From Rookie to Record Holder: Ayo Akinwolere on the Virtues of Open Water
“Globally there's an issue with fear of water, whether it be folklore or something else. That for me was the stem of what I wanted to work on in teaching people to swim."
“It's amazing how quickly my body gets used to that cold water.” Nigerian-born British-raised TV presenter Ayo Akinwolere tells Trippin, his face lighting up as he ardently discusses his record-breaking swim. Akinwolere took an unconventional route to become a world record holder. The Broadcaster of 15 years first began his journey in the water in 2011 at age 28. That same year he swam five miles across the deepest part of the ocean known to man, the Palau Trench, an 8000-metre deep section of the Pacific Ocean, earning him the world record title for the deepest location for an open water swim. Over the course of the three-and-a-half-hour endeavour, Akinwolere disproved popular myths in the west about Black people and our apparent inability to swim.
A decade later he is a board member of the Swimming Teachers Association and runs projects to get more people of colour in the water. In conversation, Akinwolere explains that “like anything you roll out in society, there needs to be a holistic nature to it. You need to educate yourself on culture. And this is what I want to try to get into the Swimming Teachers Association.” His culture-centric approach to swimming education feels like a breath of fresh air for an industry that often ignores the social factors that could affect individuals' dispositions towards bodies of water. “Globally there's an issue with fear of water, whether it be folklore or something else. That for me was the stem of what I wanted to work on in teaching people to swim. Get rid of the fear and then we can move forward”.
That fear is often what keeps us trudging one foot after the other inside our bubbles, our social confines, our carefully crafted sanctuaries. To Akinwolere the act of swimming is a necessary form of escapism from the mundane lives we often become accustomed to in adulthood. As he puts it “open water swims are a spiritual experience” there are noticeable improvements in people's lives “when they see they can exist in that space”. From his accounts, taking first-timers out to the open waters unlocks a deep and profound sense of freedom within them “They look back at their life in the city and think, oh my God, actually this is quite restricting. Even though I feel like I'm offered every freedom in the world, nature offers me the greatest freedom for free.” he tells us.
Though enthusiastic about the water, Akinwolere makes it a point to remind us of the dangers of open water swimming to novices. The history of segregation and the socio-economic restrictions created by racism and the climbing prices of pool memberships are not lost on him, he often speaks out against his local pool charging £11 a session. However, he encourages newcomers to begin training within the confines of a pool if they can. “It's harder to swim in a pool because there is no salt. So you're actually learning the hard way, but also in a much more manageable way,” he says.
In the end, the open waters are where Akinwolere’s heart remains, where he believes the real magic exists and he hopes to push more people to experience it. “It's about you understanding your body. Never push yourself beyond what you feel you can achieve. Like if you're ‘cold water swimming’ is literally just dipping your waist in and getting out, do it. It's a gradual progression. Don't just shove yourself in it, but once you do taste that Nirvana, I swear to God it's insane.”