Saturday, January 28, 2017

My First Love Was Swimming

I just returned home from an evening lap swim to my friend, Megan, and I feel inspired. So inspired that I plan on going shopping this weekend to replace my old crusty swim goggles. I feel like I've reconnected with my first love and I don't want that love to slip away. My first love was swimming, and I want to start seeing this love again more regularly, on the side a bit as I continue to dedicate my life to another sport, running, to which I am committed more seriously. In my current inspired state, I've decided the best thing to do before I go to sleep tonight is tell you a little story about my first love. First I need to clear the air about 2 misconceptions about me.

The first and most common misconception, for those who haven't known me long, is that running has always been my sport and the sport I've loved the most.  When I mean "always", I don't mean for the 36.5 years I've been on this planet. I mean that many assume that I started running 9 years ago, back in 2008 when I started my weight loss journey. They think I lost weight through running. But no, I didn't start running until about 7 years ago, when I had already lost about 100lbs and running seemed like a reality my body could handle and like a nice new challenge to try. Little did I know that I would get hooked and the sport would become my obsession, making me forget about other sports almost entirely. I know, the title of this post gave it away already and you'd already figured it out - running was NOT my first love.

The second misconception is that I lost weight with the help of a fitness trainer at the gym. I can see that people would think this because I won a "success story" contest at a gym. I entered this because my trainer there thought my story was inspiring and that I had a good chance at winning the big prize. I did win the big prize, I got lots of free stuff including a new workout wardrobe, a trip to Mexico, free gym membership, and then my face was plastered on posters all over Vancouver (including the back of buses). But no, the gym was also not my first love. I joined the gym in the summer 2012, a few months after I completed my first marathon (here's a link to my blog post about it). I joined because I wanted to build muscle, improve my marathon performance, and have a place to use a treadmill when needed. And yes, with the help of my trainer, I built muscle and ran two more marathons. From there I was inspired to learn more about weight training and got my PT certification.

The photo I submitted in my success story contest entry with my marathon medals worn proudly.
I digress here for a bit from the point of this blog post, where I describe meeting my first love, because I feel the need to define my success. My first love allowed me to be successful. For me though, you must know, my success was never about the weight I lost. Even today, every time I say this well-known-in-public fact about me, that I was once 130lbs overweight, there's some level of shame in admitting I once let myself become so unhealthy. The success in my story isn't the weight I lost, or that number that was written on those posters, but it's the tenacity I had in me to do it on my own and to never quit until I got there. My success is my attitude. My success is my determination. My success is that despite my low self-esteem, I cared enough about myself to change my own life. It's the persistence that has allowed me to not only lose that weight and get healthy, but to maintain my good health over the years and turn myself into somewhat of an athlete. I'm not the fastest runner, but my work ethic and dedication to improving myself is unwavering. That attitude is my own and that's what sets me apart from the crowd. The posters should have read, "Zahida is badass".

That unwavering tenacity, that badassness that is synonymous with the name Zahida, was born in a swimming pool.

When I was a child, my parents put me in swimming lessons and I quit after the first level. I was terrified of the water, terrified that I would one day drown, and there was no way anyone was going to force me into this horrible and dangerous sport.

When I started university (at UBC), I finally realized enough was enough: a grown-up should know how to swim. UBC has always had a fine aquatics facility. In fact, I understand it got a major upgrade recently too! My best girlfriend, Jennifer, whom I've known since grade 8 was a trained lifeguard and an excellent swimmer. She and I attended the same university, so she took me to the pool, ensured me it was something I could do, and patiently taught me some of the basics. I would go early morning when the UBC swim team was practicing, and I would carefully watch them and pay close attention to their technique - their stroke, their breathing, their grace, and I would hang out in the shallow end of the pool and try to imitate them. I was learning and gaining confidence. When I was ready, I signed up for some adult beginner swim lessons and soon enough, I was a swimmer.

My ink drawing called "The Swimmer" - I drew this long before anything to do with running!
Swimming became my sport. I practiced it regularly and got quite efficient with it. And I lost weight, and lots of it. By the time I was about 22, I was 145lbs and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was drop-dead gorgeous. I started running and I ran two half marathons. Then life happened, and life happened real bad. I got heavy again. Real heavy.

After I graduated from UBC, I worked there for several years. One of the bonuses of being staff were the discounted rates I got at the pool, so I continued to go even with my weight gain, but not consistently, and not paired with other healthy habits. So naturally when 2008 rolled around and I said again, "enough is enough, I want to be gorgeous again!", my first instinct was to swim again. I paired swimming 3 times a week with healthy eating habits and the weight started to come off. It was easy to keep the routine going because I could incorporate a swim as part of my work day. Then in 2009, I moved to North Vancouver to the home I still live in today, and a few min walk from here, is a 25m lap pool. It made things even easier as I had the option to swim there in the evening and when I left my job at UBC, it didn't impact my routine at all because I had this well-known option near home. I became a regular at the pool, going every Mon, Wed, and Fri evening without fail. The staff at the pool all knew me, and it was a routine I very much loved and looked forward to.

It was made possible because my parents forced me to take swim lessons when I was a young child and then had the good sense to let me quit. I never forgot that I had quit and the need to redeem myself burned inside of me for years. So I must thank my friend Jennifer, who showed me the ropes once upon a time ago when I wanted to learn. I want to thank my swim instructor in the course I took at UBC. I want to thank another friend of mine, a male friend I was once enamored with who was once a competitive swimmer, and patiently helped me better my swim technique. I want to thank the lifeguards at the UBC pool who started to recognize me after a while and greeted me with a smile every time they'd see me. And same thing at the pool here in North Van, friendly lifeguards who noticed when I was there. I want to thank the triathlon coach who had a crew out at the pool and let me join in when the other lanes were busy with slower people. She told me I was one of hers, even though I wasn't paying her, because again, she'd observed my frequent attendance and my endurance matched that of her athletes. She boosted my confidence. I want to thank this one lady who was watching her son swim one day and I was in a nearby lane; when I got out of the pool, she approached me and told me she was also watching me and was amazed by my stamina as I swam solid for 45min without a break. I want to thank two lifeguards at my local pool specifically who approached me on different occasions to encourage me, and share with me that they noticed  my dedication, the progress and transformation they'd seen in me over the years (bathing suits do not lie!) and how witnessing that had inspired them. I was the girl who swam alone at least 3 times a week without fail and became a fixture at that pool. But I wasn't alone, as my Cam was supportive of it all, and encouraged me to go pop over to the pool for my regular evening outing. He'd happily wish me well on my way out, and greet me excitedly when I'd return home.

Today I went back to my local pool. It had been quite a while. I am not sure how long, maybe a year? More? I'm not sure. But even then,  it was maybe one visit? I don't know. Somehow today was different and inspiring and I'm determined to make it more regularly. Even if it's once a week or even once every two weeks - just for some good cross-training or a no-impact exercise I can do on off-days from running. Maybe it's because I went for an evening swim and it felt like home? Maybe it's because one of the lifeguards recognized me, even after all this time. Maybe it's because I had a dear friend there with me in the next lane. So thank you, Megan, for inviting me to go!

Why do I love swimming? For some of the same reasons I love running, I think. It's something I can do alone, and we all know, I like to be alone for my own introverted reasons. Even when you go swimming with a friend, you're still doing it on your own as they can only swim near you. When you're in the water, you're in another world; all you hear is the water around you and your breathing. I manage to silence my thoughts and have a somewhat meditative experience under water. All I think about is the lap I'm on or how many metres I've swam. I repeat the numbers in my head, recite them in poetic form, have them dance around in mathematic formulas in my head, what fraction of my workout have I achieved, how many laps to go. I forget about all else, all responsibilities I have outside the water, all to do lists, all matters of importance. The water washes it all away.

And some of those very same meditative qualities are what I love about running. I think with running though, and why I've taken that passion to obsession levels, is that it's also about athletic achievement. Sure, swimming is athletic. But back and forth, doing laps over and over, there's only so much of that I want to do in one session. 1 mile (64 lengths of the pool) is about my limit. But with running, a different distance is a different challenge, instead of more of the same. The scenery can change, the event can change, the elements I run in or the destination I run to, they can all change. But at its core is the same meditative space in my head that I first learned to love in the pool. It's time that allows me to centre myself.

So there you have it! Time to shop for some new swimming accessories, and I shall make my evening swims a more regular thing.

Thank you for reading! Up next, my intention is to write a report on my experience with the YVRun challenge last weekend. It was a blast with awesome running friends and some serious mileage :)

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