How a love of openwater and freediving led to a new career. A Lotus Rises meets SwimQuest’s Alice Todd.

Open water can lead to all kinds of adventures. Alice Todd is an open water swimmer, free diver and triathlete. In 2014, she took the brave decision to follow her passion for open water and left her job in media to co-run SwimQuest Holidays with John Coningham-Rolls.

A Lotus Rises spoke to Alice about her love of open water, career change and the hardships of making a living by swimming all over the world…

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Alice Todd enjoying her new career

When did you start open water swimming and why?

I started open water swimming as a child, when we went on family holidays to Whitby. There are loads of photos of my sister and I splashing about in the North Sea, on what look like pretty chilly days. We had a blow up dingy, which we loved, and we used to take it in turns to drag each other around in it – one of us swimming, pulling the rope, the other sitting in the boat ordering the other one about: left, right, faster, faster … I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it more than my poor sister did! I’ve always been drawn to water though – looking at it, painting it, and swimming in it, whether it be pool, river, lake or sea. I think the sea is still my favourite.

What do you enjoy most about open water?

I think it’s still the childlike, carefree adventure I love most about open water and the outdoor swimming community; splashing around, feeling free, enjoying beautiful spaces – and having fun with other people. In this sense, I started swimming in open water because it was great fun, and made me feel good. I’m determined never to lose that feeling even now open water swimming is my job.

How did you get into freediving – Is it dangerous, where did you learn?

Like all sports, freediving can be dangerous if you do it irresponsibly, or without proper training or knowledge. That being said, anyone who has held his or her breath underwater has technically been freediving. I used to do that all the time, diving down to look at coral on holiday, enjoying the way it felt to tumble and roll underwater and feel completely weightless, but I didn’t realize it was a ‘sport’, until a couple of years ago. It wasn’t until a friend bought me a freediving course for my birthday, that I became a little obsessive about how far some people could push themselves without the bubbles. The current depth record for dynamic apnea with fins (basically swimming down a line using fins – as deep as you can go, and back of course) is 288m. 288m! That’s further than swimming from the public viewing gallery at the Shard (244m, incidentally) and back, on one breath of air. This record is currently held by Goran Čolak from Croatia. I’m still just a novice on the scale of things, but its helpful to be able to get beautiful GoPro footage of our guests underwater – and it’s nice for people to be able to take home photos of themselves floating in the blue.

Alice in Waterland: Freediving
Alice in Waterland: Freediving

If you’re keen to find out more, I would recommend starting with an AIDA International course. This will give you a good grounding and knowledge about the risks and safety procedures. The course I completed was run by a real-life merman – Adam Drazga [see www.bluewater-freediving.co.uk]. A challenging but fascinating introduction – highly recommended for anyone seriously interested. I then joined a really friendly club in Victoria called Apnea Revolution, who train biweekly in a pool.

 What do you find most challenging about open water?

If I’m totally honest it’s the loneliness on the longer swims. It makes me realize how bad I am at being in my own company! When you swim for a long period of time, it’s just you and the water, and if you’re not careful your head can visit some scary places, especially when you’re cold. That’s the biggest challenge for me – learning how to deal with that – and I think it’s very personal.

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Swimming together!

Many people talk about making changes to their careers, but it can be daunting. What gave you the confidence to make the move to SwimQuest and do you have any advice for other people contemplating a career change?

It is so daunting. I actually enjoyed many aspects of my job in the media, and I worked with some incredibly impressive people, which made it an even bigger decision, however I did reach a sort of ‘now or never’ moment. I was confident in my own abilities, I didn’t have a mortgage, or kids, and always knew I wanted to work for myself in the long run. I bumped into John at The London Triathlon in 2013, and really liked the look of what he was starting. I knew I had the skills to help him build what was then Coningham-Rolls Swimming Holidays into a bigger brand, and I was excited about the concept and the idea. I decided to take the plunge (I know, I’m sorry).

My advice to anyone considering a similar career change would be to do it, but to make sure that you have the skills you need to bring in money independently of the business start up. Freelancing has been fantastic, but you need to be prepared to sell your skills, and live hand-to-mouth for a while.

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In her element

How has your life changed since making the move – What’s a typical work day for you nowadays? Is running SwimQuest all about drinking cocktails by the beach and swimming in warm turquoise waters or is there other stuff involved?

I live a completely different life now. I have the freedom to work my own hours, from wherever I like, which is amazing. The more I see the business grow, the more I want to work. Some days I will work longer hours, some days not. I do end up working in some form or another most weekends too, but the freedom of not having to sit glued to a desk from Monday – Friday is invaluable for me.

The other major difference is the breadth of work. As we are such a small team, I get involved in pretty much everything at the moment – which is great fun. Marketing, accounts, web design, print design, merchandise, planning, strategy, promotions, partnerships, bookings, SEO, and of course swim guiding!

The swim guiding is brilliant as you meet so many fascinating people. This week I feel particularly lucky – I am spending the week with our guest coach, Olympic Medallist Cassandra Patten, who is incredibly inspirational, an amazing role model for young women and has everyone hanging on her every word when she’s giving advice on stroke technique. Occasionally we do get to drink cocktails by the beach, yes, and I have to admit there is quite a lot of swimming in warm turquoise waters!

You’ve swum all over the world. Where’s your favourite swim spot?

One of our SwimQuest locations is a tiny little island called Mathraki, just off Corfu. The water is really, really sapphire-blue – and there’s a little pile of rocks I swim out to in the mornings, teeming with tiny little velvet-black darting fish. It looks like someone has cut tiny little black holes in the water – and they shift and dance as you swim through them. That’s probably my favourite – it really is idyllic. If you don’t believe me – watch this!  Having said that, I still have a soft spot for the Norfolk Broads. Not many people think you can swim in them, but they are some of England’s cleanest waters. We run a Swim & Sail weekend there in September, on a gigantic Wherry Yacht – it’s very surreal, there’s even a piano on board …

And finally, what’s your favourite swimming cossy and why?

The brighter the better. I have a luminous orange one with a high leg that is my current fave, but I’m open to brighter suggestions.

Thank you Alice Todd!

At A Lotus Rises we’re celebrating  women in open water, from your first splash, through to wild swims and marathon swimming.

Many more inspirational stories, advice and adventures to follow via our BlogFacebookTwitter and please don’t hesitate to get in touch at alotusrises@gmail.com. We want to share your stories, so we can support you and inspire others!

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