Group swimming at Bilgola rock pool in Sydney

Do you swim alone or swim in a group? Why do you think people love group swimming so much? Read here the story of one swimmer’s introduction to swimming in groups and her reflections on why it works so well and makes our swimming friendships so very special.

By Jacqueline Tonin

Starting Group Ocean Swimming in New Zealand

Many years ago, when we moved to New Zealand, and our children were little, I met a group of women intent on getting fit again and completing a triathlon. This involved a 400m ocean swim, which seemed almost insurmountable at the time. Yet we practised together and improved quickly with the help of one of the mothers who was a swimming coach, and I grew to love those sessions in the ocean.

Partly it was lovely being in the water again after years in colder climates. But it was also a way of getting to know people, and to feel connected with a shared goal. After the triathlon ended, the group lost its focus and most stopped swimming. But I had loved it so much that I continued, although I missed swimming with others. 

Then, by chance, I met another swimming psychologist, Kerry, at a work event, and we started swimming together, and people got used to seeing us at our regular swimming spot.

Little by little, others joined us. Over time, we collected a group of about ten dedicated women and one man, many of us immigrants, most of us book lovers. The group became the focus of our social lives, our support systems and a sense of belonging.

We swam longer and longer distances and entered more ocean races as we improved. I seldom swam alone again, and we settled in deeply to our New Zealand lives, never contemplating that we would ever move again.

But things often don’t go as planned, and the time came for another major move, this time to Sydney. Although devastated at leaving our beloved New Zealand, I felt at least I had a template for integrating in a new community again – that is, to join or create an ocean swimming group.

Starting Over In Sydney Swimming Groups

When I first arrived in Sydney, a kind friend, Ali, took me swimming with the now iconic Bold and Beautiful swimming group at world famous Manly Beach.  This group swims a beautiful 1.5km return trip to Shelly Beach, through a small marine reserve, and numbers have since swelled to over 200 daily swimmers who meet at 7am, whatever the weather.

Bold and Beautiful Swim Squad setting off from Shelly Beach

Although I love this swim, I never felt quite the same sense of connection. The group was just too big, and people seemed to meet in already established little groups, and at times I’d feel more alone than ever. Until I met Seana, who runs this website. We would meet intermittently, and it was wonderful to have a new spontaneous and fearless swimming friend.

Swimming together at North Curl Curl Rock Pool

At the same time, I had been exploring the nearby ocean pools in Sydney, and fell in love with the pool at Bilgola on the Northern Beaches. Seana and I would meet there on a Sunday. Then, in little increments, the same thing that had happened in New Zealand started happening again, and slowly, we were joined by others, first Steph, then Libby and then friends of theirs. And soon we were established as a regular swimming group.

Group swimming at Bilgola on a day when the surf is up

I was once again a member of a swimming community, and belonged a little more firmly in this new place.

A group swim at Manly

But things have changed again in these last months with the Covid-19 pandemic. And it is only in the last couple of weeks or so that restrictions have eased enough for us to swim with more than one other at a time – to be a group again. 

About ten days ago, I excitedly headed down the sandy path towards our local ocean pool, open for the first time after weeks of lockdown in this Covid period. Our small group was gathered there, shivering in the early cold, clumsily pulling on wetsuits, the unmistakable pink plastic buckets glowing in the soft morning light.

Bilgola rock pool – a wonderful place to swim with friends

I wanted to swoop in and hug everyone – it was so good to be able to meet in a group again – but of course we couldn’t. Social distancing rules prevented that. Yet, the surge of energy and joy from this shared meeting propelled us into the cold water, and we swam and swam, and something relaxed back into place. And the world felt a little less out of kilter.

For weeks, restrictions had dictated that we were not allowed to swim in a group, or in the ease and safety of our ocean pools.We’d had to find new wild places to swim – places without crowds, rips or crunching surf. This has been a lovely expanding thing, and will change the scope of our swimming in this new period of eased restrictions. But despite the good that may have come of this time, swimming has been a much more sporadic, solitary and business-like affair. 

Yet we have been lucky that we could continue to swim in the sea, unlike so many others in the world. Even alone, I love being in the ocean, and it has kept me on an even keel through difficult times. I love the way the salty water holds me suspended, and the freedom of movement it gives. I love the wash of it against my skin and the tug of it in my hair. I love the exhilaration of the cold and the sense of being vividly alive and completely lost in what I am doing.

While swimming, I can’t hold onto thoughts, and they drift across my brain like the edges of a dream one tries to catch on waking. So it is truly mindful for me, and the thing that I love most is that feeling of flow that I get when I’m fit and it’s a good swimming day – when it seems I’m gliding through the water, and that the water and I are working effortlessly together.

But I can’t minimise how much I have missed the camaraderie and laughter of our little group, the inspiration to swim however I am feeling or whatever the weather, and the regular routines and commitment to one another that hold us to that.

Jaqueline after a swim at Palm Beach rock pool, the most northerly of Sydney’s Northern Beaches

Swimming together in the open connects us in ways that are unique. It’s not just the connection, but the type of connection. There seems to be something about the rituals of getting changed together, of not wearing very much, and being physically exposed, which opens the way for greater emotional exposure. It’s harder to hide one’s frailties and feelings with noses red from the cold, hair awry, and stripped of clothes that conceal and flatter.

This, with the regular frequency of meeting, lends itself to a slow burn of easy familiarity, intimacy and trust. We find our inhibitions loosened in what we reveal of ourselves, wryly bemoaning the unwanted lumps and bumps of our most imperfect bodies and lives, as we half heartedly cover up while fighting our way back into our clothes. 

Things feel almost normal again for our swimming group. We can once again share our joy and exhilaration of the water, the lovely rituals of warming up afterwards, and the delicious shared secret of doing something that most others don’t do. We can gather again for the warm reward of coffee, despite awkwardly keeping our social distance.

Here, the conversation moves familiarly, although stilted by distance, from our love of books, to scathing attacks on politics and self-interest, and then to this pandemic that has shaped and threatened so much of our lives in these past months.

We don’t know what the future holds or whether our group swimming will be curtailed again. But for now we have one another, we have the ocean, and we will keep swimming while we can.

The wonderful camaraderie of swimming together. Jaqueline Tonin and Seana Smith share their post-swim elation, coffee to follow.
Swimming in a group, safety in numbers is just a small part of the story

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