by Vanessa Vajana, open water newbie

In 2013, I sustained a sequestrated disc in my lower back that resulted in neurological damage down my left leg and affected control of my bowel. I kept very positive throughout and following surgery I was in the pool swimming in just over 7 weeks. In late 2014, however, I sustained another sequestrated disc and was rather unwell for over a year. I was asked not to swim and to reduce my daily walks with the dog. This affected my self-esteem as I couldn’t accept that my health had deteriorated in such a way, given that I had always been a healthy and sporty person. 

After several months of following medical advice and feeling I wasn’t getting any better, I decided to start swimming again (against medical advice) as I knew that when I was in the water I felt at ease with myself. At the beginning, it was rather difficult as I was unable to swim properly as I had a left leg that wasn’t functioning properly, a right shoulder I couldn’t move because of a tendinopathy and my spine was in constant pain. I persevered slowly until I managed to swim short distances back and forth in the local swimming pool. It wasn’t easy and it was extremely painful and tiring but I was determined to swim again and regain some normality (whatever that was) in my life.

In August 2016, I saw an advert for the Aspire Channel Swim and decided to challenge myself and raise money for Aspire as a way to improve my well-being and at the same time help others. The first six weeks were rather exhausting and I sustained a set back and had to stop for several days. However, I persevered and managed to swim to France and back in 12 weeks raising just over £500.  I was really proud of myself and hungry for more!

Aspire Channel Swim finishing celebrations

“I was really proud of myself and hungry for more!”

When the River Arun challenge popped up in my inbox, I read it (several times) and thought ‘I could do that!’ What better way to challenge myself? I had never swum in a river let alone in a wetsuit or that distance in one swim. The rest is history!

I continued swimming 2-3 times a week in the local swimming pool and eventually once the weather improved I started swimming in a tidal pool in the sea. Swimming in the tidal pool in the sea with a wet suit on was challenging at first. I wasn’t used to the buoyancy the wetsuit gave me but I soon got into a rhythm and started enjoying the experience.

“The atmosphere was happy and bubbly, the weather was glorious and the scenery was stunning!”

On the day of the swim, I was excited and a little nervous but the SwimQuest organisers put everyone at ease. It was good to meet up with the Aspire representatives and the other swimmers. The atmosphere was happy and bubbly, the weather was glorious and the scenery was stunning!

We were grouped by how fast we could swim and went into the water in a staggered fashion.

When I got into the river, it felt less cold than the sea and I was able to start swimming straight away without having to accustom myself to the water temperature.

The safety boats were quite close by and ensured we were okay throughout the swim. The swim felt safe and overall it was a really enjoyable experience.  We swam under bridges, saw swans swimming and the scenery was stunning – every time I turned my head to breath I would see something different.

Vanessa meeting friend after Arun swim

“At one point, I was on the verge of giving up but then I heard my friends calling my name and as I stopped, looked up and waved. They kept me going.”

The most challenging part of the swim, was underestimating how I was going to manage my leg and back spasms throughout the swim, as the swim was longer than what I had trained for.  At one point, I was on the verge of giving up but then I heard my friends calling my name and as I stopped, looked up and waved. They kept me going. I was glad I did and felt extremely proud of myself as I reached the exit point.

The atmosphere on the river bank was electric as we all gathered waiting for the other swimmers to reach the end of their swim. 

Was I tired at the end of the swim? Yes, I was!  But I also felt elated in having completed the swim! It was a fantastic experience. If I can do it then anyone can! I’m definitely going to do another open water swim but I haven’t decided what or when yet. It has opened up a whole new world for me!

- Vanessa's River Arun swim

Vanessa’s tips for newbies to open water swimming:

  • Train before the event and try swimming in your wetsuit beforehand as this will give you confidence on the day.
  • If you have a medical condition you know your body better than anyone else, be realistic and factor in recovery time after the swim. Don’t put limits on what you can achieve – work around them instead.
  • Keep your JustGiving page up to date with how you are doing during your training and after and let people know what you are doing.

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