A moment that changed me: I realised I would never swim again – and began to accept my body’s limits – The Guardian

My disability meant I had never been able to stand or walk. In the water I had found freedom – but it was time to move on
I remember the exact afternoon when I knew I would never swim again. I was 13 years old, sobbing in the car the whole way home as my school uniform stuck to my damp skin. The previous hour in the hydrotherapy pool haunted me and I remembered how my weak neck gave way and my head slipped under the water, flooding my ears and nose. My body was precariously suspended by multi-coloured floats. I panicked and cried out that I didn’t feel safe.
Physiotherapists circled around me like synchronised swimmers, reassuring me that I was OK. But my body didn’t feel like it was mine any more. I had lost control to the water. On the journey home I was forced to acknowledge the inevitable – my swimming days were over.
I was born with spinal muscular atrophy. It’s a genetic disability that causes severe weakness in my limbs and, since I was a toddler, I’ve used an electric wheelchair. My disability means I’ve never been able to stand or walk, but in the water, I was weightless and could move more freely.
Swimming had once meant so much to me. Living by the sea and going on family holidays to Menorca meant I learned how to swim at a young age. Strangely, however, my fondest memories are of learning to swim in school PE lessons. It was the only sport I was ever able to fully participate in, without being relegated to referee or adjudicator, and I was a child who wanted to take part in everything.
I wasn’t the fastest swimmer, nor the most confident, but I loved every minute. I might have been doggy-paddling widths of the local pool in my rubber ring, breathlessly trying to beat my modest record each week, but back in class, with wet-hair and chlorine-sore eyes, I felt like an equal.
The greatest moment came, aged nine, when my mum inexplicably dragged the whole family to a sports prize-giving on the pretence that someone we knew was receiving an award. I was too young to question it, but as the evening droned on, I had the shock of hearing my own name called. I’d won a trophy, a special achievement bronze cup for my swimming efforts!
It was the first and only time I’ve ever been awarded a prize for a physical activity – but as I approached adolescence, awaiting spinal fusion surgery, the trophy was a marker in time. My body was getting weaker and surgery would make me less mobile. I knew my swimming days were numbered.
After my surgery, visiting the hydrotherapy pool was a last-ditch attempt to return to the water. Despite my nerves, my clinical team were keen to get me back in the pool. I now needed specialist equipment to get me into the water, so the inaccessible local pool was no longer an option.
When the session arrived, it was a stressful, frightening ordeal, far from the fun I remembered. My tears weren’t just because of the loss – they were an acceptance, too. I made the decision: I was never going back in the water again.
For the first time as a young adult I had to advocate for myself. Like other disabled people, I often feel a societal pressure to push myself, to ignore my body’s needs, to be a high achiever, a Paralympian, despite pain or exhaustion. Recognising that swimming was unsafe and uncomfortable was a tough lesson about accepting the limitations of my body.
I had to find other avenues to connect with the water and my loss. Swimming is now impossible, but I still take joy from seeing my family and friends in the water. Living by the sea means wrestling with bittersweet memories, but in the summer I replicate that feeling by placing my feet in a bucket of water; I kick them back and forth and remember what it was like to float.
Twenty years on, I found myself writing a novel about a young woman trapped on an island, longing to escape and swim towards a better life. It didn’t occur to me until the novel was finished that the pining my protagonist, Esta, experiences is one that echoes my own. Through writing I can imagine lives beyond my own physical body and it’s cathartic to revisit what has gone.
Swimming was the first big physical loss in my life, but I know there will be others as I age. Everyday tasks I can complete now, such as cleaning my teeth or feeding myself, may become too difficult as the years pass. I’ve learned it’s OK to grieve these changes, to miss what my body could do before, but also find ways to adapt and enjoy what I can do, and accept what I can’t.
The Seawomen by Chloe Timms (Hodder & Stoughton, £9.99) is out now in paperback