Seeking Serenity through Isolation at Depth

For some, the liquid world created a lifetime aqua phobia that one never fully overcomes. For others, it offered excitement and suspense. The water’s precious gift to me was that of isolation - a private space of tranquillity.

LESTER TAN BY | UPDATED 11 MONTHS AGO

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Memories of Submersion

Before I became a competitive runner, I was a swimmer. The feeling of weightlessness, isolation and minor sensory deprivation appealed to me in an instinctive, primal way. With each stroke, I perceived my body gliding smoothly through the water. Despite the gnawing ache in my lungs as an oxygen debt slowly incurred, I never once panicked. The water felt like a second home; a safe haven and intimate space.

My earliest memories of swimming were at a neighbourhood swimming complex. I was a toddler, maybe aged five or so, when I first submerged myself underwater. A sensation of stillness engulfed my being and I surfaced only when my watchful mother pulled me out. Since then, I pestered my parents for weekly pool outings.

My parents soon recognised an opportunity to instil a life skill in their son and eagerly signed me up for weekend swimming lessons when I turned six. Truth be told, I was dejected when the news came as I disdained the structure that a swimming programme imposed. After all, play was integral to why I enjoyed swimming in the first place.

Nevertheless, within a year, my aquatic skills improved and I attained a ‘Silver’ National Survival Swimming Award (the NSSA was eventually scrapped in 2010 and replaced by today’s SwimSafer programme). This period also marked the beginning of my competitive streak as I pushed myself to be faster than everyone else in my swim class.

The Water’s Rejection

One fine day however, I was sick with flu and made the foolish mistake of sneaking myself to the pool instead of resting at home. My instructor tasked me with 100m repeats at 1:30mins; I barely front-crawled 20m before halting by the lane side, heart pounding and mouth gasping for air. Later at the clinic, the doctor admonished me for putting myself at risk of drowning.

In the weeks that followed, my confidence in the water sank to a rock bottom. I simply couldn’t will myself to swim as fast or as long as before. Water resistance seemed only to increase with every stroke. Scoldings from my instructor turned into sighs of resignation. Less than a month later, I told my parents that I didn’t want to swim anymore. The pool, once cool and comforting, had threw me out with indignation. The water’s rejection was my first heartbreak.

Mending a Broken Relationship

More than a decade passed before a stress fracture sustained from running compelled my return to the water. Similar to most reconciliatory efforts, the initial meeting was rife with awkwardness and uncertainty. At the water’s edge, I shifted nervously and felt deeply self-conscious.

While most recreational swimmers swam with a breaststroke, I preferred the front-crawl as it was faster and, with the right technique employed, less tiring. Alas, while I could still churn out several laps without stopping, my form was stiff and I struggled to maintain a rhythm. Barely 800 m later, had I left the pool with aching arms and shoulders. It was difficult, but the first step towards mending my relationship with the water was made.

A stress fracture entailed roughly six weeks of recovery before running can resume. I swam nearly every day in those six weeks. At that time, my body had adapted to the rigours of distance running; lean and rigid. While those attributes improved running efficiency, they worked against me underwater. Gone was the fishlike grace of my childhood. I now had the flexibility of a wooden plank.

But I couldn’t be happier. After every swim, I looked forward to doing it again the next day. Swimming gave me the comfort that I was still doing something to maintain my hard-earned aerobic fitness. But more than that, it allowed me to rediscover a lost part of myself. For the first time in a long time, I felt an ease and serenity that was dearly missed.

The Gift of Isolation

There’s very little that can distract you when you’re underwater. One can easily fall into a hypnotic trace once a steady stroke rhythm builds. Inhale, exhale. Pull, kick. Repeat. At some point, the movement dulls itself and becomes effortless; a state of ‘flow’ achieved. All else fades.

In 1990, psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described ‘flow’ as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

I’m no psychologist, but I can intimately relate to Csíkszentmihályi’s succinct characterisation of ‘flow’. I reflected on my childhood and how something as benign as total immersion in water can so deeply shape a person’s character. For some, it created a lifetime aquaphobia that one never fully overcomes. For others, the liquid world offered excitement and suspense. The water’s precious gift to me was that of isolation - a private space of tranquility.

Lessons from The Deep

“I’m quite scared of the sea,” a friend once confided to me, “I think it’s because I can’t see what’s under me.

It feels like something may suddenly grab and drag me under.” As I suited up in preparation of an open water swim, I pondered on those words and the question of why the ocean attracted some and repelled others. Up ahead, waves crashed lightly on the beach. I took tentative steps into the seawater and felt sand scrunch between my toes. A moment later, I dived into an oncoming wave. A swirl of sand danced across the textured seafloor. “I love the ocean. Being in the water gives me a sense of calm. When I dive, it feels as if the sea is giving a hug and welcoming me home.”



LESTER TAN

Lester started running in 2010 and continues to race whenever opportunities arise. Over the years, he has competed in numerous events ranging from 200m track races to trail ultramarathons. In his spare time, Lester reads widely and goes on microadventures.

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