Swimming with Sound

water droplet

By Matthew Johnston

After having a cochlear implant fitted, Matthew found out what swimming sounded like, for the first time in his life.

Jumping into a river
I have always swum in silence. Hearing aids are not waterproof and I have been profoundly deaf since birth. My swims are usually solitary. In the water, conversations with my fellow swimmers are limited to just a
 few words and without sound
 to guide me, I need to look up frequently to monitor my surroundings. Last week, all that changed. For the first time in more than 49 years, I swam with sound.

I have always worn hearing
aids but last year I was fitted 
with a cochlear implant. A 
cochlear implant is a surgically 
implanted electronic device
 whereby a wire is inserted inside
the cochlea (the chamber in the ear that enables you to hear) that improves clarity of sound. Not only does it mean I can hear better, but also the implant processor can go inside a waterproof case which is then strapped onto an arm band, or clipped to my goggle strap, and I can take it swimming with me.

To be able to hear for the first time whilst swimming is all at once confusing, exhilarating and wild! It is transforming my body’s dialogue with the water and, although it will take time to adjust, as I become accustomed to every sound, it is a truly exciting time for me and I wanted to share my experience.
So here’s my account of putting this great new piece of swim kit to the test: in the pool; down a river; and out at sea…

In the pool

My first swim with sound was at a masters training session. My immediate impression was that it sounded like a waterfall; powerful, noisy and chaotic. I entered the water with trepidation, not knowing how I would react.

I put my head in and began to swim. It was surreal. Water gushed into the headpiece (which acts as a microphone) yet I could hear the rhythm of every single stroke as my arm came out and then slid back into the water. I became focused on ensuring each stroke was consistent and at a steady pace – something I’ve previously had to do by feel, not by sound. I also had a heightened awareness of what was happening around me; the splash of every swimmer; the shouted instructions of our swim coaches; and I could sense when the swimmers in the adjacent lane were about to overtake me.

The best bit was when we were doing kicking drills. The kicks echoed like drum beats, which slowed down after a few lengths. We were like the old Duracell bunnies in the advert and the drumming of the rabbits with weaker batteries slowed as their energy levels depleted.
After a bit of trial and error with the arm-band, I felt more comfortable with clipping the waterproof device onto the goggle strap on the back of my head. It feels great. My swim buddies are pleased too – they can now swear at me to either swim faster or move out of their way – and I can no longer pretend to ignore them…

Down a river

My next swim was in the River Itchen in Winchester, with two regular swim buddies. It is a wonderful secluded place entirely surrounded by nature. Again, I entered the water gradually, making gentle splashes and listening to every ripple. The stillness was only broken by the momentary roar of a plane flying overhead.

I became absorbed in picking up every sound around me and lost concentration on my swimming technique. The rotation of my arms in and out of the water was like poetry. One of my swim buddies asked me what I could hear. “You!”, was my honest reply. It was so tranquil and every sound
was distinct. I felt totally relaxed and
safe knowing that I would be able to hear my buddies if they needed my attention and vice versa. The sun went down as we came out of the water. I was blissfully happy.

At sea

Finally, I joined a large group of regulars who gather at Fisherman’s Walk in Bournemouth every Sunday. They are a lively bunch, so it was a good test of my ability to have conversations whilst swimming.
It was a windy day and at first, all I could hear was the waves crashing on the beach. Then, as we entered the water, I could hear each wave as it lapped over my body. When I was up to my waist in water, I was startled by screams and shrieks of laughter. What had happened? My swim buddy reassured me that it was normal – I had no idea that swimmers do that and decided to join the fun!

The sea was so loud; a constant swirling noise like a washing machine. We swam from groyne to groyne, treading water at each end and it was great to be able to have clear conversations with my fellow swimmers and know what we were planning to do next, rather than guessing and following them blindly as before.

New adventures

As I said at the beginning, all in all, to be able to hear while swimming is confusing, exhilarating and wild. And I know it will feel better and better as I become accustomed to every sound.
Will being able to hear improve my swimming? Perhaps not. But does sound enhance my swimming experience? Absolutely!

How does a Cochlear Implant work

There is a great video on YouTube which explains in two minutes how a cochlear implant works.

Matthew lives in Winchester and enjoys most sports and exploring. He also enjoys DIY and built his own house. He completed several half Ironman races before taking up swimming as his main sport and passion in 2012. He’s completed a three-man English Channel relay (with Jim Boulder and Rory Fitzgerald), the River Dart 10k, the Henleyto Marlow Bridge-to-Bridge 14k and, recently, the Solent. Matthew would like to thank Alice Gartland for 
her assistance in preparing 
this article. This article was republished with permission from H2Open