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Aoife Martin: 'There’s something magical about swimming. I float there, looking up at the blue sky'

Our columnist writes about her love of swimming, the issues that caused her to walk away from it, and her will to dive back in.

Aoife Martin

SOME TIME AGO someone on Twitter asked trans people what they would do if cis people didn’t exist for a week. The replies were remarkable for their mundanity and ordinariness.

I don’t mean that as an insult, I just mean that the commonplace everyday things that most people take for granted are often difficult for many trans people: going out in public, trying on a dress, using a public bathroom, buying makeup, getting your hair done. (I’m talking about pre-Covid, just in case you’re wondering.)

I have had to overcome each of these myself but the one response that cropped up time and time again, the thing that many trans people said they would do if there were no cis people around, was to go swimming.

It was heart-breaking to realise just how many trans people denied themselves this simple pleasure because of how they felt about their own bodies and because they were afraid about how cis people would react to them. 

I know exactly how they felt.

Childhood freedoms

Growing up, most of my summers were spent at the beach. I know we tend to romanticise our childhoods but the geography of my childhood memories is mapped by the names of places where I would swim: Port, Salterstown, Seabank, Dunany, Clogherhead, Blackrock – places up and down the Co Louth coastline.

Going on holiday with my parents and sisters was an opportunity to swim at different beaches: Tramore, Salthill, Bundoran. It wasn’t a holiday unless we went for a swim every day.

I was comfortable in the water and I taught myself how to swim, mostly by trial and error and by watching my father and copying how he did it. Public swimming pools were a rarity in those days, swimming lessons rarer still and probably not something my parents could have afforded anyway.

Swimming was something I did for the sheer pleasure of it. It wasn’t about being the fastest or going the furthest it was just about being in the water – that feeling of weightlessness and freedom under a vast, unending sky.

As I grew older I stopped swimming. I told myself it was because I was too busy, that life had taken over. Yes, there were swims here and there – while on holiday or during a work trip if the hotel had a pool. But I was lying to myself.

Held back by fear

The truth was much more complex and related to my gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia. When I transitioned it seemed even more unlikely that I would ever swim again. But I couldn’t get rid of that yearning, that freedom of being in the water. I spoke to friends about it and they said: “Just do it”.

Some even offered to go with me, understanding my nervousness at swimming in public but if the thought of entering the water at a beach surrounded by strangers was nerve-wracking to me, the thought of doing so with someone who knew me and knew I was trans was even more so.

And so, like most trans people, I denied myself one of life’s simplest and, for me, most spiritual pleasures.

In The Swimming Club, Nick Finegan’s documentary about a group of trans people who meet at a local pool to go swimming, one of the participants says that the reason trans people don’t swim is because it’s difficult for trans people to enter public spaces because their bodies are different and there’s a misunderstanding.

Indeed, another participant recalls a transphobic incident where some young people saw them at the pool and followed them after they left and hurled transphobic abuse at them. Is it any wonder why so many trans people deny themselves something that could actually be good for their physical and mental health?

And yet, watching this documentary I can see the sheer joy and pleasure these people take just from being in the water. 

New year promise

On 1 January 2019, like many people I made my New Year’s resolutions. Well, resolution really. I only made one that year and that was that I would, at some point in 2019, go for a swim.

Five months later I went to my local pool, paid the fee, and did just that. Put like that it sounds so simple. No biggie, right? But it was preceded by weeks of agonising. When was the best time to go? When would the pool be at its most quiet? What swimsuit would I wear? Would people stare?

In the end, stubbornness won out and it was a spur of the moment decision. I went in the evening, the pool was quiet, I wore my dark blue swimsuit, and nobody stared. It was all so normal that I even questioned why I’d been worried in the first place. But, of course, it is a big deal. A huge deal, actually.

I had overcome huge anxiety to get to this point. I was determined that it wasn’t just something I would tick off my list and not bother again.

Over the next few months, I swam on a semi-regular basis but it’s one thing swimming at the local pool and it’s another thing entirely swimming at the beach. This was another thing I was determined to do.

The beach

I arrive at the beach early in the morning. There’s no one else around except a couple of people in the distance out for a walk. There is no one in the water.

I’m beginning to doubt myself. Maybe I should have come at a busier time when I’m less likely to stand out. Anyone swimming at this time of the morning is going to be noticeable. But again, that stubbornness prevails.

I undress – I’m wearing my swimsuit beneath my clothes – set my eyes firmly on the sea and begin walking towards the water. The sea is cold at this time of the morning, unwarmed by the weak early morning sun.

I’m not someone who dallies around trying to warm up step by little step. My reasoning is that I’m going to get into the water anyway so why prolong the agony? I walk determinedly on.

When the water is above my waist I immerse myself under the waves and start swimming. It’s gasp-inducingly cold at first but after a few minutes, I warm up and start to enjoy myself.

There’s something magical about being in the saltwater. I float there, head back, looking up at the blue sky above me watching the odd seagull pass overheard. It’s magical and, for a time, I forget all about this troublesome body that I occupy. I am no longer a prisoner of my own flesh but free like the gulls and terns above. 

In her review of Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim in the Washington Post, Alice Stephens describes it perfectly: Free from gravity. Free from clothes and all the material trappings of daily life. Free from earthbound clumsiness. Free from external stimuli. Like the Who’s Tommy, I am deaf, dumb, and blind to everything but the watery environs and the unbridled flow of my subconscious.

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Later, as I’m drying myself, a woman out for walk stops and asks me, “Did you go in? How was the water?”

“Cold at first,” I say, “but lovely.”  

“Good woman yourself,” she says and walks on.

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About the author:

Aoife Martin

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