*Action shots by Kurt Arrigo
On Saturday the 26th of August 2017, I swam into Marfa bay to complete a 6.7km swimming race from Hondoq ir-Rummien, Gozo. I was suddenly filled with that long-awaited sense of achievement, fulfillment and pride. We did it, and it felt so good to have done. It wasn’t so much the achievement of having completed the race that I was feeling, but more the achievement of committing to the challenge and all that went into it months before.
A friend, who had previously done the swim, had told me that the real challenge is in the training; the daily grind of early mornings, cold water, stiff untrained muscles and the relentless repetition of building stamina and strength. The race itself should be a celebration of hard work paid off. By that stage you should be well prepared for the physical challenge as the metaphorical ‘mountain’ has already been climbed.
Since the race and leading up to it, I’ve had many people asking why I did it and what motivated me to do such a thing. I could never really find the right words to explain it at the time, as I find it a strange kind of question anyway to be honest. I mean, what motivates anyone to do anything? It’s a personal question and one that is hard to respond to in a relatable way, but I figured answering it might encourage people to take on a challenge of their own.
When I decided to take part in the race, I had just started regular training at the pool, going three times a week. I was enjoying this new routine, however I felt the need to set some kind of goal to work towards. Something to keep motivated when excuses got the better of me while still tucked up in bed at 5.30am, debating the snooze button on the alarm. I knew that once I had decided to take on the challenge of swimming the race in August, I would have little choice but to do it, as my own stubborn competitiveness would not allow otherwise. I tend be quite lazy, and so I like to challenge this by working with my competitive nature to push myself out of my comfort zone and into a place where I end up surprising myself with my capability. I would have described myself as someone who is not a morning person, not good at self-discipline and not someone who enjoys large group sporting events… so what did I do? I prepaid for four months of 7am swimming classes, and signed up for the Gozo to Malta race with 130 other swimmers.
So funnily enough, it was the race itself that served as motivation, for me to get up each time that alarm rang. As it turned out I didn’t need much motivation to complete the race itself. It lasted little over 2 hours which doesn’t leave much time for contemplation and doubt, and it was actually a very enjoyable swim. The true motivation is required in all the time leading up to that point, where there’s still plenty of time and multiple occasions to consider dropping the whole thing altogether.
Dealing with fear and answering that instinctual call.
When I first heard about the swim, I remember observing a conversation that occurred in my head. One ‘me’ thought that it sounded like an exciting challenge that I was more than capable of achieving, and that would make me feel so good about myself after having completed. It came with those stomach ‘butterflies’ that you get when you hear or experience something that just feels good in your gut. Then the other ‘me’ stepped in to ask what on Earth I’d want to do that for as it sounds like a lot of effort, a big commitment requiring self-discipline that I know I struggle with and for what? A little sense of achievement? Following with the usual, ‘what if you give up and fail’ and ‘think of the humiliation if I have to get pulled out of the water’ etc., etc.
So I was in limbo on the matter for some time, until I watched a video where Marie Forleo interviews author Elizabeth Gilbert. In the interview they discuss fear, authenticity and Gilbert’s latest book, ‘Big Magic’. At one point, she talks about all the people she meets who say they have so many great ideas and projects that they’ve never got round to doing and then defend themselves with a list of unworthy excuses. She warns listeners not to be that person, not to let fear lead the way. When you feel that tingle deep in your gut at the thought of something, anything – have the confidence to take on that challenge despite all the excuses you can think of not to. Trust that your gut instinct knows what’s best for you, and that something great will come from the journey. I remember closing my laptop and thinking, ‘Great, now I have to do it! Thanks Liz!’
I may have been sarcastic then, but I couldn’t be more grateful now. Grateful for everything and everyone that gave me the encouragement to go for it, and for my swimming buddy, Carla, for joining in for the challenge with me.
Looking back on this whole experience I’ve noticed a couple of things that I’m guilty of myself, and I think most of us are too. We tend to label ourselves, to put ourselves into metaphorical boxes that help to create our identity and therefore give us means to ‘fit in’ or simply find our place. I mentioned a few earlier like, ‘not a morning person’ or ‘lazy’ yet ‘stubbornly competitive’. But these could also be ‘writer’, ‘vegetarian’, ‘antisocial’ or ‘athlete’. I can’t say for sure whether I believe it’s wrong to label ourselves in this way, but I am sure that it’s so amazing and healthy to break out of these labels and do something that would define you as the total opposite. You know you’ve achieved this when people ask, ‘But how come? You’re not a swimmer, are you?’. Well I wasn’t but I guess I am now, right?
I think it’s such a great habit to get into; this act of defying our own labels, whether put on by ourselves or others. That is what the greatest challenge was for me. So when people ask me what’s next, my response is that I simply hope to keep creating and then breaking out of my own ‘labels’ for as long as I’m able, as I believe that it’s one way in which we grow.
Carla Grima and I decided to raise funds in the lead-up to the swim, in aid of under-water clean-ups. We teamed up with David and Luiza from Malta Blue Diving school who will be organising a series of clean-ups and will provide the volunteers with the necessary equipment. So far we have managed to raise enough funds for 5 clean-ups, far exceeding what we had hoped, and we are on the way to raising enough for a 6th. The donations page remains open, and all help, whether through donations or volunteering, is welcome.