I always felt a close connection with the ocean, long before becoming an elite swimmer. But while many people know the role that water has played during the happiest moments in my life, like winning a gold at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio, far fewer people know how much it has helped me in my darkest times too. And how important the ocean can be to mental health.
During my first two years of university I was deeply unhappy. I was faced with my parents’ difficult divorce, the loss of my family home and an accident that severed a nerve in my right hand. Losing the use of my only hand temporarily meant I also lost my independence, as I had to return to living with my mother, so she could help out.
What should have been an exciting new chapter in my life turned out to be at times a nightmare. I can see now that I should have sought help. Instead, I carried on, quietly sinking into a deep depression, unable to connect with people and adrift.
There is one particular night that sticks out in my mind. At 3am, amid another bout of insomnia, I was lying in a fog of complete desperation and unhappiness, feeling utterly isolated. I got up, got in my car and drove towards the coast. I parked the car at the ocean’s edge and got out.
There was a moment where I just looked at the dark, beautiful mass in front of me, softly lapping on the shore below, gentle noises of nature all around me and I considered going in there to be consumed. To forget my problems. To not have to face them again.
But standing there alone I felt something else too. I was acutely aware of the smell of the salt in the air, the freshness, the gentle soothing noise, the beautiful way that the water was shifting and moving around as one enormous mass. It reminded me of my love of water and the ocean. I knew that in that moment, if I could still find a shred of happiness or a little bit of salvation here, then there was hope. I got back in my car and drove home.
Swimming became my saviour that year, long before I even started my journey at elite level. I joined the local disability swimming club and found a social connection, something different that helped me reconnect with others again.
A holiday for my 21 birthday with my mother and sister had a transformative impact too, helping to heal. At night I would sit outside our cabin in the Maldives watching nurse and reef sharks swimming elegantly beneath us.
The ocean continues to help me. It has a hugely powerful effect. Nature is like a positive toolkit for the mind. I believe it can help others too. That is why I believe so strongly that we need to protect it – and all those creatures for whom it is home.
Hopefully, if we look after it, it will always be there for us when we need it. That is a thought I find immensely comforting.
Susie Rodgers MBE is a retired British Paralympic swimming champion and Ocean Ambassador for the Marine Conservation Society. For information on the Marine CoLABoration Ocean Sound Waves 2019 campaign, click here