Why I Swim - Mercedes Zetino
The ocean calls me. I feel its wild call every morning when I rise. The anticipation of a new sunrise awakens my soul and my body knows that I must get near the water. This is being alive. I didn't realise that I had been missing this feeling of aliveness until I found the water, or better yet, until the water found me.
My name is Mercedes, I'm 46, I'm married and a mom to three beautiful souls. I am a registered nurse and work in the Intensive Care Unit at my local hospital. I live on the gorgeous west coast of Canada, on magnificent Vancouver Island. I live in a vibrant city where you have the ocean on one side and a vast forested wilderness on the other. I've lived in several places throughout my life but none compares to the beauty of this west coast paradise.
I've never been a swimmer, in fact, I used to be scared of the water. I always wished I knew how to swim but also thought that was an unattainable dream. I thought I was too old, too tired, too slow, too scared, too busy, not good enough, etc.... There was always an excuse.
For as long as I can remember I've been dreaming the same recurring dream. In the dream I'm standing on the shoreline. In front of me, I see the vast open ocean with the waves rolling in and out. The wind softly blows as I feel the sea breeze caress my skin. As I admire the open waters, a paradox of emotions comes over me. There is wonder, amazement, and a sense of awe, yet at the same time, a feeling of trepidation, hesitation, panic, and fear. I get a feeling that I am about to be engulfed by the water. The dream ends there. I wake up with my heart racing every time.
I've always wondered why I kept having the same dream, what did it mean? It wasn't until I started dipping and swimming in the cold winter waters that I finally understood what the dream meant. Even in my dreams, the ocean had been calling me. Calling me to see past my fears and challenging me to get out of my comfort zone. It was calling for my presence and undivided attention.
I remember my very first cold-water dip back in October 2020. I had just finished running a half-marathon with a good friend and we planned to celebrate by plunging into the ocean. It was a beautiful morning to run. The sunrise was spectacular as it greeted us at the finish line along with a few of our family and friends. As soon as I stepped into the chilly waters, the shock from the cold water spread throughout my entire body and my first instinct was to immediately turn around and get out. But I didn't. I went into the water and made the split decision to dunk my head in the freezing ocean. As I exited the water, I was so immersed in the moment that all I could focus on was the pain of walking barefoot on the rocks, the pins and needles rushing through my tissues, and my body shivering. That day came and went. The experience lingered within me. It wasn't until December, on Christmas day, that I would return to the water, this time of my own accord.
I had been experiencing severe back pain and figured that if anything, the cold water would help me ease the inflammation and decrease the pain. I decided that I would start going whenever I felt like it, maybe once or twice a week. The new year started. By mid January I was going to the beach on a regular basis, maybe every other day or so. Then one day, something clicked and I was hooked. On February 1st, I started going to the ocean daily. I have not missed a day since. Swimming is now part of my morning routine and I cannot imagine it not being part of my daily life.
Once I started my daily dips, I decided on a new challenge. I was going to learn how to swim. I figured, if I was going to submerge my body in the water on a daily basis, then I would take full advantage of the experience. My first swims were cautious and apprehensive. I would make sure that I was never deep enough that my feet couldn't touch the ground. Slowly, I began to gather a little more courage with each daily dip. I watched a dozen YouTube videos on swimming lessons for beginners. I inquired at my local pools about lessons, but because of the pandemic, no lessons were being offered. So I watched more videos. And kept practicing daily, first with my breathing and blowing bubbles.
A good friend taught me how to breathe out under water. Breathing out under water always scared me because it felt weird and unnatural. Nevertheless, I persisted. I kept practicing my breathing, floating, floating on my back, treading water, and even learned how to do the backstroke. I bought myself a tow float so that I could strap it to my waist and be visible and safe in the water. I bought neoprene swimming gloves and booties to help protect my hands and feet from the cold. Gradually I pushed through my comfort zone and to the other side of what I thought was impossible. Soon I was doing things that I never thought I would ever do, like learning to swim in the winter, in the open waters of the ocean!
My confidence and trust in the water, and in myself, grows with each swim. The fear that was there in the beginning is not as monumental now. I no longer panic when my feet can't touch the ocean floor as I tread water. As I get more ungrounded in the water, I am becoming more grounded in myself. Learning to trust and believe in myself is one of the many lessons being unravelled in the winter waters of the ocean. The sea has become my teacher and mentor in more ways than I ever imagined. I never considered how many gifts the sea would offer, the biggest one being, a return to myself.
I had lost a huge part of myself after my father and beloved dog passed away within 10 days of each other, in December of 2019. Then 2020 arrived with the pandemic and the lockdowns. The whole year was a time of dread for me. I felt like a huge shadow was cast upon my life and no matter what form of self-care I practiced, i.e. running, yoga, gym, meditation, nothing took the darkness away. I can best describe it as a feeling of numbness. It wasn't until I found the sea that the numbness started falling away. I felt it gradually, a sense of aliveness coming back into my being. That sense of purpose and presence that had left me when my father passed away was now starting to flow back into my life.
The ocean captures my entire presence every time. There is nowhere to hide in the cold open waters of the ocean. I become exposed and can't fake my feelings or emotions, the ocean will not allow any fakery, yet it accepts me unconditionally. It gracefully gives me the permission to be my whole, true self and nothing else. Its cold waves take me and wrap themselves around me. At first I want to run, run away from the discomfort, but then I realise that if I hold on a little longer, I will receive the seas' powerful gift. The gift of the moment when my energy and the energy of the ocean become one and the same. I bow in homage of its power every time I step into the water. I respect and love the waves as they take what they need from me but always return what I seek. I've been swimming in the waves of grief for so long, not having anything to cling to, until now. I am plunging from the waves of grief and into the waves of grace. These winter waters have become my friend, my confidant, and my ally. It is a place of renewal, grounding, and unconditional acceptance. A place that has been guiding me back to love and to myself.
Perhaps the next time I have my ocean dream, I will be able to admire that vast open ocean with a little less trepidation and a little more exhilaration, reverence, and boundless gratitude.
Our Why I Swim project aims to give voice to our untold swim stories and strengthen our fantastic community. If you would like to share your story, drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are new to outdoor swimming and feel inspired to give it a go, please ensure you do so safely.
We would strongly advise trying out your first swim with an experienced cold water swimmer until you are completely confident of your own abilities.
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Happy swimming xx
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