Every body is a swimming body: Sylvia Mac of Love Disfigure shares her swimming journey

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’.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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’.

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Connect with Love Disfigure on twitter, Facebook, Instagram and via their website.

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.

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LOTUS Exclusive: A Circumnavigation of the Rock With No Name…

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.

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Jess on the rocks! Photo copyright: Alice Gartland

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…

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Looking out to the Rock With No Name (it’s the little one that’s difficult to see that’s just in front to the big one)… Photo Copyright: Alice Gartland

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).

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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!

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.

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Jess looking back to the beach in her OSS Dart 10k hat (rumour has it that Jess will be returning to the Dart in 2017… )

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Outdoor Swimming: A Gateway to Positive Change

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!

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Girls Night Out in the English Channel: Photo Credit Alice Gartland

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.

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Photo Credit Sam Mould

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…

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Photo Credit Beth French

It’s fair to say, women are dominating the world of endurance swimming at the moment. Chloe McCardel’s three way Channel Crossing and four way channel attempt is part of wave of women, like WAexpo speaker Beth French, redefining the parameters of what’s possible. The diversity of their swim adventures is also breath taking. For example, Jaimie Monahan’s recent swims include an Ice Zero Swim in Tyumen Russia, through to swimming 42.8 miles across Lake Geneva in 32 hours and 52 minutes. And it’s a sport for life, with Sal Minty Gravett and Pat Gallante amongst the leading lights.

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Jaimie Monahan swimming at the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, Iceland. Photo credit Arik Thomahlen

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.

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The Thames Marathon Swim: Photo Credit Dan Bullock

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…

Happy Swimming

Alice

A Lotus Rises, the swim blog for women who love Open Water. She’ll be presenting the Guide to open water swimming at WAExpo 2017, the Women’s Adventure Expo’s flagship event on the 7th of October, sponsored by Outdoor Swimmer Magazine and with assistance from the International Institute for Swim Cake Studies.

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Outdoor Swimming: Things I Wish I’d Known…

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.

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Manda Read, Team Mermaids

“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

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Clare, (Right) and the Dive In Belles. Photo Credit Gail McClean

 

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Clare and Charlotte leading the Dive in Belles at Tooting. Photo Credit Gail McClean

“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.

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“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

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Photo Credit 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

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Photo Credit Polly Downes

“Almost anything can (and will) happen. And (almost) anything will be okay!”, Jaimie Monahan.

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Photo credit Arik Thomalen

“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.

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Annabel finishes her Channel Solo Photo Credit 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

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Barbara Jennings. Photo Credit Gail McClean

“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

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Have you entered our SwimSelfie Competition? 

Win a years subscription to Outdoor Swimmer Magazine and a kit bag full of swim gear from Zoggs, and two tickets to the Women’s Adventure Expo.

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 choice of three (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.

 

 

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