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…

group-on-beach-with-al-LR-300x225

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.

DCIM100GOPRO

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.

DCIM100GOPRO

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!

Suits vs Skins. The Henley Mile. #ThisGirlCan and We All Did

On Sunday I took on the toughest competitor I know: Myself.

Part of the Henley Mile swim events, Suits versus Skins is a one-mile straight-line swim up the river: First in a wetsuit and then in skins. It’s basically the swimming equivalent of a personal Rocky IV.

#ThisGirlCan: Suit

#ThisGirlCan: Suit

#ThisGirlCan : Skins

#ThisGirlCan : Skins

Wetsuit or non, I love open water and this was a fun opportunity to see what kind of difference a wetsuit makes to my swimming.

Over the last few months I have spent A LOT of time at the physio and working on my technique, so these swims were also  a fun way to check in on my progress.

Add to that, the build up to this year’s Henley Mile has been particularly motivating, because as part of the #ThisGirlCan movement we have been able to follow  the inspiring journeys of eight women, for whom the Henley Mile was their first swim event.

If you’re wondering about whether to try open water or not, take a look at their blogs. Brilliant.

Swimming features prominently in the This Girl Can campaign

Swimming features prominently in the This Girl Can campaign

Competitor Analysis

I took a moment to assess my competition…

Incredible serious and aspiring open water swimmer. Lake Zurich Marathon Relay 2013

Suits vs Skins: The Competition

A competitor that loves openwater, could get in and get on a swimming mission, but also has the potential to get panicked by the whole concept of a race and get in a hyperventilating water fluster.

There was also a high chance I might end up just floating down the river, having been distracted by the blue skies and green pastures of regatta country and chatting to ducks…

This was going to be tough.

Race Strategy

Walking up to the start, once again my butterflies were dancing.

I generally swim without a wetsuit, but will happily admit to enjoying being back in neoprene. And not just any neoprene… I was wearing my new Speedo Women’s Elite 2015 wetsuit.

It felt fantastic. All the support, glide and buoyancy of a wetsuit, yet once in the water it didn’t feel like I was wearing one.

Walking to the start

Walking to the start

I also know that unless you have good technique, you can’t optimize the benefits of a great wetsuit.

I switched off any thoughts of ‘All the gear and no idea’ and backed myself – ‘How exciting to be swimming in such a great piece of swim kit. I can’t wait to see what I can do!’

I also decided not to wear a watch. When I do that, I worry about the clock, rather than enjoying how my body feels in the water.

I just wanted to swim. So that’s what I did…

Suit vs Skins Part 1

Suit vs Skins Part 1

Swimming!

Our pod was a spectrum of experience and speed and felt all the better for it. “I’m so pleased we’re here doing this all together”, said one woman to her friends, and wishes of “Have a good swim” passed down the start line. All of that helped put my butterflies at ease – thank you fellow open wave women!

Open wave start line encouragement in action

Open wave start line encouragement in action

Reciting: ’11 o’clock ; 1 o’clock’, meant I maintained my hand entry position, and, as I progressed through the water I went through a checklist of all the elements of my stroke, noting how I was engaging my catch,  using the rotation of my body to support my breath, and enjoying the different feel that a wetsuit gives in the water.

Checking through the different elements of my stroke kept me focused on technique, and distracted me from the fact that I was working pretty hard – My lungs were disappointed to discover that the half way mark was just that, and not a sign for the finish!

24 minutes and 27 seconds later I crossed the line. I know this for sure, because I went back and checked it on the results computer three times, and then spent the best part of an hour staring at the print out confirming that it did have my name on it.  In recent weeks a couple of people at swim training had commented that I was getting faster – I had guessed I might hit a 30 minute mile wetsuit pace –  I was stunned!

Pep Talk

The H2Open swim show ran alongside the Henley Mile swims with info on all things swimming including, technique and coaching advice, holidays, and kit.

In the break between suit and skins, I went to a talk by Cassie Patten about her journey to  Olympic Bronze at  Beijing 2008 and beyond.

We can all face Olympic challenges of one kind or another and her story is a powerful tale of talent, commitment, judgment calls and perspective, that translates to life both in and out of the water.

I was in a post swim stupor, so couldn’t articulate the many questions I wanted to ask. However, it’s fair to say it was the best pep talk one could wish for – thank you Cassie!

Then just like an Olympic athlete, me and my mate Ann popped to the local pub for some eggs on toast.

Happily we were back just in time to watch everyone jump into the river for the Henley splash and see the junior races where parents and kids could swim together.

At different points the commentators gave the mic over to kids on the riverbank so the cheers of support for their mums could echo across the Chiltern hills – lovely!

Swimming…Again!

Re –fuelled, but if I am being honest, ever so slightly knackered, it was back to the start for the skins swim. This time in the wind, rain and a bikini; the kind of weather that reminds you that you’re alive, and makes skins swimming that extra bit wild and wonderful.

Wind, rain and skins - Perfect!

Wind, rain and skins – Perfect!

It was pretty inspiring to hear the swim chat of the young women in this pod. All really excited about open water and talking proudly about the swims they had completed.

Swim psyche was high and I kept well back from the front row. The start signal was given, and I glanced up to watch the future of openwater swimming speed off into the distance. My goodness they were fast!

The future of openwater swimming

The future of openwater swimming

Towards the end there was a  swimmer on my right and we silently agreed to help each other maintain pace and push through to the finish. We thanked each other at the end – Really cool!

11728938_10153263268435168_404963420470507289_o

The Finish!

I was knackered, but delighted to discover I finished my skins swim in 27. 42 – another personal best and great to know all that pool practice is starting to pay off!

Results

  1. In the battle of suits versus skins, I concluded that I love swimming.
  2. In the Alice versus Alice face off, Alice won.
  3. #ThisGirlCan and we all did, demonstrating once again, that no matter what, we are all first in our own category.

芙蓉出水 (fúróng chūshuǐ) Out of the water a lotus rises.

 And finally…

Thank you Henley Swim and H2Open for putting together such a fun and informative event for novice and experienced swimmers of all ages.

Thank you Speedo for my lovely new wetsuit. And thank you to Dan, Keeley and all the team at Swimfortri for getting me back in the water that I love,  helping me stay there and achieve PBs I didn’t know were possible!

By Alice Gartland

Get in touch:

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

You can get involved via the BlogFacebookTwitter and alotusrises@gmail.com. We want to share your stories, so we can support you and inspire others!