A Strel Swimming Story From Croatia
It is often the case that when we are excited about something we run with high expectations and, sadly, reality doesn’t live up to what we imagined. This is a happy tale whereby what transpired outstripped expectations and also bought some interesting reality checks.
Firstly, let’s talk about the team of Strel Swimming Adventures – Borut and Aleksander (Sandy or Alex – he doesn’t care). These guys have mastered the difficult art of being highly professional yet managing to be informal, friendly and most importantly, really good fun! And, Borut is very much a leader who can bring together a mixed bag of people – various ages, experiences, nationalities, with different reasons and expectations for making the trip - and to instil some sort of team spirit. Fun of course is hugely important but so is safety and security and they manage to strike the balance between the two. The island is beautiful, lacking hoards of tourists and a brilliant home base. The arrival briefing was to the point, informative and convivial. As someone who can take a glass or two of wine more than she should, I clocked the ‘if you have a hangover – no swimming!’ Point taken.
Secondly – my expectations and the reality. I live life ‘off-piste’ having specialised in setting up hospitals and clinics in war torn south-of-back-of-nowheresville sort of places or CNN emergencies and this kind of takes a toll on the body and mind. I do keep fairly fit and despite being clumsy and not good at sports I pride myself on being a reasonably decent swimmer. A few months before, following a brutal work schedule that included far too many meetings, after meeting meetings, corridor meetings and breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings on top of the winter blobbing, I felt like sludge. I needed to get off the treadmill and set a physical challenge. So, without too much going on in my foggy brain one morning after another far-too-late dinner meeting, it seemed like such a good idea at the time to book the swim trek to Croatia. As the fog lifted and I read the trek details I experienced that inner shriek of horror: ‘YIKES! What was going through my tiny little mind?’
However, a done deal so I set myself up a small training programme; did the typical thing of reading the instructions but have not yet mastered the art of actually following them and went off doing my own thing according to my own schedule. I felt in reasonably good form and although just before arriving on the swim trek in Croatia I had been in Iraq for a couple of weeks, which isn’t known for its Olympic size pools or palm fringed beaches, I had taken my magic flying yoga mat and kept up the momentum doing sun salutes in over 40 degrees C at 8 am each morning. So, my entering expectation was to push up the level of fitness and to take a break after my Middle East exploits.
Our first morning Borut and Alex did a quick assessment and, as I am a creature built for speed not distance, they put me in the faster swimming group (wisdom with hindsight, big mistake!). But by mid morning the first day I lost the will to live and it was clear I needed to be ‘demoted’. That I didn’t expect so was rather humbled. The first afternoon was more comfortable but I was not alone in feeling it was a bit more of a challenge than expected.
The next day was the big reality check with the stroke analysis. I kind-of-sort-of expected to come out of the analysis session with a bit of criticism but nothing more than that. OK, we all develop bad habits over the years. However, it seems me more so than most. The diagnostic on my style was very diplomatically described by Borut and Alex as ‘special and uncoordinated’. This I found hysterically funny (and once again humbling) as anyone who knows me would say that exactly sums up who I am. As one friend quipped: ‘amazing how they can tell a person’s character by how they swim’ and I have been mercilessly teased ever since.
I will never be ‘normal and coordinated’ but with a few tips and tricks I felt a huge improvement in the following days. The personal high point was being able to do a near 3km open water swim that was simply magic. Approximately 3km as the crow flies but as even ‘aqua-crows’ would find it hard to do a straight line with currents and waves, no doubt more. If Borut had told me I had to do another kilometre, I would have cheerfully done so. Body and mind link; as well as feeling the glow of personal physical achievement and the benefits in adapting my swimming style, I felt some subtle shifts in my thinking about how I was approaching some annoying bits of background noise in my life that needed to be dealt with.
So, back to my expectations of a nice physical challenge (and having fun!), the reality far outstripped the expectations and being humbled from time to time is healthy. I learnt a lot, I thoroughly enjoyed the other Strel trekkers and very unexpectedly, it has given me a big boost to do more and set higher goals than before.
To finish, I am a storywriter and love observing, chatting and listening to other people’s stories. As we left Borut gave us a copy of ‘Big River Man’, a movie about his famous Dad and his river swims, this one about the Amazon. I watched it with friends at home and all said Borut was the unsung hero; managing his father’s drive and then descent into swimming madness. Organising and managing a project and people as ambitious as that means he is well experienced for effectively leading relatively sedate swim treks with disparate groups and abilities that at times must be like trying to herd cats. And Alex has all the skills necessary to be a stand-up comic.
My plans? Montenegro with the guys next year after some coaching to be a bit less ‘special and uncoordinated’.
Written by Jacqui Tong, Medical humanitarian aid worker, writer and now open water swimming fan