May is my Birthday month. This year is different. This year I feel like I am being given the extra gift of increased freedom and opportunity.

Born in Canada on Mother’s day I am now 54 and snatching the opportunity to reflect a little on where I have got to in life and where I am going. I think about my birthday celebrations over the years, which have taken many forms. There is one, fairly recent birthday that really sticks in my mind, for many reasons.

My 52nd birthday, in 2019 signified so many positive changes for myself; confidence, strength, self-belief, aspiration, determination, resilience and fortitude. The simple act of swimming, continuously, in the sea for 10k was a turning point in my life journey.

That beautiful day in May was the culmination of a years pool and sea training. Building up my fitness and working on my technique, constantly pushing, facing my demons; too old, too fat, not sporty, too slow. As my wonderful friend Louise said ‘comparison is the thief of joy’, she is right, she is right about a lot of things. With the support of my swimming buddies, the squad training at Felixstowe Leisure Centre with Seamus Bennett of Swim Smooth Suffolk and the constant support of Louise, I became an official sea marathon swimmer on my 52nd Birthday. The moment of disbelief when I actually finished is captured in the starfish photograph of myself floating and pausing to think about what I had just done. It took a snippet over 4 hours for me to complete the challenge in what is known as ‘channel rules’ attire; a standard swimsuit, one cap and goggles – no flotation devices, no neoprene. You are not allowed to touch anybody else or anything other than a feeding bottle or food which is lowered to you from the side of the support boat.

I was swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, it was 17.6 degrees with mild chop and the clearest, blue water teaming with sea life. I wasn’t bored. I was fascinated by the undulating seaweed and darting fish that kept me company. I swam strong and steady for the first 9 k and then I hit my wall. Just like marathon runners, long distance swimming can also fling you into a dark spot when your energy levels are depleted and your internal gremlins try to have their way. I had to stop swimming as a passenger Ferry boat was crossing the swim path. Hovering in the sea, vertical after hours of horizontal swimming suddenly caused a glitch; I felt cold and tired, so tired. Getting out wasn’t an option but it was more a case of how was I going to carry on……?

This swim was part of a marathon training camp I attended with an organisation called Swim Trek. There were marvellous coaches providing both mental and physical support. Kelly, lead coach, noticed that I’d had to stop because of the passenger Ferry and raced over in the small motorised rib boat. “are you O.K.?” she enquired, peering at me over the side of the boat with the most dazzling smile that would warm a corpse. “I don’t know. I think so. I think I’m getting cold and I don’t want to wait for the ferry. I need to keep swimming Kelly, I need to go”. Irrational heh? Amanda versus a passenger Ferry. “Do you like oranges?”, Kelly enquired. “I do”, giggling at what I thought was a peculiar question. Kelly disappeared back into the boat and proceeded to peel the biggest, juiciest orange in the kingdom. She leant over and passed me a segment of the most delicious, fragrant, sweetest fruit. The juice cut through my salt mouth and slipped down resulting in me experiencing the strangest sensation; I swear I could feel the sugar from the orange speeding through my veins. “one more segment Amanda?”, Kelly enquired. I nodded, ate it and announced “I’m ready”. Kelly carefully guided me away from the passenger Ferry to enable me to keep swimming. She understood that it wasn’t about keeping the ‘racing line’ i.e., swimming the shortest distance, it was about keeping swimming, moving forward, progressing. As the orange segments did their work I picked up and completed the last 1 k to become a marathon swimmer.

I’ve often wondered if it wasn’t for the orange segments that Kelly fed me whether I would have finished that marathon. It’s funny to think that such a small act as giving somebody a segment of orange could mean and result in so much. Finishing my first marathon proved to me that I could do it again and go further, swim for longer, be colder, be tired, be determined, be a finisher.

Never underestimate the power of a small act of kindness. I think I will pack some oranges in my kit bag when I go to do my Channel Relay swim this August……

The Birthday Orange