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“Mek dem galang!” mum would always declare with the jut of her chin, whenever a car overtook us in Jamaica. Back in England, her dismissal would change to, “He thinks he’s Stirling Moss,” whenever an English driver had the audacity to speed past us.
The thing is, the Stirling Mosses of London never get that far: you usually meet them at the next traffic light. In Jamaica, it’s a completely different story: you’ll probably never see that car again.
In early September 2022, I swam 5K in an open water event in London called Dock2Dock. It was my third ‘Big Swim.’ It was only after I swam away from the Royal Albert Dock start point and spotted Royal Victoria Dock ahead of me, that I fully grasped what Dock2Dock actually meant: I had to swim from one dock to another – duh.
As I swam, people overtook me left, right and centre. I was kicked, prodded, bumped as the Stirling Mosses of the water swiftly swam past me. After a hand or elbow hit me in mid propulsion, I told myself not to get ticked off. 99% of the swimmers were swimming freestyle (aka front crawl), meaning their heads were face down in the water, so it really wasn’t their fault they were knocking into me. An anomaly, I was swimming head-down breaststroke. When I wasn’t gliding under water, I had the advantage of taking in my surroundings and sighting regularly (sighting: when a swimmer looks up during their swim stroke to check where they are going). I was in a league of my own – a much slower league. A strong front crawl usually outdoes a steady breaststroke, which is exactly why front crawl is the most popular stroke at open water events like Dock2Dock.
I thought about a lot of things as I swam:
Although my thoughts were as choppy as the water, my focus remained on reaching the furthest distance I could sight ahead of me. On the initial stretch out from Royal Albert Dock, my first sighting point was the familiar Canary Wharf. I switched to the bulging yellow buoys marking the swim route because they were more eye level than Canary Wharf and obtainable. Once I sighted the furthest triangular buoy, I told myself, ‘Get there Abigail, just get there.’ If I focused on that, I didn’t have too much time to dwell on the swimmers intermittently overtaking me to my right and left.
I was going to finish the swim, I had no doubt about that, but boy, I had a long way to go. Once I made it down to Royal Victoria Dock, I still had to turn around and head all the way back on the right-hand side of the dock, past where I entered the water at Royal Albert, past the finish point just beyond Connaught Bridge, then all the way along City Airport’s runway, and finally all the way back down on the left-hand side of the buoys back to the finish point. It was a hell of a long swim. A real 5K swim with absolutely no tidal assistance to speed things up.
It was all on me: my arms, my legs, my breathwork and my mindset.
The saying, ‘The race is not for the swift, it’s for those who are willing to endure,’ sprang to my mind throughout my swim.
For me, the Dock2Dock swim was never a race, I was doing it purely for the experience. I can tell you that there is something very urban and unique about swimming right next to City Airport, with planes thundering above you as they take off and land.
I was certain that my stroke wasn’t as swift as the freestylers around me, but one thing was for sure: I was steady and consistent.
And undoubtably, I endured:
The temporary loss of sensation to my fingers and toes in the 21.2-degrees Celsius water.
I could deal with all that.
But why was I no longer surrounded by yellow swim caps, the swimmers I got into the water with for the 5K rolling start? Had they finished already? Why did it seem like every other distance swimmer wearing a different coloured swim hat to mine was passing me at full speed? Would the 1.5K swimmers outswim me? Would I be the last ‘5Ker’ to cross the finish line?
It didn’t cross my mind that I wouldn’t make it to the end. I signed up for a 5K swim - I would get to the finish line by hook or crook.
Charlene, my sister-in-law, was the first person I heard as I neared the finish point:
“Go on Abigail! Go Abigail! Whooo hooo! Go Abigail! Whooo hooo! Well done!” she hollered from the railing overlooking the finish point.
All the finishing swimmers were hauled out of the water by Dock2Dock staff onto the sloped pontoon. Once the young man released my arm and I was upright and independent, my legs grappled with walking. I stumbled and swayed from left to right as if walking on an unsteady boat. I staggered my way to my brother and nephew waiting to congratulate me beyond the red inflated ‘FINISH,’ sign I’d been eagerly sighting on my final stretch.
Adorned with a yellow 5Km Dock2Dock 2022 medal, the first coherent words to leave my lips were, “I did it.”
And that’s all that matters, the fact I did it.
It took me 2 hours and 35 minutes to complete the 5K swim. The fastest swimmers made it in under 1 hour 15 minutes, a terrific accomplishment.
The reality is that in life, people will always overtake me – in and out of the water. It’s inevitable. When this happens, I want to be as quick as my mum driving steadily down any Jamaican highway and remind myself of her fervent dismissal:
“Mek dem galang!”
I’ll never be the Stirling Moss of distance swim events, but I am willing to endure.
I’ll get to the finish line at my pace, on my time, swimming my desired stroke, because it’s my journey, nobody else’s.
 A Jamaican dismissal meaning let them go / pass / go on their way.
 Sir Stirling Moss OBE was a Formula 1 race driver, the Louis Hamilton of his day.
Written by Abigail Black
Photography by Dock2Dock
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