Matthew Johnston: What it’s like to swim with sound (after 49 years in silence)

Posted on February 5, 2015

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 more frequently to monitor my surroundings.

Last week, all that changed. For the first time in over 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 whilst swimming for the first time 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 glided 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 only 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 the way – and I can no longer pretend to ignore them…

Down a River

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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 of 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

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Finally, I joined a large group of regulars who gather at Fishermans 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?


With thanks to H2Open magazine for allowing us to republish this article, and to Alice Gartland for her help with making the article.

Matthew Johnston has been profoundly deaf since birth and wore hearing aids until he was fitted with a cochlear implant last year. He is an IT consultant and currently works for a financial market trading company, and uses Ai-Live‘s remote captioning and speech-to-text reporting from Ai-Live and STTRsDirect. He is passionate about helping disabled people in the workplace and has joined Purple Space, an informal network of disability network leaders.

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