Olesia Smyrnova from Uzhhorod registered for the Bosphorus swim when she couldn’t even swim. Nevertheless, she successfully covered the distance. Olesia proves that a big achievement is about the idea, desire, goal. She says: it is not about the body, it is about philosophy.

Once the journalist Olesia Smyrnova already changed her life – she opened a make-up studio, which became a city creative centre. Then, to the surprise of her family and friends, she started to run marathons, do trail running and steeplechase. This time, having only the desire and no experience, she decided to cross Bosphorus – about seven kilometres at very difficult conditions. Not every professional swimmer dares to do it. She decided and did it, having only about six months for training.

She had 14 minutes to register for the swim – people were taking slots very quickly. Olesia with her husband Oleksandr managed to do it. They decided to “storm” Bosphorus together as well as spontaneously.

We celebrated the New Year too long. We have a kid, and it means a fun tradition to make plans for the next season. I offered: the Bosphorus, let’s do it! I knew that it was possible due to running. Of course, only if to train: hard long training. Yes, it was hard. Especially to start. When you can’t swim, you can just bathe… I had never dived, couldn’t hold my breath underwater. When we were training by ourselves the first month, I took a nose clip but it didn’t help… But the coach helped, he said to dive, and it was the first time in 30 years of my life that water wasn’t in my nose. The hardest thing was to learn how to breathe properly. But I was ready it would be difficult, and I was ready to go through it.

“Water is not my world, not in my wheelhouse. I thought so”

What was your first successful distance under water?

It was only 25 meters! My trainer said that it was impossible to prepare for the race from nothing, that I couldn’t do it. It was January. I said that I’d try, I had 6 months before the swim. If I didn’t get around to it, I would fall out of the race or just wouldn’t come. Actually, I had no intention neither to fall out of the race nor to fail to toe the starting line. I was ready to fall out of the race only if I felt that I couldn’t do it. It is normal and great to admit that you have something to improve. It means gaining some experience. But when you don’t toe the starting line, it means you have given up. I give up too much in my life to do the same here. But preparing wasn’t easy. It was extremely difficult for me, but for my husband, I would have given up. We were training in winter: it was cold outside, morning training, it wasn’t a comfortable time for me, it was a stress, water was wet and cold, it irritated, then again, a shower, wet hair… Water isn’t my world, it isn’t in my wheelhouse, I thought so, I considered water my enemy. We were training four times a week, and during this time, I built my character. Open water training also contributed to that. I had never swum in our famous Uzhhorod lake before that, well, I hadn’t swum at all… You know, it is extremely deep, and I heard all those scary legends, and rocks give a shadow, and the lake becomes black… Also, it turned out that I was afraid of sheatfish! Before the trip, we were looking through information about Bosphorus with my daughter. We saw fins in water in the photo, and I said, “Darling, look, mom will swim with dolphins!” Darynka is changing her countenance: she is reading the information (perhaps, it was a fake) that once, some white sharks appeared in the strait… However, during the swim, I had no scary thoughts (even though there were big waves), I was scared to swim in the local lake. Sheatfish scary me more than sharks! (laughs)

Do you remember the emotion when you started to enjoy swimming for the first time?

It happened after we took out daughter to swimming lessons in summer. The coach was explaining how to move properly in water, it is quite difficult, about different moves, how to breathe out under the water and to breathe in under the right hand… And he added, “And smile!” This phrase became significant and momentous for me. I said to myself: it doesn’t matter how difficult it is, try to look at everything positively, be always in a good mood. Anyway, it is difficult for you, and if you get all worked up – it will be worse. We were swimming 3 kilometres in the lake, and I realised that I was smiling. I made my first distance easier when I looked at everything from the outside. After that, the first part of the training I was swimming, watching my technique, and the second part I was swimming just as I could and it got easier.

I should mention: I might swim wrongly, might have a wrong technique, but I never have a shoulder and arms pain; I don’t feel a physical exhaust. I can swim long but I can’t swim quickly. Oleksandr swims 3-4 four times as quickly as me. I offered him at Bosphorus to leave me and swim farther alone. Moreover, when I run, I don’t like there to be someone else running with me, because when I run, I think, I have my own insights, thoughts, my own time when I am silent and I assimilate with nature… I thought it should be this way in swimming as well. But he didn’t leave me, he said that he couldn’t swim farther, not knowing what was with me there. It helped. The Bosphorus is very special distance, it isn’t like the Ironman race with buoys so you can orient yourself there. There are only the start and the finish, and running streams. If you swim in upstream, you won’t move farther, a downstream will help you to reach the finish.

“You are the part of water”

So, how did you orient yourself?

There were some orienteers on the shore. Some people were orienting, using small points. They remembered many tiny signs. I didn’t do it in order not to get confused, forget anything and panic. I chose big orienteers and it was my big mistake. For example, when I had to swim to the right bridge pier, I couldn’t realise to what part exactly as it was huge. When I had to swim to the place where the power line was sagging down the most, I also didn’t know where exactly because there were many meters of the power line. And then I was supposed to see a tiny island which I had noticed during a boat tour before the race… We were crossing Bosphorus diagonally, and having seen the island, I had to turn to the finish. But I happened to be near the left shore so I didn’t see the island. Oleksandr said to turn more, so we were swimming virtually to the opposite side from the finish. I was fighting with logic then: I had swum 6 kilometres one way, and now I had to swim the opposite one so the current couldn’t carry me away. 50 meters before the finish, many people gave up: boats took them. When there is an upstream, you just cannot move farther even for a meter. Here you have to work on your will only. Nothing could stop me!

They say it the hardest at the finish…

It wasn’t hard for me at the finish. It was hard when I realised that we were in the wrong place and we had to turn back. We were told that a downstream will be very cold. When we were crossing Bosphorus at the right angle, I realised what a cold stream was like, I was overfilled with emotions that I didn’t catch it to help myself and I got lost. When I saw the finish, it wasn’t hard. I knew that I had to work a bit more and harder. Indeed, many people gave up, even those who covered the distance the last year. There were people who were covering the last part for an hour. By the way, my time is 1 hour 38 minutes. Usually, the deadline is 2 hours, but this time, they made it for three hours because of this stream.

Do you apply force during the whole race or you have learnt to rest while swimming as well?

I swam the crawl most of the time. I did the breaststroke only when I needed to look around and orient myself. Swimming is not hard for me, although, of course, it requires force. I decided not to fight against water. The crucial thing in the water is not to fight against it, you won’t win because it is so mighty and you are just a bug. You have to show that you are a part of water. You must lie and be its part: not to bump against it with your head, not to raise your head, not to make a resistance, not to fight against it. Vice versa – to obey water! And be in the stream. I was aiming for it: Bosphorus is not a war, overcoming myself or water for me, it is an assimilation with it.

Have you become friends?

We fell in love! (laughs) Yes, indeed, we have become friends! Actually, my husband’s support was important to me. We became better friends there. Everything was very harmonious.

“It will be very hard. But then, there will be the finish”

Were you scared?

I was before that. I was scared in Uzhhorod. Where all people connected with swimming say: you won’t do it. They say: it is impudence, insolence, how could you dare even to think of it! Coaches told me that they had professionals who were swimming for many years, and they didn’t let even them cover such a distance! I didn’t write about my intentions, didn’t tell stories. I was told it could become a very bad experience for me! Yes, I was scared, people whose opinion was important for me, experts, people whom I trust, scared me. We decided that we would toe the starting line anyway. And if we felt we couldn’t, we would just make some conclusions for the next time. It is not bad to give up during the race, it is bad to give up before it. During the race, I was raising my head and thought, “God, how mighty it is! God, what waves! God, how deep it is here!” But you swim farther and stay alone with yourself and waves. I started not to be scared. I mean, no, I am scared, very scared. I am scared of water and depth. But I go to this fear. Because I realise that the limit of the fear is yet far from me.

But in sport, in such distances, in particular, many people think that it is leaping of faith, where a winner is supposed to be…

Sport supposes leaping of faith, but for me, it is different. I got the insight that, as in running, I don’t fight against myself, I don’t break myself. Everything which is made with forcing yourself, with raping, negative or fight isn’t good. I learn about myself via sport. I realised that I had learnt to see myself better. I understand myself. Sport helps me to do it. Before that, I was quite puzzle-headed and depressive. Each of us thinks he or she was born for something special (at least I do), but nothing special happens to me. You sit on the sofa and make guilty everything around, your fate, finances and everything in the world. But you do nothing because you think it is impossible, it is not for you. As soon as you start to do something, even just leave your sofa, the world answers. It is great to realise: to live brighter, to feel emotions, to feel the world – you need to do something. Nobody will swim over the Bosphorus or jump with a parachute instead of you. I mean, of course, somebody will, but you will only watch it. You can be a viewer or a participant.

And be a creator of events and of yourself…

Yes, to create yourself… I am now very keen on the philosophy of stoicism and read about it a lot. I realised: I don’t learn it there, I have really thought so, it is just well shaped in letters. And I realise: my life which I have recently started has a reason for it. They say we understand the value of life because of misfortunes – when we lose somebody, something… Then we can get it: time doesn’t belong to us. We think so when we are young, but time really doesn’t belong to us, however, our life belongs to us, and we build it through time. We realise the value of life in misfortunes, grief, disease. Sport is similar to it. You feel exercise load, you feel the limit when you want to stop and say that you don’t need it anymore. But you don’t stop and realise: even at this stage, you can do more and cover some distance as well. At the Bosphorus, some people fell out of the race after 200 meters. Because it is not comfortable, they weren’t ready it would be hard. I think this is it, this detail – it will be hard. It will be very hard. But then, there will be the finish. You have to be patient.

You mean, all these, including the Bosphorus is rather about the character than about the body…

It is about the character. We all want to be comforted. And to do big things, take part and win in competitions, achieve big goals very easily. It is kind of “yeast” success, when everything, just like dough, rises quickly and simply. Some people may say about others: they are lucky. In fact, they are not “lucky”, they work really hard!

With blood and sweat?

With blood and sweat! Because no distance – a sport, business, life one – will be covered without force. You know, I structure everything in my life better now. Everything concerning my goals, life, in general, more resembles a system, I have learnt to think so. Sport helps me to do it. I don’t do sport because I love it. I do it because I have begun loving life and myself. Due to the sport. I don’t just sit and say, “Well, fate, show me what is next!” I am just open and ready to work with the world.

Do you surprise yourself?

I do surprise! It is a self-observation. I have been trying many things in life, and I realise that sport isn’t the last one where I will try to achieve something. It is learning of self-observation. I have been painting, writing, doing other things… However, the sport is the easiest thing. I mean you registered, started, finished and received a medal for it. It is a completed story. Medals, certificates, prizes are the proof that you can reach the finish. It is awesome. We are not given medals at work or at home, in a family life. And you don’t know whether you have made it good, good enough. In sport, you can see it.

As for the finish. Do you remember your finish at the Bosphorus and your emotions?

Many people were concentrating on the finish, on the big point, they were swimming but it didn’t become closer. I had grandstands from my sides, and I concentrated on people. I had swum past a man in a blue T-shirt a long time ago, and I could see my progress. But at the finish… The stream was so strong that when I was already holding hand-rails, the stream was trying to carry me away! What else I was driven by we took Darynka with us and arranged that she would stay with relatives of our friends who also took part in the race, but we failed to meet them. When we were going for the start, I forgot my goggles and had to return. We were jumping into the floating boat, which was carrying us to the start… There were doctors to give first aid, I came up to them and said, “We are from Ukraine!”, our daughter stayed with them. It is very scary to leave your daughter alone in Turkey and not to know whether you will come back. It triggered me to reach the finish. The first thing I did at the finish – I was looking for Darynka. I knew that Oleksandr was on the shore already, he left me only when there was a fight with the stream because he couldn’t stop and he came 8 minutes earlier. Surprisingly, I didn’t have any special feelings at the finish. “I did it as I was supposed to.”

Have you already swum in “big water” after that?

I haven’t had a possibility or time. When we were training, I said I would never swim again! I’ve started to enjoy swimming this summer and I feel like to continue swimming. A friend of mine, who is into Ironman, says, “Olesia, buy a wetsuit!” I refuse, he says, “Well, if you don’t want a triathlon, Ironman, then OK.” Now I feel like I want…

Interview by Alla Hayatova

Photo by Serhiy Gudak

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