At the closing medal ceremony on day one, South London Swimming Club scooped a number of medals of various hues, and one cup, won by the redoubtable Patricia Baker for being the oldest competitor. I hope that when I am in my seventies I shall be able to fly across Europe, get into three degree water and swim seventy metres with as much elan and good humour as Patricia. Her cup was exceptionally well deserved.
By the first race on Sunday the ladies had got well used to stripping to the buff in front of various strange men, particularly as the South London and Latvian mixed relay teams on Saturday all changed together, doubtless in order to encourage esprit de corps. In any case, when you have just come out of icy water and are endeavouring to get a dry costume on over a wet and chilly body in the middle of a draughty tent, normal boy/girl etiquette goes out of the window; as one competitor humorously remarked, at a temperature of 3°C, there’s not a lot of difference anyway.
By my second race of the day, the 25m freestyle, I was feeling nicely relaxed and getting into the water was no longer a shock. I got a flying start and loved the race; the swimming felt easy and fun and when I climbed out the timekeeper showed me the time with a smile: 33.12 seconds for 35 yards. When the results were pinned up her optimism was justified, as I’d won a silver medal! All right, so there were only five competitors in my age category, but even so I was delighted and felt, to use a technical term, well chuffed.
Next came the endurance, 210 metres of daunting cold. During the 70m breaststroke I couldn’t feel my hands by the end of the second length, which meant that I was gob-smacked by admiration for the competitors prepared to swim six lengths, especially our own Lucy Neal, swimming in the second endurance race. She finished in fine style, waving to us as she completed her fourth length, and on coming out had the shiny, pleased look of one who has faced a challenge and trampled it triumphantly underfoot.
The last race of the day was the 25 m freestyle mixed relay, which was notable for two events. Firstly Ann swam into the end of a protruding pontoon whilst blinded by the sun, which was making a welcome guest appearance (welcome apart from that, anyway). On exiting the water we did the usual team photoshoots, only noticing as we headed back to the changing rooms that her hands were pouring blood where they’d been gashed by the barnacles on the pontoon.
Call the medics! The cry went up and a nice young man turned up with a large red case through which he then hunted at length for a pair of rubber gloves, causing Ann to remark that it was a good thing she wasn’t bleeding to death. Just as he finally found the gloves and started hunting for plasters another medic turned up with a bigger bag, followed by two further colleagues, each bearing complicated equipment. Clearly the news had gone round: “We’ve got a live one!!”, catnip to bored emergency personnel who had spent the morning with nairy a medical emergency between them. One of the three unlucky latecomers commented hopefully that blood doesn’t clot under four degrees centigrade, while the other two just smiled good-naturedly at the suggestion that Ann might enjoy a go on their stretcher.
The second notable thing about our relay was the result. At the end of the medal ceremony came the relay results, and, at the end of the relay results, the news that the Mayor’s Cup for Best 25m Freestyle Relay Team in the 200-250 age category had been won by….. South London Swimming Club!!!! Cue tumultuous cheers, mainly from us, and an emotional ceremony in which the proud foursome were presented with a trophy the size of a small child. Who cared that we were fourth out of four in the actual race? We had emerged triumphant thanks to a demanding months-long selection process involving stacks of data and complicated algorithms allowing us, on the day, to assemble the exact team which would ensure us victory by picking the four people who happened to be there and were willing to swim. Take that, Estonia!! In your FACE, Latvia!! That’ll teach you to be young and fast.
And that was it. Of course it wasn’t, really – there was so much more: new friendships made and old friendships renewed and deepened, good food and drink, the beauty of Sopot and the hospitality of our hosts. But on the whole it was just another winter swimming trip, with all the laughter, fun and comradeship that implies, thanks to this wonderful, stupid, crazy, unifying sport. Cold water: may contain nuts.