by Jessica J. Lee, author of Turning: A Swimming Memoir

There was a lake in Ontario that absolutely terrified me. I was eight, and my family and I had spent a week on a houseboat, chugging around the dark waters of Lake Temagami. It was enormous, black-green, and rock-edged. Its shallows held hulking great logs that looked monstrous. I hesitated to dip even a toe in.

My family spent the week dipping and splashing in its depths, but I stayed on the boat. Though I was a strong swimmer in pools and loved the sensation of swimming, my family’s ease in deep, open water baffled me.

I’m thirty now, and in the past two years I’ve swum in over eighty lakes. The gulf between that childhood fear and my present self seems enormous, but in all honesty, I find that the fear remains close. I’ve never fully escaped my fear of lakes—but I’ve learned to swim through it.

In 2015, I began a year-long project, swimming fifty-two lakes around Berlin, where I now live, over the course of a year. Summer swimming proved no problem—but I planned to swim the entire winter, too, often carrying a hammer to make holes in the lake ice. It was a challenge that would test not only my physical stamina in all weather, but also my mental and emotional well-being: I was still quite scared of new lakes, and forcing myself into the water weekly at times felt punishing. There were moments when I wondered why on earth I’d committed myself to such a task.

But the swims brought rewards: beauty, solitude, and a feeling of ease in my new home landscape. As the year of swimming carried on, moments of fear were outweighed by moments of clarity. But they never truly went away.

I had long believed my fears were things to be defeated or banished. But in swimming, I accepted them.

When fear arose, I greeted it. After a lifetime of being afraid—of lakes, of needles, of being alone—I was pretty familiar with the blackout haze of nerves, the quaking knees, and rising heat of terror. I’d even come to enjoy fear’s presence, because it gave me the opportunity to prove to myself that I was stronger than I thought.

I worked with my fear of needles through a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and by getting a number of tattoos (strange, yes, but it worked). I came to feel more at ease with being alone by spending time on my own, travelling, working, and proving to myself that I could turn loneliness into solitude. I learned to act as if I was not afraid, even when I was. And in time, my fears became right sized.

So in lakes, I cobbled together a range of ways to work with fear. First was through what Roger Deakin, in his book Waterlog, calls ‘the frog’s eye view’. I learned to focus on what was above water, the world of beauty arcing above the lake’s surface. As a breast stroker, this came naturally. I focussed on the glinting light on the water, the line of the trees on the shore, the curve of the sky above me. I focussed on the small details: long-legged water striders dancing at the surface, patterns of light and shadow made by clouds across the skittering dips of the waves, jet-black coots darting in and out of the reeds.

I focused on my body: on the feeling of water on the skin, the coldness gleaming into my bones, the movement of my limbs. I steadied my breathing and focussed on each second of movement, grateful for each stroke. In the coldest parts of the year, I counted my strokes, keeping my thoughts on the movement instead of on pain and panic.

Often, I found camaraderie in my swims. Friendship in the water dispelled my fear most fully: I took friends swimming, made friends at the lakes, and learned to cherish these watery relations. I thought with fondness on the most inspirational group of women swimmers I’ve met: many of the older swimmers at the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, where I once spent a winter swimming and interviewing swimmers. I thought of the words of one swimmer who laughingly told me that the Pond was the one place of freedom in her life, a place ‘free of dogs, babies, and men’. Swimming, as a woman, became an expression of my own strength and independence. I could be a woman swimming alone in a lake—when I’d long thought I could neither be a woman alone nor a woman in a lake! Learning to swim through fear became an expression of gratitude for the life I was learning to live.

As a child on that boat on Lake Temagami, I wouldn’t get in the water. I could swim, but I refused. I let fear encircle me and limit me. I stopped myself short.

When I pass a lake now, I long to swim it. I want to swim in every clean body of water I come across, as if I’m making up for the childhood I spent on dry land. As if swimming despite my fear is a way of showing gratitude for the life I’ve shaped and for the water holding me afloat.

Jessica's debut book Turning: A Swimming Memoir is out on 2nd May 2017. Pre-order your copy now.

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