Want to commit to a regular, fun, training swim each week? Want to meet other motivated swimmers, meet new swim buddies, share skills and advice? A Lotus Rises #WSC has an informal swim meet up every Sunday at 9am at the lovely heated 50m Charlton Lido…
All abilities welcome! We have a swim set you can follow if you wish, or you’re welcome to do your own thing. The main challenge is ensuring we finish at roughly the same time so we can all go for a post swim cuppa and breakfast…
Alice, founder of A Lotus Rises is also on a mission to find the best gear for female swimmers, and is currently providing consultancy to Outdoor Swimmer Magazine on developing their Gear Reviews, so on occasion you may be asked to test out swim kit too …
To join our women’s swimming collective, sign up to the blog or connect with us on Instagram, Twitter and FB – Out of the water A Lotus Rises – See you soon!
We are honoured to have Outdoor Swimmer/Musician/Composer/Recording Artist/Lyricist and Vocalist Carleen Anderson, sharing her swimming journey with the A Lotus Rises swimming collective. Although Carleen’s open water addiction only fully took hold in her ’50s, Carleen’s relationship with water has been a significant thread from childhood to today, and is a journey of overcoming prejudice and segregation, personal endeavour, overcoming a fear of deep water, motherhood, team work, determination and creativity.
Most recently, Carleen completed the half mile event at Swim Serpentine, raising money for Macmillan Cancer Research in memory of family members lost to cancer. We spoke to Carleen to find out more about her open water journey.
But first, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on Carleen’s musical career – It’s a mind blowing portfolio of creativity and collaboration (her work with the Brand New Heavies and Incognito provided much of the sound track to our teenage years! #starstruck).
“Carleen studied at the University of Southern California to be a Music Education Teacher. Those music schoolteacher goals however were thwarted by Ronald Reagan’s administration’s decision to remove the teaching of arts from the government education curriculum. Raised by her Grandparents to carry on regardless, Carleen took on work as a bank clerk whilst single parenting her son. Via a music family association, (she’s the Goddaughter of the famous singer/performer, James Brown), she was recruited by prominent UK music producers to sing and write songs for the music group, the Young Disciples, an occurrence that led to Carleen and her son relocating to the UK in 1990.
Along with being nominated for a Brit Award for her first solo album in 1994, True Spirit, Carleen has been afforded many celebrated music associations. Paul Weller co-produced her second solo album, Blessed Burden. A short list of her various collaborations include touring with the Brand New Heavies plus Incognito as well as being a featured soloist for Blues Rocker Dr. John. She performed with UK’s Jazz Legend Sir John Dankworth at the internationally renowned Stables in Milton Keynes, a music venue he and his wife Dame Cleo Laine opened in 1970 that has hosted numerous worldwide musical luminaries since its existence. Carleen also sang alongside Sir Paul McCartney in support of the War Child UK charity and appeared as a special guest soloist for The Queen of England at an exclusive Theatre Royal Brighton event celebrating music education. In 2013 she sang the lead role at the Royal Opera House as part of the ensemble for Composer/Pianist Julian Joseph’s original music with libretto by Mike Phillips inspired from the Arthurian Legend of Tristan and Isolde which some may know of the title from Richard Wagner’s rendition. In that same year Carleen won the Jazz FM Best UK Vocalist award.
She is also the recipient of Gilles Peterson’s World-Wide FM 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award. The Arts Council England plus the Performing Rights Society Fund (PRSF) Women Make Music (WMM) each granted Carleen funds to develop her current trinity project, Cage Street Memorial which consists of a book, a theatre production and a soundtrack album.”
Why did you start open water swimming?
I was first introduced to open water when I was three years old, accompanied by my paternal Vicar Grandfather and his congregation, during a night swim on Galveston Beach in the Gulf of Mexico sea basin of the Atlantic Ocean in Texas, USA. The year was 1960 when Black Americans were still refused access to public beaches in the daytime. To avoid the violent reactions from those who were against ‘coloured’ people integrating into social activities, my Grandfather arranged with the local authorities for his flock to experience this refreshing adventure after dark, once those who would object had vacated the location.
It was during this occasion that my teenaged Auntie taught me to float faced upwards to the night sky and I could feel the flowing waves of the sea sustaining me. This is when I first learned how to be water safe.
As time moved on and access to swimming pools and beaches based on skin colour became less prohibitive by law, my brothers (who were natural swimmers) would challenge me to aim for more than just knee high water paddling, but failed to convince me beyond the occasional dash in the deep end swimming across to the side wall.
so that embryonic sensation I felt when I first floated in the ocean at age three laid dormant for nearly five decades…
My earliest attempt at learning to swim properly was during a swimming course at the college campus, where I was studying music. I swam the length of the 50 yard pool without coming up for air and the coach couldn’t believe what he’d witnessed.
Unfortunately my follow up lap revealed that it was my fear of deep water and inability to manage my breathing technique, that lead to me holding my breath underwater for the entire distance. I was discouraged and unable to overcome my fear of swimming in the deep water, so I dropped out of the swimming course.
It wasn’t until my 50s that I took up swimming lessons again…
What got you back in the water?
In my 40s I took up horse riding, in part to distract myself from the empty nest syndrome I faced when my son went on a gap year in Australia. For over a decade horse riding was the prominent activity in my life, but an incident while out on a ride resulted in the twisting of my pelvis. I was instructed by my doctor to stop horse riding completely and to instead swim to repair the damage. Swimming had been more about splashing in the shallows on holiday than an exciting escapade, so learning to swim properly so that her injury could heal, was a daunting task.
In 2008 I was hired to sing on a private Mediterranean cruise for a 10 day intimate family event, and the family encouraged me, once again, to try swimming in the sea. It reminded me of my first saltwater experience when I was three years old, and when I got home, I decided to have swimming lessons in the local pool; My goal was to be able to swim with the ease and fun in open water just like that family had demonstrated.
But Swimming lessons proved challenging. I found it difficult to find a coach who would take my aims seriously. I could barely swim ten meters before exhaustion set in. What had propelled me through the waters in that one off 50 yard dash at the college campus swimming pool of my youth, had since deserted me.
And although front crawl is the stroke that feels most natural to me, the demands of the breathing technique resulted in my coaches choosing to train me in breast stroke, but then I found the coordination of the arms and legs even more complicated than the front crawl breathing!
But I soldiered on, even though the swimming pool lessons were expensive and it felt like my technique wasn’t progressing. I figured continuing was better than giving up…
A well timed dose of fortitude came, when she saw beginner swimmers on TV challenging themselves for charity in the British Gas Swim Series. This gave her the incentive to take the plunge in memory of her loved ones lost to cancer. Her fundraising campaigns in the 2012 British Gas Swim Series at Lake Windermere plus the 2013 and 2014 Human Race events in the Thames River at Little Marlow in Buckinghamshire resulted in her raising £3,000.00 for Cancer Research UK. At Swim Serpentine 2017 she raised nearly £1600.00 for MacMillan Cancer Care.
Her swimming pool training began to improve once she started lessons in open water. Although daunted by the vastness of Mytchett Lake in Camberley Quays, Carleen found a very supportive trainer in Martin Allen who at the time was the manager of the centre. Their goal was to prepare her to swim one mile at Lake Windermere. But with barely six weeks training, most of which was spent with Carleen desperately holding onto a kayak, she was unable to reach her one mile goal in the British Gas Swim Series event in 2012.
The safety steward saw that I’d hesitated to enter the 14 degree water, and kindly encouraged me as I navigated 20 meters at a time. He watched out for me as hoards of faster swimmers zoomed through the waters around me. After I’d been in the water for a long time, we decided it would be better to aim towards the 1/2 mile mark. Even though I had to hold onto the kayak for most of that swim, the crowd cheered me on and I swam the last 20 meters by myself as the safety steward in the kayak looked on from a safe distance. I completed the swim in 1 hour and 7 minutes.
In 2013 Carleen decided to register for the 1/2 mile wave in the Human Race as she now knew that this was a distance she could complete, albeit very slowly. However these waters would be in the River Thames at Little Marlow Bridge, Buckinghamshire.
Visually it seemed a conceivable task, as the width of the Thames looks much smaller than the gigantic Lake Windermere. But my Coach Martin had cautioned me about the currents. I was still at the stage of barely achieving 50 meters continuously before stopping to hold on to a kayak, take a break, and then continuing.
I delayed getting in by sitting on the ledge fumbling with my goggles, but finally entered the water. I felt as though I’d entered a whirlpool. The safety stewards in their kayaks circled me as I reached the 200 meter mark near the iconic Little Marlow Bridge structure, and told me that I was not to go any further.
Too proud to take a lift back to shore in the kayak I swam sideways to the riverbank where friends who had come to cheer me on pulled me up over the embankment and consoled me as I cried for being unable to complete the course.
Undeterred, Carleen continued with her training with plans to go back to Little Marlow in 2014 to complete the 1/2 mile course. She gained fresh motivation after seeing the live TV coverage of endurance swimmer Diana Nyad swim from Cuba to Florida in 53 hours at the age of 64.
It was Coach Martin’s empathy for Carleen’s despair over the incomplete Thames swim in 2013 that led him to recruit Nina Cron, an accomplished swimmer, to coach Carleen in preparation for the return Thames River attempt in 2014. And together, Carleen and Nina completed the swim.
There were a few wobbles during that swim, but Coach Nina was there to lift me up as I made my way through the strong currents. We made it to the finish line in 1 hour and 6 minutes. The crowds who’d gathered that morning gave me a warm cheer as I exited the water. It was great to feel them acknowledge my determination and take that journey to its completion.
Between 2014 and 2016 there were career demands that prevented Carleen from the necessary training it takes to participate in a mass swim event. Also during that period another close family member died of cancer which further drained Carleen of her energy. But Coach Nina, a health nurse by profession, continued giving her moral support and by the end of the 2016 swim season, Carleen ventured into the open waters of the Thorpe Park swimming lake. The temperature was so cold she could only swim about 100 meters, but she was back in the waters, which Coach Nina reminded her was the most important thing to take away from that experience.
I began putting in the swimming pool training hours from then on in preparation for the Swim Serpentine 2017 event. I worked on building up my stamina, strength and technique with my favourite swimming aids. The pull buoy helped streamline my position in the water and short fins helped me concentrate on my ankle flick. Using a kick board improved my propulsion and hand paddles angled my fingertip for water entry and made me pull through the water with greater efficiency.
How was event day? What did completing Swim Serpentine mean to you?
With Coach Nina on one side and our friend Liz on the other, both shouting directions but each far enough away so that I could swim unassisted, I completed the 2017 Swim Serpentine 1/2 mile course in 1 hour and 5 minutes.
It’s a slow pace but feel it is a real breakthrough. I didn’t have to hold onto a kayak and did the entire swim under my own steam.
And a few days later my Coach Nina took me back to Mytchett Lake and I swam without a coach or kayak nearby!
Nina had put forward this last minute challenge in order for me to prepare for filming my music video the following week at Walpole Bay, where I would be swimming on my own.
The tidal pool measures up to 137 meters in distance and up to 8 feet in depth and there are no lifeguards or water stewards in kayaks available for emergency rescue.
I swam smoother and faster on that Mytchett Lake training loop than I’d ever done in the five years since I’d first started swimming in open water. I amazed myself and my coaches and fellow swimmers who’d seen my development over the years were incredibly proud.
When the time came me to swim in the salty waters of the Walpole Bay Tidal Pool I felt just as I had when my Auntie had taught me to float off the coast of Galveston Beach at night time when I was only three. And the buoyancy evoked such realms of possibility. I could feel a compulsion to be more more adventurous in life surface, despite the chronic aches and pains from bodily wear and tear that my 60 years around the sun brought.
How has swimming affected your life out of the water? Has it influenced your work?
After five years of training I can still only swim 1/2 mile very slowly in open water whilst I know other people can swim much longer distances in considerably less time. I could feel deflated, but Coach Nina reminds me to think about how far I’ve come.
When I started open water swimming it would take me several months to recover from a 1/2 mile swim. But days after Swim Serpentine 2017 I was filmed swimming for the first time in saltwater at Walpole Bay for my music video and I had plenty of energy left over to carry on swimming after filming was complete. And I am motivated about the thought of my next swim. As Coach Nina says, “Swimming will always be a challenge but you will get stronger every time you swim.” This is a motto that Carleen has taken on to live by in general.
To say I’m addicted to open water swimming would be a HUGE understatement. Swimming gives me an opportunity to escape the music industry bubble and enjoy the natural tempo from the sounds of open water; swimming outdoors is a great uplift from life’s pressures. Although I’m less enthusiastic to swim in chlorinated pools as she feels it’s essentially sharing a big bathtub with the neighbourhood, still, in order to maintain the propulsion gained from summer open water swimming she swims in the local pools during the winter months.
What’s your favourite piece of swim kit and why?
I keep my swim kit by the door. For the pool I have a knee length one piece suit, prescription goggles, silicone ear plugs, swim hat and toiletries. When I know I’m going to be doing swimming drills, I switch to a larger bag to hold all my training equipment, (kick board, pull buoy, fins, etc.). For open water swimming I add two additional swim hats, thermal swim socks and a wetsuit. Along with my coconut water filled sports bottle I also bring a carob and nut health bar for energy replenishment after the swim. I’d love to have cake but serious food allergies prevents me from having it.
What advice do you have for people new to outdoor swimming?
First and foremost enjoy the swim! Resist the urge to fight the water and instead let yourself feel its flow and glide along with it. I like to hum as I blow out air under water – it helps keep my swimming pace steady and even. Most of all I feel swimming is an opportunity to get rid of stress and heal. Of course staying fit is a healthy way to live life however you need to enjoy the activity in order to stick with it. Also, raising funds for charity is a strong motivator.
How did you train and prepare for the half mile at Swim Serpentine? What were the highs and lows?
I devoted an entire week in July 2017 to exclusively swim everyday in preparation for Serpentine 2017. I booked into the Premiere Inn closest to my frequent training centres, Mytchett Lake, Thorpe Lake and Horseshoe Lake to cut out the two hour round trip journey that took so much away from what was gained in her outdoor swims. I’d swim in the mornings and evenings and sometimes Coach Nina and sometimes Coach Martin and friend Liz would join me. That week greatly improved my confidence in deep water, and helped prevent the anxiety that surfaces when I’ve had time away from open water.
What are your swim plans, or water inspired projects for the future?
My next goal is to improve my swim time for the 1/2 mile distance at Serpentine 2018 and ideally swim it within an hour. I also hope to have enough courage to swim completely independently without my coach swimming in the same wave.
Until then I hope to enjoy several scheduled events with Mytchett Lake swim club that I’ve been invited to join for the next open water swim season. Prior to that, if I can summon up the bravery, I’d like to participate in the New Year’s Day Swim in 2018 at Walpole Bay in Kent.
At a recent gathering with the family who had encouraged her to swim in the Mediterranean Sea, they reminded reminded me of the tremendous strides in open water swimming I’ve made since then.
I whole heartedly recommend swimming. And sums it up like this:
“One returns to the shore after venturing out into the wild waters ready with a fresh outlook on life”.
Ellery McGowan is an outdoor swimmer with a swim cv and sense of adventure that inspires the swimming community. Her swim highlights include Lake Zurich, Ederle, Manhattan, Toroneos Gulf and Kalamata plus 5 Channel relays and 4 Winter Swimming Championships, Most recently she completed an All Women Relay of the English Channel, setting a new record for the Oldest Women’s Channel Relay, with a combined age of 393. Team Members were Irene Keel (76), Ellery McGowan (70),Chris Pitman (66), Dee Richards (62) Sally Minty Gravett (59) and Kathy Batts (57) and the time taken to cross was 15 hours and 17 minutes. Ellery is also a swim teacher and swimming coach at Charterhouse.
In 2015 Ellery’s son James, an accomplished athlete, passed away from Adult Sudden Death Syndrome and she is now using swimming as a platform to raise awareness of Cardiac Risk in the Young , an organisation which draws attention to the range of conditions that can cause young sudden cardiac death. Each week in the UK at least 12 fit and healthy young people die of undiagnosed heart conditions. She has raised several thousand dollars in 2015 alone by her challenge undertaking “5 Swims in 5 Countries for a Five Star Son”.
A Lotus Rises caught up with Ellery to talk about her swimming journey, what inspires her and her adventures.
Why did you start outdoor swimming?
I taught myself to swim at aged 5 in an estuary in Tasmania and later swam in rivers and dams. There were no swimming pools in the vicinity of where I lived. However I took up masters swimming when I moved to Germany on 1991 and as I had never been in a club I could not even kick 25metres. I competed in Masters but in 2004 saw a stand in Riccione for SwimTrek and signed up for my first trip to Turkey. I loved every minute of it, swimming the Hellespont and a 10km swim across to Bozcaada among other swims. I felt at home once again.
What have been the highs and lows in your swimming journey and how do you stay motivated?
My first open water race was at the World Masters in Edmonton in 2005 where I came back with a gold medal which surprised me…. That was a high!
My lowest of low was not making it to France as a solo in 2015. I was pulled out after 11 hours in the French Shipping lane. I hate not finishing what I set out to do and not completing Rottnest in February due to the strong currents and not making the cut-off was also disappointing
What do you think are the three most important things for effective swim training?
I train regularly but think self- discipline, consistency in training and motivation to do so and cross training are essential.
What three tips do you have for swimmers new to open water?
Swim with an open mind
Enjoy the experience- every swim will be different.
Don’t put stress on oneself by hoping to finish in an unrealistic time.
How do you prepare for your swim challenges?
I am fortunate that I can train by myself and have the self-discipline to do so, but I also go on training camps to be with like- minded people.
I have a feeding plan which works for me and I have used for the last seven years! (Maxim and High5 isogel alternating along with half a banana every 3 hours)
A “Tupperware” box goes with me containing “ouch” for jelly fish stings, Voltaren for inflammation, ibuprofen for pain relief, an anti-histamine cream, sturgeron for sea sickness, night lights, safety pins etc. I cannot recall when I last used any of these apart from Voltaren on my 30km Kalamata swim last September.
How do you avoid injury?
I listen to my body but after a shoulder injury over 10 years ago I concentrated on my technique. I do two Pilates sessions a week, one yoga and a gyrotonics to keep my body supple and for core strength. I also do two spin classes for cardio.
Why did you do the English Channel relay? How was it?!
We had planned to do a two way in 2015 but were weathered out and managed to start a one way. However a massive storm hit us for the last few hours. I remember at 11:00 at night swimming in lightening and hail for the whole of my swim with everyone else in the cabin of Anastasia sheltering. Two hours later the seas became rough, the boat was lifted out of the water as winds reached 40 knots and we had to call it a day for safety just 2 miles off the French Coast.
Kathy re-booked with Eddie Spelling for this year , first on the tide but as the weather was not so good we went a day early, with just one replacement member due to injury. The first relay was four months before James died and this was the first time I had been in the Channel since. We all felt the cold after our first night swim which was pretty rough too but we had a full moon which was beautiful. Conditions smoothed out during my second leg but the third was magical coming towards the white cliffs of Les Escalles. I swam very hard and was just 17 minutes from the landing. I felt James was with me all the way in that glorious sunshine.
Has swimming helped cope with your bereavement?
Most definitely. I think of him a lot during my swims and I know the money I raise is now going towards research and screening. We have two days of screening planned at Charterhouse in June which will be covered by money from James’ memorial fund.
Most of all I look back and know that the cold water swimming has put me in a good place. I have no problem in getting into -0.2 water in Siberia with air at -15 and swimming a 100m race. The feeling afterwards is always elating.
Your swimming accomplishments range from marathon swims to winter swimming championship medals – do you have a favourite swim and also, what next?
Every swim is different because of the elements, but I think possibly Toroneos Gulf has been my favourite. I was invited to do this by a Greek marathon swimmer whom I met on “The Big Blue” after swimming Manhattan. He sadly died earlier this year, also at a young age, from cancer. The swim was 26 km in the beautiful Ionian Sea, a wonderful atmosphere and in Greece everyone who finishes is a winner. To swim in hearing Vangelis playing loudly and having a huge wreath of olive leaves placed over my head by two fellow Greek swimming friends was just amazing.
What is your favourite swim cake?
I am not a great cake eater but would never say no to any, especially a rum cake!
What is your favourite swimming costume for open water and why?
I have a few but at the moment it is knee length Agon with an Australian design and my name ELLERY emblazoned on the front. (Just in case I forget who I am!)
Really honoured to be on Sarah William’s Tough Girl Podcast, talking about the background to A Lotus Rises, how being hit by a lorry on the way to work the day before my 31st birthday helped change my path, how I got into outdoor swimming, tips for starting out in open water, adventures and challenges in and out of the water, China, career change, community, cake and the power and plans of our growing swimming collective.
Link to the interview here and you can also download it on iTunes and Soundcloud
On Mid Summers’ Day, swimmers were asked to talk about their love of taking the plunge as part of Amy Sharrocks’ Museum of Water at Somerset House.
In the beautiful June sunshine, we each took to the stage on the river terrace overlooking the Thames. The aim? To create a Swimmers’ Manifesto.
I thought about how best to share my experiences of water and what popped into my head was the idea of a swimming chronology.
That became a poem and I called it 芙蓉出水（‘fúróng chūshuǐ’), which is a Chinese proverb meaning: Out of the Water a Lotus Rises.
It’s a phrase often used in connection with swimmers and strong, beautiful women in water. But more than that: it celebrates people over-coming challenges and coming into bloom; something that resonates with me deeply.
芙蓉出水：Out of the Water a Lotus Rises
My first swim: I can’t remember it; but I know I loved it.
My first major swim crossing.
At 3 years old I completed one width of the big pool at Eltham swimming baths.
Terry the coach was poolside, guiding me along with a bamboo pole.
I vividly recall my determined doggy paddle as I travelled from one side to the other, refusing to be intimidated by the splashing and shouting of the older swimmers.
A wild, wet and windy Brittany beach.
A gale was blowing.
My mum was wrapped up in an anorak, but I was in my favourite blue swimming costume, demanding to be allowed to get in the sea.
School swimming lessons on a Wednesday morning begin.
A mushroom float; A star float; Swimming in pyjamas and diving for a brick – the progression from bronze to silver and then gold: Each badge appended proudly to the front of my blazer.
A holiday to Corsica and a beach with pebbles like scorching coals.
Transfixed by the early morning big waves, I got caught.
Tumbling under the water I ran out of breath.
From nowhere, arms grabbed around me and an anonymous Frenchman took me under his arm and planted me upright, but dizzy and in tears on the shore.
Crook Log swimming pool opens two aqua-zooms. We queue for hours.
The big question was, “who is brave enough to go down the red flume?”
With fear and excitement: yeah, I was.
A holiday to America.
Disneyland, water-melon, beautiful sandy beaches, porpoises, everglades and alligators.
We even have to stop the car to let a turtle cross the road.
My first swimming gala: 25 meters backstroke. I win; and an American girl called Laura who loves swimming, visits my primary school. We become friends.
The Woolwich Waterfront Leisure Centre opens.
It had a wave machine, and a loud horn sounded to signal its start. It was so exciting! We went there to celebrate my 11th birthday and I remember feeling like a superstar when the lifeguard announced it on the intercom.
I visited Laura in New Jersey. Homesickness was dissolved by pizza being delivered on a scooter to the beach.
Jet skis, swim training, tuna fish sandwiches, coca cola, fire-flies, and multimillionaires. I was no longer in South East London.
Donal Trump’s helicopter lands and my companions offer him a lift. I didn’t recognise the name then, but I do now. He declines.
At the beach club swimming gala, we raced on inflatable turtles across the pool, whilst competitive parents screamed at us to win.
Laura and I were laughing too much to care.
Swimming in Italy.
I am a child of the jaws generation and the huge rocks under the sea prompted me to enact the first rule of international shark defence:
Make sure your brother and sister swim in front of you (it’s scientifically proven that the shark will eat them first).
Back at school I raced in the annual Haberdashers’ tri-school sports tournament.
About more than just simple school rivalries, this event was a clash of state versus private education, inspiring the best and worst in some participants.
I was part of the underprepared team of female swimmers from New Cross, competing against two sister schools who trained all year round in their own pools, with official coaches and matching swim kit.
The girls from New Cross had none of that.
Cutting through the glass ceiling we claimed victories our competitors did not anticipate and learnt about the importance of team-work, aspiration and self-belief in the process.
Cigarettes, alcohol and a rebellious first love, led to me being sent to Saint Malo to learn French. My language skills didn’t improve but I did discover the power of a woman in a bikini.
Ice axe, crampons, and tales of adventure.
In Norway teenage insecurities were dissolved as I climbed mountains, discovered glaciers and skinny-dipped with friends in the Jotunheim sunset.
After downing Chinese liquor under the strobe lights of a nightclub in Nanjing; at 3am I find myself in a swimming pool playing volleyball with new-found Chinese friends.
We enter a new century…
During 2000 to 2007 swimming was subsumed under academic pursuits and a city job with all the trimmings.
I travel through Mongolia, the water basin of Asia. In North Western Mongolia I meet Kazakh eagle hunters and swim in a lake that looks like an ocean.
It was cold, vast, wild and free. I vow to return.
My brother is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and from my office in Beijing under the man-made blue skies of the Olympics, I contemplate what it means to truly seize the day and dream of a return to a healthier past…
Back to London and I entered a sprint triathlon and got swimming lessons to lift my stroke out of the 1980s.
But on 30 June 2009, the day before my 31st birthday, I got hit by a lorry whilst cycling to work. Swim training comes to an abrupt halt.
Waking up on the tarmac, commuter traffic swirled around me: Nothing could stop them from getting to their desks on time.
It was a wake up call and I woke up on my birthday determined to instigate change.
That summer I went to Canada: kayaking with orca and sleeping under the stars.
I also met an Australian who was passionate about swimming and we jumped into freezing cold lakes whilst hiking in the rockies.
My love of water was reignited.
A year later (2010) I swim my first mile, then 5k and then 10.
I make new friends and at the Serpentine, I hear about marathon swimming for the first time: Lake Zurich sparks my imagination.
I moved to the mountains and frozen water took over my dreams. Skiing obsessed; I was hypnotised and unable to see the lines that were being crossed.
Water became my protector.
I finally understand the importance of self worth; swim across lakes and rivers and break free.
I completed the Lake Zurich Marathon Relay with my friend Anna. Brought together by our love of swimming and immense pride in our South East London heritage, we named our team the South East London Ladies Swimming Club.
In 2013 I also started to learn about the global fresh water crisis and China’s role within it.
My swimming costume is made in China and I started to join the dots between the freedom I feel in the water, what I had perceived as its never-ending abundance and the realities of water scarcity, pollution and control in the land where my swimming costume is made.
Those issues are closer than we think.
I swam outside throughout the winter and I now dream of more snowy swimming adventures.
A back and shoulder injury has taught me the importance of patience and when I was frightened having an MRI, I shut my eyes and pretended to be swimming.
Focused training has transformed my swim technique and taught me a new body language that talks me through the water.
A wonderful summer of swimming has started.
芙蓉出水 (‘fúróng chūshuǐ’)。Out of the water a lotus rises.
A Lotus Rises is on a mission to increase visibility, access and participation of women in swimming. Our first collaborative workshop is at the Women’s Adventure Expo on 7th October. Whether you’re returning to the pool, learning to swim or embarking on the English Channel we will be exploring all that open water has to offer with insights from across our women’s swimming collective and scientific contributions from the international institute of swim cake studies. You can get involved in the @Waexpo excitement through their #swimselfie competition. A bag of kit from Zoggs, a years subscription to Outdoor Swimmer Magazine and 2 tickets to the expo up for grabs – just follow and tag @Alotus_Rises and @Waexpo in your #swimselfies past and present for a chance to win. More details here.
When you go swimming, unless you are wearing a wetsuit, you are pretty much naked.
Even if you are wearing a wetsuit, at some point immediately before that you were pretty much naked and/or invariably getting changed in a public place.
Regardless, wetsuits don’t really hide your body, they just vacuum pack it into a more pronounced silhouette.
So surely my social conditioning is strong enough that swimming is when I should feel at my most self conscious?
Apparently not… I have never asked anyone if my bum looks big in my swimming costume.
In fact, just the idea of asking that question makes me laugh (NB it is of course an eminently sensible question in the context of trying on jeans).
Like a lot of men and women I have gone through different stages of body image love and loathing.
I think we all find our own path through that, but one of the things I love most about the open water is that for a sport where everyone pretty much gets naked most of the time, body image feels irrelevant.
I have noticed a lot of chat on social media recently about the representation of sportswomen: charity calendars featuring glamorous female athletes challenging the stereotypes of their particular sport, pre-surfing dances that have been felt too provocative and apparently tongue in cheek ‘extreme’ sports videos that emphasise the multifaceted ‘assets’ of female athletes, just before they embark on their dare devil adventures.
I know what I like and what I don’t and what inspires me. I switch on or off accordingly. I hope that where things make me feel uncomfortable, the women involved and their audience have fully understood the nuances of power and control that are choreographing their representation and the different messages that can send.
Of course you can be intelligent, feminine, beautiful, funny, sexy, stylish, fit, healthy AND good at sport. And I am well up for celebrating that – Hurrah for fit and healthy bodies rather than emaciated, airbrushed role models!
But it also reminds me of open water swimming’s silence about body image, which for me has become a more powerful voice.
By way of illustration, here’s a non airbrushed picture of me in a swimming costume just before the start of the Lake Zurich Marathon relay, dancing and not caring that I am nearly naked.
It was featured in Women’s Fitness Magazine, so I imagine it means a fair few people have now seen me dancing in a swimming costume and not caring that I am nearly naked.
If someone had asked me a few years ago, ‘would you be happy to have a picture of you in a swimming costume in a magazine?’ I doubt the answer would have been yes. But times change, and for me one of the joys of getting into open water is its innate capacity to be an antidote to modern day pressures about body image.
Long may it continue!
芙蓉出水: (fúróng chūshuǐ) Out of the water a lotus rises
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At A Lotus Rises we’re building a swimming collective on a mission to increase visibility, access and participation of women in swimming.
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I (Alice) had hoped to put something really ‘cool’ together on A Lotus Rises to celebrate this year’s IWD, but I’ve got flu; and I couldn’t quite get it together. The past 12 months have been wonderful for our growing swimming collective, and of course women’s rights are not just about one day. But the plus side of being ill is that in the last few days I’ve been able to sit back and enjoy all the different celebratory posts from the likes of Swim Dem Crew, the Outdoor Swimming Society, and Survival Techniques, felt strengthened by the story of Tiffany Haddish and motivated by the powerful insights from women like healthy relationship ambassador and Safe LivespioneerCelia Peachey, the Pool’s Marisa Bate and many, many more… It got me thinking, and, almost without realising, I began to write … (Heads up: this post contains some strong language and relates to domestic abuse) …
One of the best drills for developing feel for the water and also a good front crawl hand entry position is the closed fist drill. It’s one of my favourite drills and I regularly include it in a warm up, often switching between a closed and open fist with fingers spread wide every 3 strokes, for a couple of lengths or more. It settles me into the water and sets me up nicely for a main set. But once upon a time, that drill triggered something very different in me.
“Ali, can you make a fist, like this?” I looked at my coach on the side of the pool and stopped still, transfixed by the closed fist he was making. I could see the hairs on his forearm and the lines on his curled fingers. To me, it wasn’t the hand of my coach, it was the closed fist of someone else…
The fist I saw belonged to a man who said he loved me, yet called me a ‘b*tch’; who threw glasses at me; smashed plates; downed a bottle of whiskey and screamed in my face, bucking his head into me like an Ibex… The person who left me sleep deprived by keeping me awake all night with his lectures; punched the walls and doors around me – who punched so close, but not close enough to leave a bruise; the person who pretended to be driving our car off the edge of a cliff top road – with me in it. I remember that final day, when he pushed me onto the bed, covered me in a duvet and pillow and beat down through it on to me. 48 hours of destruction and finally I knew I had to throw him out. But how to really break free? He was ill, I loved him, couldn’t I heal him? A year of soul searching and dreaming of reconciliation, and ‘what ifs?’ followed.
“He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s not in control. It’s red mist,” I said to a male counsellor, who specialises in working with perpetrators of domestic abuse. “On the contrary.” came the reply, “His actions are about doing just enough to scare and control you… Domestic abuse isn’t measured by whether or not you had to leave a relationship in an ambulance… Be under no illusion, what you have described is severe abuse.”
But I still couldn’t quite accept what had happened to me: Alice, the one time lawyer, the writer, the academic, the athlete, the friend, the sister, the daughter, the joker, the smiley, happy girl…I was still an actress, to both myself and the outside world. Yes, the doctor had given me tranquilisers to ease the anxiety from the trauma I was processing, and my mum heard me screaming out in my sleep in the night… but it wasn’t really that bad…was it?
I froze still in the lido water. I couldn’t move. I just stood and stared, having what I now know, is a flashback. “Ali, it’s just a hand”, my coach flexed his fingers out, unlocking his fist and waving. “It’s a hand, just a hand – look it’s me; Ali, it’s me.”
I finally lifted up my goggles and broke the spell. “Are you ok to swim?” Yes, I was. And the lesson continued with a quiet diplomacy.
The mind is an extraordinary thing. We can create layers of behaviours, including OCD and addiction and become experts in denial to protect ourselves – I believe we see that magnified across society about so many ‘difficult’ issues – it hurts to focus on the painful stuff and we can go to great lengths to numb or disguise it. However eventually, no matter how long it takes, one way or another, the truth will confront us.
What I didn’t realise then, but I do now, is that I was severely traumatised. For some reason, despite the help and advice I’d sought prior to that point, it still hadn’t fully ‘clicked’ how vulnerable and hurt I was. Yet in that moment it was so clear, and I finally started to accept my reality.
At the same time, as I moved through the water I found glimmers of my true self. My body that can move with power and grace; and a spirit that can ignite others; and with each glimmer, a feeling that perhaps… just perhaps…life could be something more – That I was worthy of something more.
I finally found the logic I needed to move on – that if seeing another man close his fist to demonstrate a swim drill caused me to be paralysed with fear – how could I ever stop being afraid of my ex – no matter how chocolate box the good times seemed – there was no way I could guarantee that he wouldn’t turn on me again; and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t change that. I finally realised that the relationship was irreparable – I couldn’t save it – or fix him; and the only path forward, was to properly, and finally, cut all ties.
About a week after that swimming lesson, that’s exactly what I did. “You f*cking b*tch. Where are you? Where the f*ck are you?!” he screamed down the phone for the last time.
Moving on is a process. And unravelling and understanding how such circumstances came about, why I came to be in that relationship, and healing; has been very difficult and taken a lot of time.
Domestic abuse is a complex issue and I don’t think there’s a one size fits all answer. To identify the causes, help prevent its occurrence, promote healthy relationships and help men and women trapped in abusive relationships, requires us all to look gently but honestly at ourselves, our history and circumstances, both individually and as a society as a whole.
Most importantly, we can’t do that alone. We need considered, well-resourced, holistic and long term support.
It was critical for me to be able to access specialist women’s support services. I was one of the lucky ones. At my most vulnerable I was able to seek out and access initial support through a hotline and counselling service funded by a women’s charity – it saved my life – but because of cuts, that service no longer exists. And little did I know, but that was just the beginning of a journey of understanding, healing and growing, which extends much deeper and beyond that one person and that episode in my life.
I have not previously felt able to share this part of my story for a number of reasons. Fear, shame, and not wanting to put this out there without being clear in myself that I understand what happened. But the support and self-knowledge I have now means that I can, and I hope that by sharing this other chapter in my life, I can help others.
Out of the water A Lotus Rises, and thank you to all the women across our growing swimming collective, for empowering me and so many others, in our lives both in and out of the water… Here’s to a future beyond hashtags; and to positive, considered and practical change in our behaviours, policy, systems and culture.
Some useful resources for anyone needing to reach out for support can be found here.
Becky Horsbrugh is a journalist, swim coach and open water swimmer based in Hackney. Inspired by Lord Byron she took part in her first major open water swimming event in 2010, a swim across the Hellespont, made famous by the poet. Since then, she has undertaken a variety of swim and triathlon challenges, overcoming a number of personal challenges along the way and becoming an ambassador for women in sport.
Her love of swimming has also led her to qualify as a swim teacher, and through her work as an Asia correspondent is now embarking on a swim project that brings together her passions and interests to help develop drowning prevention projects in Bangladesh.
On January 29th she will swim the 16km Bangla Channel in the Bay of Bengal, raising funds for an organisation called the CIPRB (Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh) who run the Swimsafe swim teaching programmes in the country.
Why did you start open water swimming?
Around ten years ago I decided to give a triathlons a go. I wasn’t a particularly strong or regular swimmer but liked the thought of combining three sports. I was intrigued by the open water swim events and signed up for an event at Dorney Lake. I had no clue really about open water swimming. However I found a swimming lake near to my home at the time in west London and literally just ordered a wetsuit off the internet and went along when they had open sessions.
At that time the sport was very much in its infancy and there was little info on the web about training, and not many people doing it. So I just taught myself how to sight in the water and just practiced. Funnily enough though when the triathlon came around we had a heatwave and we were banned from wearing wetsuits as the water was so warm. I did literally throw myself in the deep end with the sport, but it certainly didn’t put me off as the following year I then signed up for the Hellespont swim.
How did the Bangla swim project come about?
I visited Bangladesh for the first time last July as I was keen to help out with the SwimSafe schemes there, helping teach children to swim. I had previously read the appalling statistics that around 50 children die every day there in the water. The trip made a massive impression on me. I fell in love with the country as well.
On my return to the UK my first thoughts were when can I return and how can I raise awareness of the huge issue of drowning in countries like Bangladesh. Then by chance I came across a facebook page about the Bangla Channel swim when I was googling swimming and Bangladesh. I got in touch with the organisers and after a bit of research decided to go for it.
What is the Bangla Channel swim?
Basically it is a 16 kilometre sea swim in the Bay of Bengal from Teknaf on the mainland to St Martin’s Island, which is just 8 kilometres long and is Bangladesh’s only coral island. Many Bangladeshis have done the swim, but few visitors. Just one Dutchman, and 4 Indians I believe.
What are your objectives for the project in the medium and long term?
My immediate objective is to make people more aware of how big an issue drowning is in many countries, not just Bangladesh. I admit I never really thought much about it before. We are so lucky though, we swim for fun and many of us can go on luxurious swimming holidays and enter big events, and it is a hobby. However swimming is essentially a life saving skill and everyone has the right to learn how to swim. Sadly so many people do not have this chance.
Over the past year I have been in contact with amazing people who are working to improve swim skills around the world. I have visited the RNLI headquarters in Poole and talking to the people there about their work, and I have also been in touch with the people who run SwimTayka https://swimtayka.org.uk/uk/
They provide free swim lessons and teach water safety to underprivileged children in several countries, using volunteer trained swim teachers. I’m hoping in the future to work with them and my ultimate goal is to work in drowning prevention full time, concentrating on Asia.
How have you prepared for the swim?
The furthest I have swum in the past has been a 7 km river swim. I had no clue what to do training wise when I first decided to do the Bangla Channel. My first instinct was just to swim as much as possible! But I was wary of overtraining and getting injured. So I signed up for club sessions once a week with SwimforTri which were brilliant and such fun. I then spoke with a coach from the company who drew up a training plan for me. So basically I have been swimming 4 times a week, with a different programme for each pool visit. A mix of drills and endurance and most swims have been around 4 to 5 kmI have also done regular pilates and although I am running less than normal, have tried to run at least once a week as cross training.
The biggest difficulty has been training over the winter time as most of my swims have had to be pool based. I live in London so impossible to go sea swimming regularly and the water is simply too cold for me to do long training swims as well outdoors. We will have two days to acclimatise though when I am in Bangladesh and get used to the sea conditions. In total there should be five of us doing the swim, myself and 4 locals.
I’ve also been lucky enough in recent weeks to get in touch with a couple of Bangladeshis who have done the swim and it has really helped being able to talk to them about the type of conditions I might expect.
What does swimming mean to you?
It is my refuge and my escape I guess. I am hard of hearing yet when swimming I forget this as I feel I can hear the sound of the water all around me (through my ear plugs!) – so it is the one time I feel like my normal self. I lost the hearing in one ear overnight around 4 years ago due to a virus. It is also the best stress relief for me after a long day at work. Swimming has also helped me so much with my confidence and self-esteem. The female swimming movement is so empowering and I think really helps us all to be proud of our bodies, especially as we get older. I will be 50 in just over a year but feel at least 20 years younger and never feel I have to hide myself away, fearful of what anyone might think. Quite unlike my younger self.
How can people support you and follow your adventures?
I am not certain how good my internet connection will be the couple of days leading up to the swim but will update whenever I can.
What is your favourite swim cake?
It has to be carrot cake with frosting – I could eat that all day. Yum
[Thank you Becky – We’ll alert the International Institute for Swim Cake Studies…]
What is your favourite piece of swim kit and why?
Hmm. I think at the moment it has to be the hoodie Selkie have given me for the swim. I am one of their swim ambassadors and they have printed out some t shirts and the sweatshirt for me. Makes me feel quite important and famous!
What are your top 3 tips for people new to open water?
1. I would say for your first time in open water either have a lesson or go with someone who is very experienced. It can feel quite daunting and some people do panic at first, this is completely normal and having someone there to allay your fears really helps. Plus it is always good if someone shows you specific skills like sighting that will make the whole experience more enjoyable.
2. If you want to wear a wetsuit that is fine – if you want to go in a teeny weeny itsy bitsy yellow polka dot bikini then that is totally great as well. Don’t feel you have to do what others do. Obviously be sensible – if it is 5 degrees and you are not used to cold water then be careful, but the most important thing is to get in the water and have a go. Whatever makes you feel most comfortable.
3. Above all enjoy it! It doesn’t matter how far you swim or how fast. Take in your surroundings (which will be much more picturesque than the walls and ceiling of your local pool). Take your time to get used to it, there is no need to rush. Just float on your back if needs be. But learn to understand the water so you feel at one with it and it is your friend. Then you will never look back.
Thank you Becky! And best of luck with your Big Bangla Swim!
Love Disfigure is an initiative born out of a need to raise awareness and support for those living with disfigurement. Founded by swimmer and swim teacher Sylvia Mac, who at the age of 48 dared to bare her scars for the first time. Sylvia’s advocacy is having a positive impact in a variety of areas, including setting up fortnightly swimming sessions for anyone with disfigurement. Thank you Sylvia for sharing your story (and for your entry to the Women’s Adventure Expo#swimselfie competition!)
When I was 7 years old, my father subscribed myself and my sisters into the local swimming club. I was happy at first until I realised that the other children were staring at me and whispering. Before long, I was being called names such as ‘snakeskin’, ‘witch’ and ‘disgusting’.
My elder sister managed to put a stop to it before it got worse. Because of this incident, I began to plan my route into and out of the swimming pool. When swimming began, I was the last person to leave the changing room and enter the pool. When our Coach called us out of the water, I would hide and pretend I had a stitch or cramp. I became quite popular with my Coach as the child who complained about everything. Little did he know, I was being bullied by the other swimmers, my team mates.
As my swimming improved my father entered me and my sister into League competitions and galas. I remember picking new swim costumes and they were all so revealing. I wouldn’t dare wear a costume with the big cut out hole in the back as this would only make my problems worse. I asked my mum for a big beach towel so my sister could wait at the end of a race with it ready to cover me up from everyone. My sister was my saviour as I never complained to anyone else about my problems. I remember one occasion swimming in a big competition at Crystal Palace leisure centre. At the end of my race, I couldn’t see my sister and became anxious in the water. I remember hearing the officials shouting and whistling at me to climb out of the water. I decided to ignore them and stay in the pool believing my sister would appear very soon. My sister never came until someone shouted over the speaker for me to get out of the pool. I swam under all the lanes to the other side of the pool and quickly ran to the changing room where I locked myself into a locker room. I stayed there until I heard my sister calling me. I was crying and screaming at her but she apologised as she had won her race prior to mine and was celebrating with her friends outside.
I never won any of my races because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself so ‘pulled back’ during races. I wouldn’t dare ‘place’ in a swim competition because the thought of me being on a rostrum gave me anxiety attacks thinking about everyone staring at me.
As I got older, I realised I wasn’t able to complete exams in school, college or university which meant I wouldn’t be able to achieve anything great in my life. I remember always attending interviews but when I arrived outside I would turn around and go back home. I always lied to my family telling them I did really well but lacking confidence and low self- esteem was always going to stop me in my tracks. I eventually went on to do office work which was never my thing and I was always shy around people worrying how long it would be before they sacked me.
I went on to work in schools with children as I always felt comfortable with them until one day I took them swimming with the teacher. When I arrived, I noticed 2 ladies working there that I use to swim with many years ago. They asked me if I wanted to come and teach swimming with them so I immediately took swim teacher courses and taught non-swimmer schoolchildren. I enjoyed my work so much that I then took on more work in the evenings teaching Adults to swim. I enjoyed teaching people to swim so much that I did extra evenings with special need children. Some years later I took another course in swim coaching and went on to work with a local swimming club teaching/coaching competitive swimmers. I worked in the club for a year until I began having problems with my back so had to give up work.
When I was aged 3 years old, I was severely disfigured in boiling water from an accident at home. My sister was running with me through the house and we were told not to go into the bathroom as my mum had boiled saucepans of water and poured into bowls on the floor for our bath. We lived in a council flat in the East End of London and often ran out of gas and electric so my mum filled the bath for all 5 of my sisters to bathe. I almost died twice from my injuries but was lucky to pull through life support to tell my story today.
Last year July 2016 I went on holiday with my mother and son. Whilst laying around the pool sunbathing a man was videoing me and followed me back and forth. This made me extremely sad and upset that my mum decided we should go to the beach instead. We went up to our room and I put on a beautiful bikini which I would never think of wearing but was bought for me. We made our way to the beach and I could see my mum was very sad as she often stared at my burns and questioned if they hurt me. As I stared at her staring at me, I could feel her sadness so began walking down to the water’s edge. As I was walking I could feel everyone’s eyes on me and turned around to face my mum. I called out to her ‘mum, look at me’ and I began to smile and pose as if I was being photographed. I noticed her face change and she began smiling back at me. I went over to her and said, ‘mum from now on, when people photograph or video me, I will smile and pose then at least I will look great on youtube’.
In October 2016, I released my own video on youtube and bared my scars. Aged now 49 years old, I decided I want to change my life and stop spending my days crying and hiding away so began a FB group called Love Disfigure. I raise awareness and show support for people living with a disfigurement by blogging on my website lovedisfigure.com and sharing beautiful photos of myself and my scars.
I recently released a story to BBC News called ‘my scar and me’ which was surprisingly released online BBC World News. I then went onto release an audio interview on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour which can be found on BBC IPlayer. I will continue campaigning for those affected by their appearance whether scars, burns, marks, skin condition or health conditions. There are thousands of people around the world who continue to suffer with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and PTSD and send me heartfelt messages. When I released my story, many of my friends didn’t know I was burned but only myself and my family knew. It was my choice to keep this to myself as many people continue to do every day in fear of being cast out. We need to let these people know that we are all unique and different in many ways. Do not let life pass you by as I did. I have wasted my life because I had no confidence in myself and my skin.
Today I can finally say ‘I am Beautiful, we are all Beautiful’.
Wild Swimming World first or Two friends, one dog, one island, one ocean and a picnic?… Out of the water…A Lotus Rises
At around 20.00 hrs yesterday evening, Jess and her dog Otley made their way down to Westcombe beach for a dip, with me, Alice, official observer from the swim blog for women who love open water – A Lotus Rises.
Some people may think this was just two friends and a dog going for an evening swim and picnic amongst the Monet like cliffs of the Devon coast, but no…
Otley and the picnic were secured beach side, and we ventured out into the cool sea. Jess pirouetting on the sea covered rocks that she knows so well (this is her local swimming pool).
Ahead lay the Rock with no name, of which there are no official records of a circumnavigation… we estimated the swim to be about 10m in distance and best approached with a mixture of head up breast stroke and doggie paddle…
This breath taking footage captures this world first in wild swimming…
And this – doggie paddle to the finish…and diving off the island in celebration – Well done Jess – Epic swimming times!
A Devon Wild Swim Adventure with Jess
Then we headed back to the beach for a crudette avec dip supper, and a petit vino, whilst wrapped up in warm jackets and woolly hats, before walking barefoot and muddy back home.
It’s 1.15am and pitch black, apart from the flashing lights attached to my swimming cossy and hat. The gate to the back of the fishing boat is opened and I sit down, dangling my feet above the ‘tropical’ 16 degree Celsius English Channel, about to jump in for my third hour of swimming. I am so excited… our four women relay team is less than two hours from landing in France!
Swimming is a life skill that is fundamental to being able to take to the water safely, whatever activity we choose; but it’s also a gateway to adventure, well-being and exploration in its own right. From artist Vivienne Rickman Poole, who is documenting her journey to swim in all 250 lakes of Snowdonia (whatever the weather) and Sam Mould ’s exploration of the tarns in the Lake District, to swimmer- writers inspired by the water like Caitlin Davies, Jenny Landreth, Tanya Shadrick, Outdoor swimming is an activity in which women excel, empowering people’s lives both in and out of the water.
Not just a catalyst for creativity, outdoor swimming is a channel for international diplomacy, social justice and and positive change.
Becky Sindall, is a water scientist and swimming instructor volunteering with the charity Nile Swimmers in the Lebanon and Sudan to help tackle drowning in Africa, and since Lynne Cox’s 1987 swim of the Bering Straits, helping to melt the cold war, swim diplomats have been building bridges across the globe. For example on 5th May 2017 Kim Chambers brought together a team of international swimmers in the first ever swim from USA to Mexico, that’s following on from her August 2015 swim where she became the first woman to swim from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge – a distance of about 30 miles in waters famed for its Great White Shark inhabitants…If only Kim, Putin, Tump, Xi, May et al went and chilled out for a swim together…
Of course, every swim journey starts with a single splash and the beauty of outdoor swimming is that it is accessible, requires very little kit (wetsuits are optional), and is as challenging as you want it to be: 8-10th August, the wonderful swim spirit Sarah Thomas swam a 104.6 mile route in Lake Champlain and this morning I did 4 lengths of my local lido – it’s all good!
Social media means it’s easy to find local swim groups (never swim outdoors alone) and you soon discover the joy of the outdoor swimming community, it’s love of cake and strong tradition of ‘giving back ‘ and helping others to realise their dreams. Check out the Outdoor Swimming Society, founded by Kate Rew for starters.
And it is very much a team sport, particularly when it comes to long distance challenges, where support crew are critical for route planning and ensuring the safety of the swimmer. Kayaker Shu Pu became the first person to paddle solo across the Pearl River Delta when she supported Simon Holliday on his 35km swim from Hong Kong to Macau and is now organising Simon’s swim around Hong Kong island this November.
Outdoor swimming is a liberator, known to alleviate anxiety and depression and was a sanctuary for me to rebuild my mind and body following a road traffic accident. It is also a ‘leveller’ – I still have no idea what most of the people I swim with ‘do’ for a living; and for a sport where everyone pretty much gets naked all of the time, body image seems irrelevant – I have never asked anyone if my bum looks big in a swimming costume.
Whether splashing around in a loch in Skye, surrounded by seals and crying with laughter with a seaweed wig on my head, competing in international winter swimming festivals in China, or jumping in the English Channel at 1.15 am, the rewards of rewards of outdoor swimming are immense.
Back in the Channel, I finish my final hour of swimming and Kathrine takes over, landing us in France at around 2.40am. Exhausted, elated and wrapped up in our sleeping bags on deck, our sense of accomplishment and capability envelopes us as we sail home and a spectacular orange and pink sunrise emerges; it’s incredible what can happen when you take to the water…
Many adventures start out as just a flicker of intent, mixed with a dash of terror of the unknown. Rather like standing at the water’s edge, you deliberate, hesitate, but eventually you leap, love it, and wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.
So, to avoid any further delay to your outdoor swimming adventures, we asked a range of swimmers turned open water addicts, what they wish they’d known before they started open water swimming…
“That no one cares what you look like or how you swim because everyone’s too busy enjoying themselves and eating cake; That the fear may never subside but the enjoyment, satisfaction and sense of achievement will only get greater; Always have a woollen hat in your bag; and always pack a cap, goggles and costume, as you never know when the opportunity for a swim might appear!” Manda Read.
“That swimming takes you to another place: both geographical (far flung places where you meet similar minded people and have a hoot, even if you don’t speak a common language) and also takes you to yourself (without sounding too hippy-ish!): giving you the time to think over stuff, grieve at times, get some space and find the strength to face up to challenges in life.” Clare McRobbie
“I wish I’d known how much more alive and exciting I’d find swimming in just toggs. That you don’t have to choose between being a wetsuit or toggs swimmer – you can do both!” Vicky Raybould, who completed her first open water event in 2016.
“A fingertip’s worth of Johnson’s baby shampoo on each lens of your goggles. It’s ok to let it dry while you wait for your next swim. Then dunk your goggles in the water and shake off the drips before you put them back on. Never fails to stop them misting up!”, says Jackie Risman.
“I wish I had known that nobody cares what you look like in a swimsuit…and how much I would come to appreciate my health and what my body is capable of,” Barbara Brown
“That Jellyfish can’t get down high necked swimsuits” Anna Wardley
“The least glamorous sport in the world…but life changing and prestigious” Sal Minty Gravett
“ That you don’t have to be an elite swimmer to do it – in fact you don’t even have to be a good swimmer. That I had been doing it my whole life already, it’s just that I used to call it playing at the seaside…” Polly Downes
“Almost anything can (and will) happen. And (almost) anything will be okay!”, Jaimie Monahan.
“To be honest I wish I’d sorted my technique out sooner.” Geraldine Treacher.
“How huge a part of my life it would become.” Jody Jones
“What wonderful, inspiring and downright gorgeous people embrace and participate in this sport…I couldn’t imagine my life now without my swimmie friends and I’ve achieved things I wouldn’t have even dreamed were possible five years ago.” Annabel Lavers.
“I use the strong ‘in the moment’ memories that outdoor swimming gives me, to give me confidence and courage to channel into other areas of my life,” Teresa Klesner
“That it’s OK to be a bit uncomfortable – it won’t kill you, it won’t even hurt you. And the joy of actually BEING in one’s own body – of experiencing it as a wonderful piece of equipment which could do so much I’d never imagined and which was so much more strong and capable and adaptable than I’d ever thought it could be.” Barbara Jennings
“You have no idea how capable you are, or how far you can go until you try. Just a little bit more each time. Plus making really solid friendships so quickly,” Debbie Taylor
A Lotus Rises is the swim blog for women who love open water and we’re very excited to be delivering our Guide to Open Water Swimming at WAExpo 2017, the annual flagship event of the Women’s Adventure Expo CIC. Never afraid to tackle the important issues, we’ve got together with Outdoor Swimmer Magazine and Zoggs to try and answer one of the toughest questions in open water swimming – What makes the best #SwimSelfie? and support you on your swim adventures, whatever they may be!
Submit your pics to @WAEXPO and @ALotus_Rises with the hashtag #swimselfie, for the chance to win a year’s subscription to Outdoor Swimmer Magazine, a Kit Bag full of swim gear from Zoggs (1 x swim cozzie from a choiceofthree (size 8-20), the excellent predator goggles, swim hat, ear plugs, and towel), and 2 tickets to WAExpo 2017 held in Bristol on 7th October to inspire you on your swim adventures. We’ve extended the deadline so that last entries are Monday 2nd October, with winner announced 3rd October.