Samantha Cowen Gasping And Swimming To Success

Samantha Cowen Gasping And Swimming To Success

Samantha Cowen is not only an open water swimming newbie, but a true beginner to the world of aquatics. The popular Johannesburg DJ trains with Roger Finch who is helping her and her friend Caren Strydom train for Robben Island swim.

I swim with them at Wits University pool which is an outdoor 50 meter pool three times a week,” describes Finch. “As the temperature drops, they are doing well 4.5 km in 15ºC each session at the moment.”

This is Cowen‘s story and her first-hand description of her training and her fears:

My knuckles are white on the steering wheel on the drive to the pool. All the way to the pool. That’s a long way to be tense. That’s nearly 15 kilometres on a national highway. The temperature gauge in the car assures me that outside it is a balmy 12.5ºC but without the sun and with a nasty, vindictive little wind whipping the leaves on the grass verge up into random frenzies, I think it’s much colder. In fact I know it is.

Inside the car is lovely and warm. I’ve got hot air blowing in every direction possible, warming my feet, my legs, my face. I’m dressed in three layers of clothes. But I don’t really feel the heat deep inside. All I can think about is how cold it’s going to be when I get to the pool. How very cold and dark and overcast it will be. While I’m still fully dressed. On the side of the pool.

There’s a lump in my throat. I am very close to tears. As I take the Joe Slovo Drive offramp that brings me closer to my destination. My heart starts beating faster and faster. I try to talk myself out of it, out of the fear. I tell myself I wanted to do this. I say it’s a journey and each step brings me closer to the goal. I try and imagine swimming in the sea off Robben Island, that freezing scream-it-to-the-heavens blue sea that looks so inviting. In the sun. Everything is better when the sun is out. And today, it isn’t.

And also today I am training with Roger. Roger who hasn’t swum for a week. Roger who is going to watch every stroke. Roger who will pick up on every lazy arm, on every time my arm doesn’t reach as far forward as possible and follow all the way back through the water until my thumb grazes my thigh. He will see when I’m not kicking or when my right arm crosses the midline. And he will correct it. And I will be in the water and he won’t.

I drive into the university. I’m not 100% sure Roger is coming though, I think, daring to hope. I mean, I told him I was going to be there at 1, but he’s been sick and he might not make it. And the covers might be on the pool and I don’t know how to take them off by myself. And I don’t have a key to the complex so I might not even be able to get in and then I won’t be able to swim. And it won’t be my fault. It won’t be because I am scared and cold and slightly panicky about it being only me in the water, the slowest, the newest, the least likely to succeed on the wet road to Robben Island. It will be because of circumstances beyond my control. And then I can drive away, warm and smug in the knowledge that I didn’t bunk a session. I was Getting A Sign From The Universe that I should not swim today.

Roger’s bakkie is in the carpark.

I can see through the railings of the pool enclosure that the covers are off.

The door is open.

There’s no escape.

I open the boot of the car and sit down on the edge. I will not cry. I. Will. Not. Cry. I wanted to do this and I will do this. The Robben Island crossing will not swim itself. And I’m being a baby. It’s one day. One cold miserable day. And next week Caren will be back and Graham will be better and Swimming Barbie will actually arrive and the focus will be spilt. And Roger won’t get another opportunity to see exactly how little progress I’ve made and how slow and how new and how frightened I am. The spotlight will be off. So if I can fake it today, I’ll be winning. So with that less than convincing pep talk echoing in my head, I take my bags, and try to ignore the wind that’s come up again and walk into the building.

It’s almost as cold inside as out. The only difference is that there is no breeze. I walk through the womens’ change rooms to the pool outside. I should stop and take my clothes off, I know that not to do so is just prolonging the agony, but it is SO cold. And I am SO tempted to run away. So I keep walking.

Outside the sun is making a halfhearted attempt to peer through the clouds. It’s like an old lady behind lace curtains, twitching at them apathetically to see what the neighbours are doing. At the end of the pool is Roger, pulling up the thermometer. The thermometer that could, by half a degree either way, wither my already fragile resolve.

“How cold is it?” I ask him. My voice is very strong. It’s not scared. The rest of me is but it is not.

He smiles. He can. He’s not getting in.

“16 degrees.”

16ºC. It’s 16. When we swam on Thursday, Graham and I, it was about 17ºC. But it was warm outside. It was 21ºC and the sun was there in full force, the life and soul of that pool party. The whole day was bathed in warmth. And every length and every stroke was loved by the sun. The cold water never had a chance to curl its icy fingers around our sense of purpose and pull us under. Today those fingers are much stronger, I can see them. There are little ripples on the water. It’s waiting for me.

“So, what are we doing today?”

He smiles.

“Go and get changed and I’ll tell you.”

So now it’s really happening. I am really going to get into that icy pool. I don’t remember the last time I felt this sorry for myself. Every piece of warm, cozy clothing seems determined to hug me. I get caught in the sleeves of my pullover, I trip while I’m taking off my leggings. My Ugg boots have to be pulled off. All of them conspiring to keep me warm. And all of them have to go. Eventually I’m shivering in a costume. My fingertips are numb, my feet are already starting to go yellow. I wrap my arms around myself, cap in hand and goggles over one arm, and run outside.

Roger eyes me disparagingly. “Don’t tense your arms. You’ll only have to warm them up more.”

Thanks Roger, Thanks for that. “So, what are we doing?”

I am determined to be cheerful. If I look cheerful I might actually be cheerful. And Roger is a gentle dictator but a dictator nonetheless. As long as we’re doing it his way, he’s the nicest man alive. But there’s no questioning the process or suggesting shortcuts. Any of those have to come from him. I hope today that some come from him.

“I think we’ll do Tuesday’s program.”

Oh great. I don’t know Tuesday’s program. What the f**k is Tuesday’s program? Why would I know this? I just do what I’m told on this journey of cold and misery. Robben Island seems very far away today.

“Well, we’ll start with a 500 metre warm up, then 400 hard, then 100 metres moderate, then 600 metres hard, then 100 metres moderate, then 800 metres hard and then 100 metres moderate…”

It’s like directions. I’ve never been good at taking directions. After the third instruction I’m blank. I’ve got you for take the first right, the second left, go around the circle…but start telling me to turn left at the big tree and I’m long gone. Just like here. All I can hear is HARD and MODERATE and bigger and bigger numbers. I keep smiling and nodding. Roger hasn’t worked out yet that I’m not smiling anymore. My face cannot move. It is frozen into place. For a brief moment I regret the botox in my forehead. I am physically incapable of wrinkling it to show how worried I am. I’m going to look relaxed no matter what he suggests.

“So that’s supposed to be about 4 but we’ll see, that might be too long in the pool.”

4. 4. That’s 4 kilometres. That’s 2 thirds of the way to my son’s school. In a warm car. And a tiny mean little voice in my head says, yes Sam, and it’s only halfway across from Robben Island so if you can’t do it now…

I go to the side of the pool. I won’t put my foot in, I’ll just get in. I’ll get in straight away. I’ll be really brave. That’s what I’ll be. Really brave and proactive and…


Good old Roger. He doesn’t mince his words. And as if his voice was a magic flute, that breeze snakes round to lick the back of my knees with an icy tongue.

“I am. I will.”

And I will. Very soon. Just after hell freezes over. Which should be very soon judging by the water temperature.

Roger isn’t fooled. OR amused. “You have a beautiful day here. You’re really lucky.”

“How,” I ask hotly (that is the only hot thing), “am I lucky? It’s overcast, it’s cold and there’s a wind.”

He shakes his head. “There’s no wind.”

There IS a wind. I can see the pool rippling. I tell him this.

“It could be worse.”

“HOW could it be worse?”

He looks me straight in the eye. “You could be wearing a lycra cap.”

He’s right it could be worse. It could be torture. I had no idea the difference a silicone cap makes. The sessions we did with Lycra caps make my head ache in memory. He shakes his head again. “Get in.”

I get in. The cold hits me like fist to the stomach. It knocks all the breath out of me. My bellybutton makes contact with my spine and stays there. I try to breathe out and can’t. I look up at Roger. He’s standing next to the diving block above me.

“Get going.”

I can’t even think about it. The cold has a vice grip on my toes, and my calves and thighs are burning. I think I had some buttocks once, but I can’t feel them now. I may have frozen my ass right off. I babble to Roger. “Just give me a minute, just a minute, I won’t be long, I won’t need more, just a second to get used to it, just a few seconds…” He says nothing. Just extends an arm and points down the pool. And now there is no more respite.

I take one breath. One long deep breath and drop down. Caren [Strydom] and Graham push off from the wall, but I don’t do that. I drop, straight down, let that cold pull me under for a second and then I fight back. I extend my legs and push backwards as hard as I can. I feel my left calf threaten to lock and I ignore it. I’m in the water. I’m under. And I’m going through with it.

I don’t breathe for the first 25 metres. I gasp. I flail. The cold tightens itself around my forehead and squeezes. It tries to get under my cap. Little icy fingers push at the sides of my head, gaining entrance where the hair is creating a pocket. But only a little. And not too far. The front of my face is a triangle of pain, from the top of my goggles to the seal of the cap. The whole stretch can’t be more than 5 by 3 centimetres. But it can hurt twenty times that.

I get a rhythym going by 50 metres. It’s a mantra I repeat over and over: reach, pull, sweep. Reach, pull, sweep. Each time my arm comes out of the water it tingles. All the blood in my body is being pulled to the skin’s surface. By the time I turn again to get to 150 metres I feel more alive than I ever have. It’s an endorphin rush second to none. There aren’t enough Christmases and birthdays and lottery wins to make me tremble like this and still lunge forward. Reach, pull, sweep. My triceps are burning, my thighs feel hot as my thumbs graze past them but they can’t be hot. Can they?

I’m warmed up now. 500 metres and I’m ready for anything. Roger is sitting on the block, wrapped up warmly in a blue bomber jacket. He smiles at me. I smile too because I am so relieved .It’s fine. It’s ok. I’m warm. Well, I’m warm while I’m moving. So let’s move.

“You were right,” I say. “I am lucky.”

He breaks into a grin. “400 hard.”

And I launch myself off the wall to do 400 hard. And for about 200, it’s all wonderful and fantastic and I’m the fastest, happiest little dolphin in the sea. And then…I’m cold.

The cold sneaks up on you. You don’t realize it’s coming. That initial endorphin rush will carry you quite far. Well it will carry me quite far. And when the sun is out, quite far can be miles. But it’s not out. And the dark cold water is winning. Suddenly that arm that was flying out of the water, needs a push. That swift head turn to the left or the right isn’t swift enough not to take in mouthfuls of water.

I try to swim faster, but the power isn’t there. Cold makes me tired. I force it though. I tell myself that if I can’t do this, what can I do? If I don’t have the mental strength to stay in a F**KING POOL for less than 30 F**KING MINUTES, what kind of a useless waste of DNA am I actually? What kind of time waster am I? That a man like Roger Finch who has swum every important stretch of water in the entire world, by himself and after a broken pelvis, who has dragged himself out of bed where he has been sick for a whole week, has the time, energy and heart to stand in the cold and watch me, who am I not to swim? BAD SAM.

This takes me to the end of the HARD 400 and the 100 metre recovery. Self loathing is an easy default position for me. Maybe too easy. I’ve had years of practice. But I haven’t had years of practice in the pool. After the 100 metres I cannot form words. Well, not so as anyone would understand. Roger laughs.

“Just relax,” he says. “You’re doing well.” He’s such a nice man. Such a nice, kind man.

I clasp my hands together. “DON’T DO THAT! You’ll tense your muscles!” Bastard. He is such a bastard.

Now it’s 600 HARD. And this is the lowest point in the pool I can remember. When Caren is alongside me, even though she is so fast and so good, I can feel her in the water. I can feel that energy, coming off another person, who is on the same path and has the same needs. And I can feed off it. I do it with Graham too, I can be in their wake and swim through the shine and it sticks to me and warms me up and makes me faster and happier.

It is not there today. Today it is lonely and dark. I start to tear up in the water. In the cold, dark water. Every now and again the wind comes back up and slaps my arms or the backs of my legs again. And it all conspires to say, you’re not even halfway through the session. You’ve not even done two kilometres and you’re wasted. You’re finished. Your tank was never big enough to travel this distance. I want to get out. I start trying to distract myself by counting lengths. 600 metres is 12 lengths. If I am on 4 then that’s a third. 2 more makes it half. 2 more makes it 2 thirds. Then 2 more brings the total into double figures. Then two more and you’re done. You’re done. Then 100 slow. And I think about how I am going to tell Graham about this swim. How I am going to couch it so I am not lying but I don’t scare him or put him off. Because he is so much stronger than me, but he doesn’t know that yet. And telling him might make him pause and second guess finding this out for himself.

I don’t let myself think about the 800 metres. It’s a length at a time. 50 metres at a time. I look at the floor of the pool, so clean and clear. I count the lines in the bottom. First line across, I’m halfway, second, the start of the slope to the deep end, third line, the deep end.

I finish the 600. I’m exhausted. Physically and mentally. I’m going to say something. I’ve done 1.7 kilometres. It’s not even half. If I feel this way before I’m halfway, I’m not ready to do this. The whole thing. Robben Island, all of it. Any of it.

And then the sun comes out. It bursts through the clouds with determination and force. It’s suddenly so present and so strong, I wonder if it was waiting for a cue. I wonder, in my slightly warmth-deprived state, if it was waiting for me to hit rock bottom before it stepped in. Sort of like a parent watching a child learn to walk and standing on the sidelines waiting until a real fall is on the cards, and then swooping in to attend to any major bruises.

Roger is nodding on the side. “You’re coming on nicely my girl.”

And I love Roger again. I love him dearly because when he says that I know I can do this swim. This session. And I can do THIS swim. This Robben Island crossing. This thing I think about in bed and when I am alone with a few minutes to busy myself doing nothing. And I know that I can do this thing because HE knows that I can do this thing. And that one day I will be able to know it on my own. But right now, I need him to know it for me.

“800 hard?” I say it casually. He nods. I go.

And it’s glorious. It’s still cold but the sun is warm on my back. It pulls my hips up when they threaten to dip under and change my head turn. It pours warmth into the air that I breathe in as I reach, pull and sweep. It’s 16 lengths and I do count them but each one is another exercise in stroke correction, not in my arms but in my head. Reaching, Pulling and Sweeping the joy back in. Of being kind to myself. Of believing that I can do this. That I AM doing this. And I frightened. And I am human. And that is alright.

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association