The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever

Jacques Cousteau

Queen of the Winter Sea by Linnea Olsson

GOT Linnea of the Winter Sea by @emilgvsson

Linnea's love of Sweden's winter sea captured my attention in her story on the Instagram account The Sea Story Collective (@theseastorycollective). I asked her to elaborate on how someone might love freezing, cold water, horizontal winds and adverse conditions for their wild swimming more than the bliss of a beautiful summer day. She responded with this powerful piece contributing further insight into this remarkable world of wild swimming and what attracts people to the water in its many forms. 

Queen of the Winter Sea

by Linnea Olsson

Give me your waves and mood
Give me the rough sea
Washing away the bad
Calming and carrying me

It's July, and in Sweden we call this high summer, when it is the ideal summer. The sun shines intensely and it's too hot to be outside the shade. No cooling wind blows. The sea, a mirror. Barbeques run without stop. In this heat, the water in bottles quickly turns warm. The sand is perfect, soft, golden and soothing on the feet. On these days, enjoying the sea is easy. It's simple to just sit down and be delighted, to stay a long time and to say nice things about the water.

Summer is not my favorite season to enjoy the ocean. Don't get me wrong, I love laying on the rocks for hours. I just prefer bad, rough weather. Give me turbid water that hides what's underneath. Waves both scary and strong. Wind that rips up anything that isn't being held down. A wind that requires me to place a rock on my clothes so they won't fly away. Water currents that take hold of my legs and make it hard to stand upright. Days where I go quickly in, quickly out, and get quickly dry.

I love an autumn walk by the ocean along my rocky shore. On cold autumn days the frost sounds like stepping on breadcrumbs in the grass but it never survives till the afternoon. My shoes come off and I put my feet in the water until they are numb. Waves try to get into my shoes and urge me to go into the water. I wear layers and layers of clothes and yet I can still feel the rain on my skin and the wind in my bones. On the Swedish west coast (from Gothenburg to the border with Norway) it rarely snows, even during winter. In essence we have a long autumn till spring comes again.

Liking the sea in autumn and winter is not as easy as in summer. And some summers are more like a long, cold autumn. A couple of years ago, we had the same temperature on Christmas eve as at the end of June! In winter no one eats home baked goods or empties a bib with plastic cups. No stereos fill the area with music. No burned hot dogs assault your nostrils. Instead, the ocean is just mine. Me and the sea sharing something unique, intimate. Just us. It doesn't have to be perfect. As long as it is mine.

Up until a couple of years ago, I only swam in the ocean during summer (even then I swam May to September, which is way longer than most people). But one winter day, when my parents and I made a quick visit to our summer house, I did what I have done since I was a kid: I went to the seashore by myself exploring, picking up pretty rocks and smelling the salty air. I found myself where I usually end up, at our swim spot by the docks. I gazed longingly upon the water, the idea hit me: I could swim right now. It would be cold, there was still snow on the docks, but wouldn't it be cool to say, "I swam on Christmas Day?!" Then my thinking stopped and pure, instinctual action kicked in. Suddenly I was in my underwear getting in the water. My feet got so cold I couldn't feel them. My breath was shallow and I could feel the adrenaline pumping fast through me. What an incredible sensation! When I returned to the house my mum wasn't even surprised when I said "I accidentally swam, I need to change into dry clothes."

That experience began my love of cold water swimming but not my love of the water. My mum always said I was more fish than human. Always under water more than above. When I was little, she would sit for hours, watching as I played by myself in the sea. Going home was a drag, even though it took us 10 minutes and we would return after eating. I remember wanting my weekly bath, floating and thinking I could fly. I think I intuited at a young age that water is my element and being close to it made me feel free.

Maybe this is why The Little Mermaid is my favorite movie. To be able to swim under water for that long, a dream. To be able to speak to all the animals. And to have that long hair. I hated getting my hair cut. If it's cut, I wondered, how can it become as long as Ariel's? And then came The Little Mermaid II. I have never related to a character on screen as much as little Melody who always wanted to be in the water, just like me.

I love that swimming makes me weightless. I flow through the water effortlessly. I grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s when heroin chic was a thing. You know, when Kate Moss and ultra-slim, tired looking, red-lipped girls were hot? I have always (as I assume most women have) struggled with believing I'm too big. And, sadly, the world around me always confirmed this negative image of myself. Ad posters, magazines, movies, even my school nurse told me to lose 5-10 kg when I was 16. At that time, I took five dance classes, had PE twice a week, and trained two times a week with my bandy team (if you mix football with hockey, you get bandy. It's played on skates with a stick and a little pink ball but on ice as big as a football field with 10 players and a goalie, guarding a football-sized goal). I didn't eat chips, candy and only ate one ice-cream a week. And, to add insult to injury, a 60-year-old school nurse told me to be thinner! I don't think it made my body image worse, it just confirmed what I had already internalized. Maybe that is even more sad. 

But in the water all that negativity disappears. When I dive in I can feel the bad stuff washing away. Breaking through the surface means breaking through the outer layer of what I should be, should do and should think. I suddenly don't worry about my hooded eyes, not-flat stomach, dry elbows, cellulitis and everything else that is supposedly wrong with my body. The ocean doesn't care. It will carry me no matter what. I feel easy, light and carefree. The ocean lets me be me. It gets mad if I'm too tense or worrying about something. You can't float with your shoulders so tense they're touching your ears. You will get water in your nose and mouth if you don't focus on your breathing. It's tough love and the best teacher.

The smell of the ocean has always, instantly calmed me down. I spent every weekend of my youth at our summer house, all year round, which meant I could run around, be outside and build stuff. I'm actually ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). A wedding seating chart once described me as - "The bookworm who can't sit still" – which pretty much sums me up. Always having access to the ocean and its magic has had a vital, calming effect on me. Swimming as a kid meant getting to relax but not getting restless, which I still appreciate as an adult. Water surrounding me became my "weighted blanket," a special heavy blanket that often comforts those with ADHD. 

After swimming for a while and I get out of the cold water, my legs feel heavy. I love that feeling. No ants in my pants, ie, the uncontrollable urge to move, that comes with ADHD, disappears. My legs are just tired and heavy and they don't demand me moving. Swimming all year round is now my medicine for everything. The cold water gives me a kick and energy when I need it. It also soothes and calms me down if that is what I need. More swims provide a higher "normal" for my mental health. I still have ups and downs, but my down is not as low as it used to be.

The sea helps me when I'm in my lows. It tells me I can never get too heavy for it to carry me. It assures me that whatever I'm worried about can wait and that I didn't sound like an idiot when I said that thing that time. It whispers in between the waves that I'm not alone.

After I had my first spontaneous cold water swim a couple of years ago at Christmas I decided to invite a friend (Sofia on IG as @sofiaandreas) to join me on these adventures (see photos above when we swam in September and then December). My friend and I love swimming and spend our summers figuring out new spots, cool photos to take and the best games to play after swimming. Naturally, I forced her to swim the next Christmas with me. That spring we went as often as we both could. When autumn came, we just kept going. Then I began to incorporate some upgrades, eg, bringing a towel and wearing the shoes that came with my wetsuit.

Now I feel like I am one of those cold water swimmers I first began to see on Instagram (IG). I love forming part of the #coldswims community on IG and I enjoy the comments about me being crazy I receive from my colleagues at work. I am slowly encouraging successfully more and more people to try it. I don't have a physical community around me to swim with but I feel that I'm a part of something when talking with people online about our experiences. And I'm working on my own local community, one colleague at a time.

Before writing this article I hadn't reflected deeply on what the ocean means to me. I realize though that it never disappoints. It is always there, always calling. And I am always listening.

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Thursday, 20 June 2024

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