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I've been told that men shouldn't take selfies, but in this case I'm calling for an exception. In the shot I'm smiling, clinging to my paddleboard, submerged up to my armpits in the ocean. The water temperature of Oak Bay in Victoria is around 8 degrees Celcius, the wind is blowing at 25 knots and I still can't get it out of my head that I need to get out and paddle around the pilot light in the Bains Channel. It's just something that has to be done – and I snapped a photo that is equal parts proof that I'm doing it and reminder that this is my kind of therapy.
I used to race for big international victories. It meant a lot of pressure and time away from my children as I put in the miles to conquer my competition. In April of 2013, I unofficially retired from Olympic sport. It took until last November to finally say it out loud, but when the spring of 2013 rolled around I knew it was time. I'd just returned from Thousand Oaks, California where I had been for two weeks trying to unsuccessfully kick-start my training. I realized I just didn't have the fire, or the desire, to make the obsessive (and often selfish) commitment to compete as I did in the past. It was time to move on and I was okay with it.
Unfortunately, I didn't realize at the time that I still needed an outlet for the highly competitive voice that had whispered in my ear since I was a kid. I spent the summer with no real training plan and fell out of a routine. I didn't prioritize my health and slowly drifted away from the practice of a daily fitness and wellness routine. By the end of the summer my mood was dark, my sleep was patchy and my mental health, the happiness and joy we all need to thrive, was growing dim. It wasn't gone, but it was waning. I knew I had to do something, which is why I took on the sport of Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP).
My first experience with SUP was similar to that of a lot of other people: I borrowed a barge, a large sightseeing rental board and went out in a relatively calm spot of water. At first, the sport seemed more like paddle "boring" – until I borrowed a friend's race board and I immediately found my new therapy, taking it to more and more challenging areas. Five months later, I'm out as much as I can. It's a balance with kids and work, but I've found that making the time to get out has reconnected me with the joy of exercise. It has also helped with my mood, my energy and general state of mental health.
Something I have always understood is that physical activity is key to a calm mind – but what paddleboarding has taught me is that exercise doesn't have to be a chore. I love being on the water. It's a joy that came from following through and finding the right activity to help keep me balanced, even if snapping selfies after falling in isn't the definition of that.
The nice thing is that anyone can do what I did – you don't have to be a professional athlete to find an activity you love that also keeps you fit. Squash, hiking, yoga, biking – whatever kind of therapy you enjoy is the best kind.
Simon Whitfield is the Director of Sports with the Fantan Group in Victoria, BC. Until recently he was better known for moving quickly in a speedo, carrying the flag in London, and winning medals at the Olympic Games. Outside the office, the day finds him paddle boarding off the coast of Victoria, partnering with Triton Triathlon, Velofix, and Champion System, and dancing with his two girls.
Follow him on Twitter @simonwhitfield