about the perspective of the process.

I can now swim 25 metres unaided and each time I step in a swimming pool I challenge myself to add a further metre.

I challenge myself to make physical activity part of my lifestyle and be driven by improving my quality of life from the inside out.

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Ade’s special thanks:

- Sam Brown at Iris Worldwide for giving me the 'push' I needed.

- The wonderful people at Speedo for making sure I was well styled in their gear when I swam my victory length.

- Danielle and Harley for being brilliant instructors.

- Ayo for always having a pep talk ready for when I needed one.

- Everyone in Swim Dem Crew – your encouragement meant more to me than you will ever know.

-l My Voice team, who checked in with me every week to make sure I didn't give up on myself!

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For more information on Swim Dem Crew, visit www.swimdemcrew.co.uk

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