Swimming is a life skill that is fundamental to being able to take to the water safely, but outdoor swimming and the community around it has other life-saving properties. I know first-hand the positive impact swimming can have on our lives -  it is a gateway to well-being, exploration, creativity and friendship - to be honest, at times the swimming is secondary. In particular, for many people outdoor swimming is a liberator, known to alleviate anxiety and depression. It is also a ‘leveller’ – I still have no idea what most of the people I swim with ‘do’ for a living; and for a sport where everyone pretty much gets naked all of the time, body image seems irrelevant – I have never asked anyone if my bum looks big in a swimming costume.

Alice and two other women smiling at the edge of a lido

Several members of A Lotus Rises Women’s Swimming Collective, including myself, have written extensively about the positives of outdoor swimming (Outdoor Swimming: Things I wish I’d known). However, we all know it can still feel like a herculean task to convert that flicker of intent into the action of actually wearing a cozzie and going back to your local leisure centre for the first time in perhaps decades. A few months ago, I wrote a piece for International Women’s Day, and the team at Aspire suggested sharing an extract here, as hopefully it gives a powerful snap shot of the transformative nature of water.

Swim Drills by Alice Gartland

One of the best drills for developing a feel for the water and also a good front crawl hand entry position is the closed fist drill.  It’s one of my favourite drills and I regularly include it in a warm up, often switching between a closed and open fist with fingers spread wide every three strokes, for a couple of lengths or more. It settles me into the water and sets me up nicely for a main set. But once upon a time, that drill triggered something very different in me.

“Ali, can you make a fist, like this?” I looked at my coach on the side of the pool and stopped still, transfixed by the closed fist he was making. I could see the hairs on his forearm and the lines on his curled fingers. To me, it wasn’t the hand of my coach, it was the closed fist of someone else…

The fist I saw belonged to a man who said he loved me, yet called me a ‘b*tch’; who threw glasses at me; smashed plates; downed a bottle of whiskey and screamed in my face, bucking his head into me like an ibex… The person who left me sleep deprived by keeping me awake all night with his lectures; punched the walls and doors around me – who punched so close, but not close enough to leave a bruise; the person who pretended to be driving our car off the edge of a cliff top road – with me in it. I remember that final day, when he pushed me onto the bed, covered me in a duvet and pillow and beat down through it on to me. 48 hours of destruction and finally I knew I had to throw him out. But how to really break free? He was ill, I loved him, couldn’t I heal him? A year of soul searching and dreaming of reconciliation, and ‘what ifs?’ followed.

Alice presenting a talk in front of dozens of people

“He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s not in control. It’s red mist,” I said to a male counsellor, who specialises in working with perpetrators of domestic abuse. “On the contrary,” came the reply, “his actions are about doing just enough to scare and control you… Domestic abuse isn’t measured by whether or not you had to leave a relationship in an ambulance…  Be under no illusion, what you have described is severe abuse.”

But I still couldn’t quite accept what had happened to me: Alice, the one-time lawyer, the writer, the academic, the athlete, the friend, the sister, the daughter, the joker, the smiley, happy girl…I was still an actress, to both myself and the outside world. Yes, the doctor had given me tranquilisers to ease the anxiety from the trauma I was processing, and my mum heard me screaming out in my sleep in the night… but it wasn’t really that bad…was it?

I froze still in the lido water. I couldn’t move. I just stood and stared, having what I now know, is a flashback. “Ali, it’s just a hand”, my coach flexed his fingers out, unlocking his fist and waving. “It’s a hand, just a hand – look it’s me; Ali, it’s me.” I finally lifted up my goggles and broke the spell. “Are you ok to swim?” Yes, I was. And the lesson continued with a quiet diplomacy.

The mind is an extraordinary thing. We can create layers of behaviours, including OCD and addiction and become experts in denial to protect ourselves – it hurts to focus on the painful stuff and we can go to great lengths to numb or disguise it.

What I didn’t realise then, but I do now, is that I was severely traumatised. For some reason, despite the help and advice I’d sought prior to that point, it still hadn’t fully ‘clicked’ how vulnerable and hurt I was. Yet in that moment it was so clear, and I finally started to accept my reality.

At the same time, as I moved through the water I found glimmers of my true self. My body that can move with power and grace; and a spirit that can ignite others; and with each glimmer, a feeling that perhaps… just perhaps…life could be something more. That I was worthy of something more.

Alice with three others smiling poolside at Tooting Lido

I finally found the logic I needed to move on – that if seeing another man close his fist to demonstrate a swim drill caused me to be paralysed with fear, how could I ever stop being afraid of my ex? No matter how chocolate box the good times seemed, there was no way I could guarantee that he wouldn’t turn on me again; no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t change that. I finally realised that the relationship was irreparable. I couldn’t save it, or fix him and the only path forward was to properly, and finally, cut all ties.

About a week after that swimming lesson, that’s exactly what I did. “You f*cking b*tch. Where are you? Where the f*ck are you?!” he screamed down the phone for the last time.

Moving on is a process. And unravelling and understanding how such circumstances came about, why I came to be in that relationship, and healing; has been very difficult and taken a lot of time.

Domestic abuse is a complex issue and I don’t think there’s a one size fits all answer. To identify the causes, help prevent its occurrence, promote healthy relationships and help men and women trapped in abusive relationships, requires us all to look gently but honestly at ourselves, our history and circumstances, both individually and as a society as a whole.

Most importantly, we can’t do that alone. We need considered, well-resourced and long-term support.

It was critical for me to be able to access specialist women’s support services.  I was one of the lucky ones. At my most vulnerable I was able to seek out and access initial support through a hotline and counselling service funded by a women’s charity –  it saved my life – but because of cuts, that service no longer exists. And little did I know, but that was just the beginning of a journey of understanding, healing and growing, which extends much deeper and beyond that one person and that episode in my life.

I have not previously felt able to share this part of my story for a number of reasons. Fear, shame, and not wanting to put this out there without being clear in myself that I understand what happened. But the support and self-knowledge I have now means that I can, and I hope that by sharing this other chapter in my life, I can help others.

Out of the water A Lotus Rises, and thank you to all the women across our growing swimming collective, for empowering me and so many others, in our lives both in and out of the water…

 Alice alongside the logo of A Lotus Rises

If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic abuse visit the Safe Lives's website for advice and support. 


Alice Gartland is a swim coach, contributing editor of Outdoor Swimmer Magazine and Founder of A Lotus Rises, the Women’s Swimming Collective on a mission to improve visibility, access and participation of women in swimming. The name itself stems from the Chinese Proverb 芙蓉出水 Out of the water A Lotus Rises – which is used to describe strong beautiful women in water, talented swimmers and overcoming challenges and coming into bloom. Along with swim socials, the WSC delivers workshops and talks about swimming and empowerment, and their blog features ‘swimspirational’ real life, awareness raising stories and advice from women who love the water (or perhaps didn’t but do now) and watch this space for a new swim coaching programme too.

To join the women’s swimming collective and find out more about future events, connect with A Lotus Rises on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or on the A Lotus Rises website.

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