Wild Swimming – get those slimy fish away from me!

I am an avid swimmer. It is my favourite form of exercise, probably even my favourite form of forward motion. I can basically swim better than I can walk. Our local pool is only open from May to September, but at least we have one, so I spent my first summer smashing out laps there. Although the idea of lake swimming (or wild swimming, as it’s commonly referred) appealed, travelling to a lake just wasn’t as convenient at the time.

Ocean-ready... but yet not lake-ready
Ocean-ready… but yet not lake-ready

However I was pretty excited to discover that my new job was located right next to a popular swimming lake. And even more excited to find out that as an employee, I had free entry. So once the winter ice melted, I trotted over in my lunchbreak, clad in a full neoprene, to revel in the freedom that is swimming outdoors.

swimming_schwarzlsee
Ocean-ready… but yet not lake-ready

Now, I love swimming outdoors. Ocean swimming is awesome, and though it takes a bit of time to get used to, I figured that with all my ocean swimming experience, lake swimming would be a cinch! How wrong I was! My first attempt saw me struggle through a pitiful 20 minutes, and that was only because it had taken me so long to put the wetsuit on, I figured I had to get a wears-worth out of it! So I thought I’d share my journey here, from Frightened Aussie, to seasoned Wild Swimmer.

But there’s nothing in there

But I'm comfortable in the ocean... sharks or not!
But I’m comfortable in the ocean… sharks or not!

Now, I understand that there’s nothing in an Austrian lake besides fish. Nothing that can hurt you, anyway. I am a logical and practical person, but that didn’t stop me from being absolutely terrified of… the deep, dark water! The imaginary Lake Monster always seemed just out of my field of vision and would leave me breathing heavily and swimming shoreward.

Crap, I’m hyperventilating

Ready to hyperventilate?
Ready to hyperventilate?

I’m very familiar with this, it happens when you swim in the ocean the first few times before you get used to it. But given I was an experienced outdoor swimmer, I wrongly thought it would not happen in a flat, blue, devoid-of-dangerous-creatures lake. The first few strokes left me gasping for breath as a switched to breaststroke to recover. It took me weeks to swim more than ten freestyle strokes at once.

But I can’t see anything

Once you get out deeper... it's not always as clear as this
Once you get out deeper… it’s not always as clear as this

The sandy bottom of the ocean usually means that (as long as you’re not too far out) you can see where you’re going. However in this particular lake, the bottom is a clay-mud mix and therefore, once you’re more than knee-deep… nothing. Not only does it mean you have no idea which direction you’re swimming in, but it completely disorients you, causing more hyperventilation.

OMG I can see fish

Look at all those slimy fish!
Look at all those slimy fish!

Ok, so it’s not completely true that I can’t see anything. Because the water is generally not brown or murky in Austrian lakes. It’s more often closer to drinking water quality. I made the mistake of swimming once early in the morning, when the fish were jumping, swimming and bubbling all around me. Slimy, slippery brown carp… completely freaked me out. And then when I did a google search of what type of fish they are, I pulled up a page from a yearly fishing competition, one that showed pictures of enormous carp-monsters *shiver*

And the bottom is mucky

swimming_murky
But it feels squishy on my toes!

I like sand. Rocks are also manageable. But slippery, slimy muck interspersed with rocks… that is another thing altogether. In order to get in the lake, I pretty much tip-toe, grimacing until I’m deep enough whereupon I perform a graceful bellyflop into the water, to avoid touching the bottom as much as possible.

And I can’t stand up

I don't even want to know how deep it is here
I don’t even want to know how deep it is here

Usually when I swim in the ocean and I’m alone, I stay pretty close to shore so that in the case of a cramp, I can still stand up. Due to the above point, plus the fact that it gets deep super quick, I don’t spend a lot of time ‘resting’. Therefore, my swimming generally involves quick bursts of energetic swimming, followed by lazy floating while I recover my breathing.

So I do backstroke practice

Backstroke seems safe
Backstroke seems safe

Backstroke is not my forte. And I’m not inclined to do it much in the pool because you constantly have to watch where you’re going… this is not the case in a lake. In a lake I backstroke to my heart’s content, without fear of running into anything… oh except the Lake Monster. Though for whatever illogical reason, I don’t worry about him when I’m staring up at the sky.

Then, the final revelation

Actually... feels ok
Actually… feels ok

And then one day it just felt ok. The weather warmed up, which meant most of the fish retreated to the dark depths, and I grew confident enough to just ‘swim’ without looking up too much. I rediscovered the joys of sprinting (not so easy in a crowded pool) and I really enjoyed ‘recovery’ where I could just lay on my back looking up at the clouds, my body encased in clean, clear, warm, unchlorinated water.

So, in conclusion

So, finally I have conquered my fear of wild swimming. And it’s awesome. And you don’t have to dodge other people and put up with gaggles of squealing kids. And being able to swim out into the middle of the lake, and just hang there for a while, treading water, is incredibly relaxing. But I still have the occasional flare-up of fear – spotting a stray fish swimming lazily below, freaking out by reflections of clouds… hang on was that a jellyfish???

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