Lessons from the Wild-Water Swimming Movement

Be careful what you wish for.

Just one month ago, I was standing at the waters-edge of what was once a swimming hole for humans in the great Birrarung (Yarra) river. I was wistfully watching a German Shepherd retrieve a stick. “Oh to be a dog!” I’d lamented to the dog’s owner. “People swim here too now,” she shared. “There’s a group of women swimming most days.” Disbelieving yet hopeful, I rushed home on a mission.

Within seconds I was at my laptop posting a message on our local Facebook group asking if anyone knew these courageous women. Minutes later I received a response and three mornings later I’d found my new tribe and was enjoying the water just like that dog. I’d became one of the first members of our local wild-water swimming club.

Follow your intuition then take action without delay.

Now, every morning upon waking, the Birrarung calls. Nothing gets me out of bed faster than the thought of being immersed in 8° water. Like a woman possessed, I ride my bike down to the river to greet my new friend Amanda. We strip down to our swim-suits and prepare for the plunge.

Stepping gleefully down the perfectly cut rocks to the water’s edge, I take one further small step into the squelchy muddy bank and slide in as gracefully as possible. My head remains above the water. The cold catches in my throat. I breathe mindfully through the shock. The water is brown yet clean and almost silky against my skin.

At first, I am self-absorbed. I am focused on my anatomical adaptation as I lose my land legs and morph into a mystical amphibian. In less than a minute, my body is acclimatised. I forget myself and turn my attention outwards to my surroundings.

Use your best stroke.

Breaststroke is perfect for wild-water swimming. With eyes at water level, it allows me to take everything in. I look up to the Native Golden Wattles and Yarra gums growing impossibly out of the rocky cliffs on the other side of the river. Bobbing across the water’s surface are thousands of golden sweet-smelling flower heads from the wattles. It’s like a starry, starry night-sky. A pair of Snow Geese are spotted in the distance gathering insects in the reeds, while a raft of Pacific black-ducks glide by and attempt to herd us into shore.

I do not want to think too much about what might be below. I can sense the eels, carp, and cod and all manner of creatures lurking beneath. Thankfully they’re invisible to me. I’m grateful to them for allowing me in and leaving me alone. Occasionally, a small unidentifiable fish jumps out of the water for a quick peek at what lies above before plopping back home.

Making the monotonous days magical again.

It’s an immersive experience in nature, incomparable to anything else. It is life-changing and life-affirming. It makes the monotonous lockdown days magical again. And it inspires me to learn more about our river home and explore what action I can take to contribute to its reparation and regeneration.

As we swim, joggers and walkers stop enthusiastically to yell questions at us across the water. “Is it cold? Is it clean? Is it safe?” And finally, “can I join you?” Yelling back, we share our mobile numbers and ask them to text us their name to be added to our private group.

Most mornings, a new swimmer arrives a little anxious yet thrilled at the prospect of brightening up their otherwise dull day. The shock and the joy on their faces as they submerge into the fresh cold water is delightful to watch. By the end of the swim, this once stranger, has become a new friend. There are now over 50 people in our group and many more not on the group are now swimming here too.

Every day I get to witness people healing themselves in the great Birrarung.

A movement that is remaking our world.

I’m a big fan of the 3-minute TED talk How to Start a Movement by Derek Sivers. It accurately describes just how our own swimming movement began.

A movement starts by one person finding the courage to reject conformity. Thank you Katie! It starts with that one person questioning the unchecked assumptions, in our case that this particular spot in the river was not suitable for swimming.

It starts by that person having a vision of what’s possible and then the first followers (thank you Julia and Kimi) who trust the leader to join the movement. Then soon the risk becomes shared, and so too, does the joy. And then a whole bunch of new followers get on board which eventually makes the movement mainstream.

(In Katies case, she actually had no vision to start a movement! She just decided to do something she loves and share it with a few friends. No plans. No expectations.)

Movements are risky not foolhardy.

Starting a movement is inherently risky. But without risk there is really no movement. And without movements we cannot build the better world we all crave. A movement has to buck the system. It has to go against the flow (pun intended). It must be something people have secretly longed for or offer something that might instantly change their life in unexpected ways.  A movement must test every limiting and unconscious assumption that keeps us restrained and stops us from being brave.

That does not mean the movement is foolhardy or negligent. Our swimming movement is very careful and considered. We conduct water-quality tests. We share weather updates. We swim in pairs not groups to comply with lock-down rules. We keep each other informed. We know that we are each responsible for ourselves. We know we are taking a risk but as Oscar Wilde said “The riskiest thing in life is taking no risks at all”.

Movements sprout new movements.

From this movement there are potential post-lockdown activities being considered. River clean-up days. Kayaking expeditions. Night swims. Wild-water camping trips to Victoria’s greatest water-holes. Even the idea of reigniting the swimming club that existed here 100 years ago is being discussed.

We don’t know how this movement will unfold. That perhaps, is the point and most enjoyable part of belonging to a movement. You don’t need a plan. You don’t need rules. You don’t need hierarchies. You just need courage, a love of humans and Mother Earth and a deep sense of awe, wonder and adventure.

Our Yarra swimming group is fast becoming a movement that is remaking the world – one precious human being at a time.

There has never been a better time for movement-making in this world. If you have the will, please find the way.

With love

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land I work and live on – the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people, and pay my respect to their Elders past and present.

PS We unpack the lessons of movement-making in my Talk on Purpose course and explore how it applies to growing a purpose-driven community in schools and companies. The course helps your leaders become crystal clear on the purpose of their role as it relates to your company or school purpose. Once they have clarity of purpose they are then taught how to write and tell a 3-minute story that is delivered live to your work or school community at a gala event. Over 200 people have completed this course and praised it as life-changing and transformative. Intrigued? Book a Conversation

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