Sunday, 18 March 2012


A recent guest post by Ned Denison on Donal Buckley's blog has been doing the rounds on the swimming discussion forums. The post highlights the easy-to-overlook fact that every long swim is underpinned by very real time investment of a whole hoard of volunteers who crew, transport, help out at races etc. He calculates that a solo Channel swim accrues as much as 100 person-days of volunteer time, making the argument that swimmers need to give back to the sport by volunteering and not just swimming. Ned uses the notion of "taking advantage of" volunteer time, which I'm not sure is a fair representation of most people's engagement with the sport as swimmers or volunteers. To take advantage of someone, I would suggest, is different from gaining benefit from their volunteerism, and reciprocity is a much more complex affair than a simple exchange of hours. However, the point about needing to help out as well as swim is extremely well made, and I for one have benefited enormously from the time and effort of others. As many people know, Channel swimming is a solo sport achieved by a team of people, only one of whom usually gets the plaudits.

With this in mind, I recalled my recent experience of volunteering at a running event in Stratford. I was supposed to be attempting the 10km run with two colleagues from work, but frustratingly, pulled my achilles tendon two weeks before and had to withdraw. Not wanting to just abandon my two colleagues, I volunteered to help out with registration, and then marshalling so that I would be able to cheer on my friends. So for two hours before the race, I stuffed goodie bags, handed out timing chips and numbers and generally scurried about; and then I spent an hour on a water station, passing cups to grateful runners. And I have to say, it was a huge amount of fun. It is always awe-inspiring to see the top level runners steam-training past, but my heart is with the less speedy - all shapes and sizes, all manner of running styles. Most people smile and say thank you as they grab a cup; some are just too tired and having to concentrate (a feeling I know well). It's all very inspiring, and even though I would dearly have loved to have been able to do the run, it was a good morning out nevertheless. I recommend it.

One thing that I do find difficult is the people who seem to forget that this is a leisure activity and behave like complete morons - for example, the man who stormed up to my registration station to protest that his goodie bag didn't have a bottle of sports drink like everyone else had when he'd paid the same money. I pointed out that this was more likely to have been a mistake than a deliberate plot to deny him his full value for money. I remember helping out at a local sprint triathlon once and being responsible for counting swimming pool laps. One competitor felt that I had miscounted his laps (an entirely feasible possibility) and subsequently, his overall time had been about a minute slower than it should have been, leading to a great deal of complaint and recrimination towards me. It's not the Olympics; take a breath.

But thankfully, these are the absolute minority, and in the run and other events where I've helped out, everyone has been utterly charming. But it's a point to remember, and as I wrote about a few weeks ago - it's only swimming (or running, or whatever). Smile, say please and thank you, and have a good event - that will keep most volunteers happy. Oh...and chocolate and biscuits are also appreciated.

One of my biggest frustrations about Channel swimming is my inability to go out on the boats. Now that I have more experience as a swimmer, I think I could perhaps be useful as support crew; plus, my job means that I have considerable time flexibility over the summer, making it easy to be 'on call' for a swim. But sadly, until I can find an effective way of dealing with the seasickness, this isn't really an option. Also, my land-locked location means that I'm not able to be part of a training community where reciprocal exchanges of kayaking / feeding duties become part of the everyday training process (as in Sandycove, for example, or in San Francisco). But I think that Ned's blog post is a very timely one, and I definitely need to think more about other ways to support upcoming swimmers....

1 comment:

  1. Karen, I totally agree.. " IT's ONLY swimming!!".
    I love helping....
    Well written post by the way,as usual.


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