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  • Stanley Ulijaszek


Aktualisiert: 2. Nov. 2020

A guest contribution by anthropologist Stanley Ulijaszek

Stanley Ulijaszek on his 65@65 mission at the river Thames, accompanied by swans. 

A few words before you are going to read Stanleys article.

One of the wonderful things which I experience with this blog and my instragram account is: resonance. Created by people, images, words, stories. In a subtle even peaceful and dedicated way.

On instagram I "met" Stanley aka lxvswim, an "open water swimmer since birth", as he writes on his blog 65@65. In July 2019 he decided to swim in 65 different outdoor locations in his 65th year of life - just to extend his birthday. Of course there was the lockdown, that's why Stanley has not finished his 65th swim yet (there is only one swim left).

I follow Stanley because I really like his idea and I am very happy, that we will talk about his "project" when it's over. Done. Finished. What will be left?

The reason why I asked Stanley to contribute is not because he is an anthropologist or an Oxford professor - which I only found out now when he sent me a short biography - but because of his wonderful blog post from August 31. It leads from his visit at the National Gallery in London to the Royal Docks where Stanley once tried to save his son - by swimming. For me it is this kind of stories I really love: In the first few lines they may appear to be insignificant, but then they invite you to dive into the depth of a life. And resonate.

Swimmers Skin

This is the closest I will get to swimming in Paris this year –standing next to Seurat’s painting ‘The Bathers as Asnieres’. There are good places and good people in Paris who swim outdoors, in open water, and I had hoped to make one of my 65 swims there. Covid-19 and my knee operation did for that, for this year.

Start of his journey with Seurat's bathers at the National Gallery London ©Stanley Ulijaszek 

Both places, Asnieres and Grenouillere were western suburbs of Paris in what were then less fashionable, close to or surrounded by factories and the working classes. They are both now absorbed by greater central Paris. This prepared me, unexpectedly, for the next swim, which I would do after leaving the National Gallery – at the Royal Victoria Docks. A western industrialised suburban of London undergoing rapid urban development from brown field across the past three decades, now part of greater central London. This post-industrial landscape, with tower blocks, parks and landscaping, still has some brown-field sites scattered around, something that became clear to me from the air later, when I took the cable-car from the Docks to the Millenium Dome, on the other side of the River Thames, to meet with my son for dinner. The Thames here is broad and brown as it approaches its end towards the ocean, still 50 kilometers away. Once my mind had been prepared by the Impressionist's bathers at the National Gallery, I filtered what I saw at the Royal Victoria Docks swimming venue, having crossed to the most eastern part of London from the centre.

Swimmers queuing at the Royal Victoria Docks in London ... ©Stanley Ulijaszek 

My first experience of swimming at the Royal Victoria Docks was doing the London Mile, now many years ago. I have swum it several times, but that first time I was raising money for a leukemia charity. My son, the one I was going to see tonight, was ill with this disease, and our lives as a family had been turned upside down by it. When chronic disease strikes you have little choice but to follow the rules set by the medical profession. The limited space for self-agency lies in things like raising money for an appropriate charity or institution; so it was with me, raising money for a leukemia charity. I cried but twice when my son contracted leukemia – very soon after we knew and we knew the implications, which for a teenage boy are hard to take. I cried again at the Great London Swim, months later. This was the first time I swam at one of these events, and I didn’t know what to expect – these swims were popular, increasingly so, so it was easy to find the destination, once of public transport – just follow the swimmers.

Tears, looks, promises

I was a wet-suiter then, and I think the organisers demanded that wet suits be worn at that time. Once ready, dressed and zipped up, there was a walk of around 300 meters to the start-point. I went alone, and I don't know how this happened - somehow got talking to two women who were also raising funds for cancer research, who had cancer in their families. I cried, we all cried, let it out, hugged, promised to each other this would be the best swim ever, that things would work out. As we walked to the start, when we got into the water to warm up we looked to each other, hard into the eyes, Scandinavian-style, deep into the soul. We promised each other - to be strong, to swim for those that matter. Well-wishing for the swim ahead, just a mile, then we somehow gave up our individuality and swam together, looked out for each other, until we got separated about two thirds of the way round. In the pumped-up atmosphere of the swim, with music pounding, being pep-talked into the water, this was indeed the best swim ever. I, we, were not competing for a time, but for something much more important. For one mile, we had our purpose back. I said goodbye to them at the end; I didn’t ask their names (it didn’t seem important), and I have never met them again, but I remember the swim well, with its bitter-sweetness, and still salute them for their strength and resilience.

It's where Stanley promised to be strong. ©Stanley Ulijaszek

He had simply asked, and got it all

All this, the London Swim when my son had leukemia, came out unexpectedly when I was talking with a swimmer, on this sunny day at the Victoria Docks late August 2020, queuing to be registered and signed up for swimming. I talked to him of the nostalgia that has attached itself to many of the 65 swims I am doing, and this particular swim today. He had simply asked why I was swimming here, in the eastern waters of London, and he got it all. At the very least he was polite to listen, and he wished me well. Nostalgia is the wrong word for the swim this particular afternoon, but the memory of that first swim was strong. The sense of joy was strong, to be back here on a sunny afternoon, in warm water, swimming skins (in swimmer terminology, without a wetsuit), in no hurry and taking in the monumental urban landscape of Canary Wharf as I went around. In memory of a difficult time in the life of my son and my family, I was pleased with the swim now – someone bumped into me, a wetsuited man in his late twenties, and he apologized. I just said to him that I was having fun today, and I was. My thoughts turned from memory to supper - in Greenwich with my son. I would take the cable car across the River Thames I decided, to continue the fun – I have never taken the cable car before.

Surrounded by wetsuit warriors

The swimming scene at Royal Victoria Docks was very mellow that day – the swimmers were mostly younger wetsuit warriors, not as intense and targeted on the swim as they can be. There were almost as many in skins, all happy. There never used to be regular swimming here, but the annual Great London Swims put the Docks on the swimming-scape. The case for regular swimming was made and won, and the National Open Water Coaching Association (NOWCA) made this another regular venue for outdoor swimming in London. The staff here were relaxed and friendly, competent and efficient, making the experience here far more pleasant than I had expected. So much has developed in this little corner of East London, lawns, open spaces, water-side views and walks, cafes and restaurants. Mostly younger adults enjoying the sun, stretching and exercising, walking and running, swimming and water-boarding, the place has energy, even while the pandemic is dampening all enthusiasm. Getting onto the cable car and rising into the sky I looked down and across to where I had been, to the swimming venue and the adjacent café, to the many people making this a wonderful place to enjoy the tail-end of this summer.

I promised myself that I would be back on another day, for another swim, for another relaxed coffee by the water.

About Stanley

I am an Oxford Professor with a passion for swimming outdoors, in all seasons. My job as an anthropologist has taken me to many countries and I have experienced swimming in most of them. I live 10 kilometers from Oxford, and swim every day unless something gets in the way, at a nearby lake, or in the River Thames, which flows through Oxford on the way to London. Last year I turned 65 years of age and my project, inspired by a swimming friend, was to extend my birthday celebration for a year, swimming in 65 different outdoor places in my 65th year. Outdoor swimming is growing very quickly in the UK, and it is easy to share my passion for outdoor swimming with other people, which I enjoy doing. I also enjoy eating cake, which goes with outdoor swimming in the UK.


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