The cold comforts of winter swimming
Lola Culsán talks to Nirjay Mahindru about the benefits of going for a dip in chilly conditions following his triple heart bypass operation
19 January, 2018 — By Lola Culsán
Nirjay Mahindru: ‘If you’d told me 18 months ago if I’d be swimming through winter, I would’ve said you were mad’
MORE and more people are swimming outdoors in winter. Studies show the physical and mental health benefits of cold water swimming – from increased libido to a cure for depression.
I met a man from Archway who has achieved his year-long aim of swimming in Hampstead Heath Men’s Pond on Christmas Day.
“It was brilliant,” said Nirjay Mahindru, 51, who had a quadruple bypass operation two years ago. “It was a lovely morning. I did a 5k run first and when we got to the men’s pond a guy was playing Christmas carols on a battered trumpet.
“If you’d told me 18 months ago if I’d be swimming through winter I would’ve said you were mad. The inspiration came after the Christmas Day Parkrun last year. Afterwards, friends swam in the men’s pond. Watching, I wondered: could I do that? The following months I would look at the selfie we took and wished I’d swum.”
Nirjay, is an actor, playwright, artistic director of writing company Conspirators’ Kitchen and chief executive of InterAct, a charity that has “over 160 professional actors visiting hospitals and stroke clubs to stimulate stroke survivors through reading”.
This is his story.
“Doctors said that because of my heart condition, under no circumstances should I go in water under 10OC. However, through my work I’ve met so many people who’ve been told they couldn’t do things. People who’d been told they’d never walk again are now running marathons. Please don’t think that I’ve no respect for doctors, but so much of life is a mental game.
“Maybe it’s having faced death that puts life into perspective. Two year ago doctors told me that I was two days away from dying, that I was going to have a heart attack. I had a quadruple heart bypass and they said: ‘We’re going to stop your heart and collapse your lungs. You may not survive the operation.
“When I awoke I couldn’t move. I was on morphine with wires all over me. I would spend the days looking at a column in the hospital and wondering if I would ever be able to walk to it. The challenge of being able to go to the TV room was the equivalent of walking to Paris.
“When you go through a massive life-changing operation, I think that’s when you sense your own mortality and everything else that comes after that is a complete bonus.
“Thinking that I would have to get used to the water temperature first, I waited until summer to start. The first time I swam in the men’s pond it felt like home. Maybe it’s because I am a Pisces, a water sign. Suddenly I was swimming every day, sometimes twice a day. I would swim before work and then find myself back there after work. I love swimming in a sunlit pond accompanied by cormorants, mallards and kingfishers.
“When I had my heart operation, they pushed my chest back so far that my shoulder nerves were damaged. I couldn’t lift my arm and the doctor said I’d never be able to lift if normally. But ever since I’ve been swimming, I can lift it right above my head. I can do things I was told I would never do again.
“The word that always comes to my mind when I think of swimming in the ponds is ‘humbling’. It can be really cold but the temperature is irrelevant. It’s just enjoying the moment. Even if it’s 30 seconds, but that 30 seconds of oneness, of being in the water.
“My new year resolution last year was to stop looking at the world through a negative lens and stop saying: ‘I can’t do this.’ Now I feel really proud of myself. I know marathon runners – I’ve asked them if they fancy going for a swim in the ponds during the winter, they say they look at me as if I’m mad or they don’t understand.
“I hope if people read my story they will think if he can do it, so can I.
“Now I feel I can do whatever I set my mind to – French A-level, Spanish GCSE, anything. Being in the water is magical and positive for me. My goal now is swim in the ponds the whole year round.”
• Lola Culsán is co-author with John Weller of Wild Swimming Spain, Wild Things Publishing 2016
• Read more about Nirjay’s story on Lola’s swimming blog: johnandlola.wordpress.com