SITTING in the NAC car park on a Sunday morning, hysterically crying, awaiting a motorcycle lift to Wicklow, I did begin to wonder how it came to this?

The previous morning at Seapoint, I’d rushed off to work a late shift and left behind my Arena kneeskin. People went back, everyone was called. It was, frustratingly, gone.

By now I had been on top of the Swimmer of the Year table for one month – and been handicapped accordingly. Keeping up, improving with those stagnant handicaps was biting.

I shaved, what I call, ‘a save’, finishing 20th – the last placing in the six-point bracket. But there were two more races this weekend, and I was now handicapped by being handicapped in a kneeskin I no longer had.

SwimKit.ie, mercifully, are open on Sundays, and just about early enough for one to shop there before a swim in Wicklow. They also donated a voucher to a team prize I’d won recently, and had the suit I wanted, so all was working out. Until I hit a kerb.

It began deflating on the M50, and was a clunking embarrassment crawling into the NAC car park. I was tired. Saturday was hard. This was the end of the world. But you know what happens when the world ends? Club mates wake up their husbands to race you down on the back of their motorbike, they pick up blubbering messes off the side of the road in their borrowed convertibles – with a box of tissues – and your boyfriend gives up his day to fix your car.

Swimmer of the Year is a test of endurance, consistency, and character. It’s a team effort, that requires over 100 days of commitment.

The weekend I went ahead was 10 days after I sought advice from an old friend, who happens to be an almost unbeatable open water swimmer and leading coach in the UK.

That connection remained constant from then until the end. I asked, because I didn’t want to ever be thinking, ‘I could have done more’. That applies to why I started sessions with another old friend, who is now a sports psychologist.

It also applies to why I gave up my (horribly expensive) holiday to the Scilly Isles; why I swam the Eddie Heron having been too unwell to eat since Lough Dan and, why I swam the rescheduled Special Olympics race three days later, having not slept since the Eddie Heron, driving support for a non-stop cycling relay around Ireland.

People who haven’t tried to win it, think there’s a formula; there isn’t. You have to swim every race to win it, and finish every race as if the person in front of you is in the lead, because they could be the difference between you getting four points, or the same points as last position – three.

Turning up every weekend, no matter what, and defying bigger and bigger handicaps, swimming with faster and faster swimmers, is a challenge that cannot be replicated.

It hurt and smiled in equal measure, pushing me to swim some unbelievable races that I will be forever proud of, and I will never forget the feeling of crossing the finish line in the Liffey.

I went into that last race with four ladies still able to beat me, and a handicap so inflated I could do little to stop them. Further handicapped by bizarre leg cramps, I have never wanted a race to finish more.

It was the final time for everything, and though winner Anne-Marie Bourke had quashed the hopes of two, two could still have put in that finish I ALWAYS believed would come.

For the first time I met one of those two, Sarah O’Doherty, in the saturated, cramped changing area. I looked up from my bag and asked: ‘Where did you finish?’. She needed a top 20. She hadn’t got it. We hugged and shared a cognac miniature I’d stashed. Then I searched for Sandra Trappe, the last lady standing.

I feel cheated that there was no ‘I won’ moment. There were just a few tears and a hug with my boyfriend Eoin, when someone told me Sandra had finished in the 100s – she needed a top 12. But then perhaps that’s the nature of the competition; it’s not about glory or brilliance, just dogged consistency.

This was my fifth year swimming front crawl, and my fourth competing in LOS, and the first season where I genuinely knew what I was doing. It is an amazing feeling to get in the water with that confidence, and even better when people get behind you too.

I said all along that this was a stars-aligning year, and that I could not comprehend another summer refreshing howdidyouswim.com. But the sadistic realms of my subconscious are leaving the door ajar.

And I’ve still never won a race.

j1

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