The Women Champion Swimmers of the World You’ve Never Heard of, and other stories…

In April I went to a talk by Caitlin Davies about her book “Downstream. A History of Swimming the River Thames.” It’s a beautiful book and a timely accompaniment to the renaissance in Thames swimming that is blossoming this summer.

But more than that, Downstream tells the story of the British Capital ‘s river and the fantastic female swimmers whose mind blowing swimming feats along it, leapfrogged society’s imagined and real parameters of gender; were a training ground for global swimming endeavours; and helped pave the way for women everywhere to enjoy the freedom of the water.

Arabella Buck and friends enjoying a Tidal Thames swim

Arabella Buck enjoying a Tidal Thames Swim from Hammersmith to Chiswick pier in Summer 2015

 

The Pioneers

Putney Bridge is the focal point of a number of these swims. In 1905, Annette Kellerman swam from Putney through the “Flotsam and Jetsam” of the Thames, and on to a variety of international swimming achievements and global recognition[1]. She also designed what is regarded as the first modern swimsuit for women, and fought for the right of women to wear a fitted one piece bathing suit .

Annette Kellerman

Annette Kellerman

Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the Channel also used the Thames as a training ground and swam 27 miles from Putney to Silvertown in 1923.

Mercedes Gleitze

It is a powerful coincidence that feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, author of “Vindication of the Rights of Women”, threw herself from Putney bridge into the River Thames back in 1795. “How desperate she must have been, and how ideal the Thames would have seemed as a place to end it all for someone who couldn’t swim,” writes Davies.[2] Miraculously Wollstonecraft survived.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Women

As Davies describes, the liberation of these swims is juxtaposed with the social norms that they were swimming against. Downstream provides a home for the collective achievements of the female swimming pioneers, who it appears until now, have received only a patchwork of recognition or whose achievements have been lost in the passage of time.

Not to spoil what is a must read for any open water swimmer (or anyone really) the Downstream Swimming Hall of Fame includes the following incredible women, many of whose swimming stories you may never have heard of:

The Long Distance Lady Swimmer of the World Eileen Lee; The Smiling Swimmer Lily Hawke; and more recently in 1985 Alison Streeter the Queen of the Channel, swam the tidal Thames and in 2013 Ness Knight became the first woman to swim the length of the non tidal Thames – I know – it’s not just David Walliams!

Ness Knight

Ness Knight

 

Agnes Beckwith, the original #ThisGirlCan

The woman who inspired Davies to write the book is Agnes Beckwith who in 1875, at the age of 14, ‘plunged into the Thames’[3] and swam from London Bridge to Greenwich. I was born just down the road in Woolwich and hearing Davies talk about Agnes I was so inspired. She is the original #ThisGirlCan of openwater swimming and thoughts of Agnes and these other wonderful women have flickered through my mind throughout this summer of swimming.

Agnes Beckwith

Agnes Beckwith

As part of her father “Swimming Professor Beckwith’s” swim troop, Agnes performed various swimming feats but separately accomplished a variety of groundbreaking endurance swims, she also had plans to swim the Channel (thwarted by a lack of finances) and paved the way for British Women to represent their country in the 1912 Olympics. [4]

I was really excited to see Agnes appear in her famously pink frilled swimming attire as one of the lead characters in the new film Captain Webb, which tells the story of Captain Matthew Webb the first person to swim the English Channel. The 140th Anniversary of his historic swim was yesterday, 25th August.

Captain Webb

It’s a nice film, but despite her obvious passion for swimming and strength of character, the film falls short of representing Agnes Beckwith as the swimming pioneer and talent that she was.

Champion Swimmer Agnes Beckwith

Champion Swimmer Agnes Beckwith

A love story also develops between Agnes and Webb. So much so, that when Agnes believes Webb’s rival in the race to swim the Channel, American and showman Paul Boyton will sabotage Webb’s swim, she offers herself to Boyton in exchange for him staying out of the way of Webb’s swim (Boyton declines).

Clearly I’ve never met Agnes but I’m just not sure she would have been up for getting her baps out on Webb’s behalf. It sounds like she would have been more likely to jump in the Channel ahead of them both (if she’d had the funding to do so), leaving them to fight it out for second place.

Nothing wrong with a bit of artistic licence of course (and after all I realise in 1875 at the time of Webb’s swim Agnes was actually just 14 years old, swimming to Greenwich and perhaps inspired by Webb), but it feels like having chosen to give a prominent role to Beckwith, an opportunity was missed to represent her more strongly as a pioneer in parallel to Webb.

That unease wasn’t helped in the Q&A after the film screening, when having briefly mentioned Agnes was in fact an accomplished endurance Thames swimmer, one of the panel then quipped that Agnes was a “tank”.

Not quite the respect Agnes Beckwith deserves and hooray for Caitlin Davies and Downstream, for providing an accurate reference point and mnemonic for these female pioneers of swimming.

Swimming features prominently in the This Girl Can campaign

The Pioneers Continue

Coinciding with the 140th anniversary of Captain Webb’s swim yesterday, BBC Woman’s Hour featured an interview with Davies and Doloranda Pember, the daughter of Mercedes Gleitze (the first British woman to swim the English Channel) about Gleitze and some of these other pioneers.

It’s a wonderful listen, and includes anecdotes about how many of the female swimmers liked gramophones to be on their support boats, so they could have a musical accompaniment to their swims. It reminded me of my friend Lisa who recently swam the Channel with “Rule Britannia” booming out of the support boat speakers as she headed into  shore after an epic 17 hours of swimming.

And so the female pioneers continue…

Just a couple of weeks ago, from 8-10 August, we witnessed a truly extraordinary weekend for women’s open water swimming:

Chloe McCardel achieved the once in a generation feat of a three-way English Channel crossing (the first woman was Alison Streeter in 1990).

Also in the Channel that day was Sam Mould, a relative novice to open water swimming who was Flying to France the hard way as part of the world record butterfly relay team; following on from  Annabel Lavers*,  who had kicked off the whole weekend with her Channel success on the 7th and whose Channel Swimming journey is one of the most inspiring I know.

Sam Mould Flying along the River Thames

Sam Mould in training, Flying along the River Thames

On a different part of the French coast Wendy Trehiou was also busy making history as the first person to swim 36 miles from Jersey to St Malo; and on the other side of the globe, the awesome Kim Chambers became the fourth person and first woman to complete the “toughest swim in the world’ the Farallon Island swim.

“My goal is to be inspiring young girls,” said Chambers. “I want them to dream big.”

Here’s the trailer for the film about Kim’s swim, that will be released shortly. Historic times!

 

Back in the river, that weekend me and my mates also followed in the footsteps of the pioneers, joining hundreds of other swimmers in the 14k Bridge to Bridge swim from Henley to Marlow…

Ready for the off at Henley Bridge to Bridge. Photo credit Dan Bullock

Swimming champions ready for the off at Henley Bridge to Bridge. Photo credit Dan Bullock

Who knew Thames swimming could be so beautiful?  Well probably Caitlin Davies…Thank you for inspiring us Caitlin* and hooray for the Women Champion Swimmers of the world: past, present and future!

Celebrating

Celebrating an epic 14k bridge to bridge take down with swimming champions Fiona Bettles and Patricia Legg

 

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 can be found on our Blog, and Facebook page and please don’t hesitate to get in touch via Twitter or  alotusrises@gmail.com. We want to share your stories, so we can support you and inspire others!

*Annabel Lavers finished kicked off the weekend completing her solo swim on 7th August.

*Davies’ next book is a novel about a Lady Champion Swimmer of the world – we can’t wait!

[1] Davies, Caitlin. Downstream. A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames, page 197

[2] Davies, Caitlin. Downstream, page 191

[3] Davies, Caitlin, Downstream,

[4] Davies, Catilin. Downstream , page 280

Flying to France the Hard Way: A Lotus Rises meets Artist- Adventurer Sam Mould

Fly to France is a six person Channel swimming relay team, taking on the world record breaking challenge of swimming Butterfly across the English Channel.

Sam with her butterfly boys

Sam with her butterfly boys: Boris Mavra, Kevin Blick, Rob Ouldcott, Sam Mould, Robert Fisher and Mark Johansen

A Lotus Rises spoke to artist-adventurer Sam Mould to find out how and why!

Why are you doing this?

Well, why not. I wonder that the answer to this question begins with a curiosity about our boundaries and trying every day to do something that we thought ourselves incapable of.

Sam Mould Flying along the River Thames

Sam Mould Flying along the River Thames

I only just started open water swimming in April 2014 [ Sam undertook the challenge of completing 365 days of open water swimming] and in starting that project, and now having completed it, I remembered amongst other things the childish pleasure of swimming and began to wonder where else I could swim and could I begin to use swimming not only to keep my body and mind healthy but to promote that for other people too.

Sam Mould's 365th openwater swim in 365 days

Sam Mould’s 365th openwater swim in 365 days

 

We understand you couldn’t swim butterfly until a few months ago. How did you learn. Is there a different technique for swimming butterfly over long distances?

Learning butterfly has been an undulating path. About six months ago, just after new year I went to a swimming pool to try and swim butterfly. The reason that I did this was that I knew that there was talk of a fly relay to france and I wondered if I could actually do the stroke at all. I’d been inspired by my now team mates who were happily swimming a mile or so regularly by this time.

The first effort was a total disaster in that I couldn’t manage 25m without practically drowning. That day I spent an hour and a half at London fields, pounding myself up and down the lanes and occasionally ringing my lungs out. I definitely learnt this stroke as a child; but didn’t ever swim it, not like crawl or backstroke.

"Why Crawl When You Can Fly?" Well indeed, that is the question...

“Why Crawl When You Can Fly?” Well indeed, that is the question…

Following this effort which left my abdominal muscles crying out in pain and arms to heavy to lift for several days, I started with my poor technique on swimming slightly longer distances of 50m not stopping.

I spoke to Kevin Blick; organiser and Butterfly chief, who invited me to swim fly with him which I did. At the end of the session he asked one question, and bearing in mind at this time I could swim less than 100m fly without stopping. He said ‘can you swim for an hour?’ This was his only question and I didn’t hesitate in saying yes, even though I couldn’t at that time.

Original inspiration from Sam Mould: "You are only one decision away from a totally different life"

Original inspiration from Sam Mould: “You are only one decision away from a totally different life”

To prove that I was serious I went on a butterfly swimming course, a one day series of pointers and technique. Then I went away for two months and practiced nothing but undulating exercises and occasional arm drills. I learnt through persistence and whilst I recognise that my technique is not perfect I focus on relaxed gliding in the water and relaxed arm for recovery for the long distance aspect.

Here’s a clip of Sam in the water, taken by fellow flyer Robert Fisher: A 3km training swim of grace, power and commitment in the pouring rain on a Sunday morning. AMAZING!

 

How does a Channel Relay work?

There is a team of six. We have a swim order that has to be kept the same for the duration of the swim. We swim for one hour, as far as that takes you and then wait for five hours until our turn comes around again. The stroke has a legality that must be adhered to if we want to succeed in setting  world record. That is synchronised and bilateral movement. Elbows and wrists clear the water for each stroke.

How tough is the training. What are the highs and what have been the lows?

The training has been both physically and mentally challenging. Bonding as a team has been the strongest positive, just being around people whose attitude is one of ‘can do’ has an effect on every dynamic of your life, and whatever the out come of our attempt I am very lucky to be in that team of people as they have mentored me through the process of preparation.

The Fly to France Team training at Dover

The Fly to France Team training at Dover

Lows have been the drive to Dover, on occasions in weather that was so bad we could barely see the road ahead. Getting into the sea when the waves are lumpy, the rain is pouring and the wind up to boot is super scary, especially at Dover beach which pounds the pebbles to the floor on entry causing a hissing sound under water.

I think getting over the boundaries of swimming in these conditions has been super challenging, but on the plus side, you finish those swims all the stronger for the experience. I’m not that comfortable with not being able to put my feet down or see the land or in fact jellyfish infested waters or swimming at night for example, but all of these things I hope will melt into oblivion when the time comes.

11728757_10155854093075158_7177327644444227441_o (1)

The qualifier was another tough one. You have to swim for 2hours in sub-16 degrees C. We started to prepare for this by swimming  a mile; then an hour; then an hour and a half. We did this qualifier at the start of May together, as almost a full team. I haven’t ever swum 2hours of any stroke my entire life and felt completely elated to have completed this, as butterfly with my team mates. We jumped out to get breakfast: tea and cake, a staple diet at the Serpentine and it was in fact all that kept me going, the thought of food.

When is the big swim?

Our tide starts on the 8th August and is a weeks window. You can track the Fly to France Teams progress on Twitter and Facebook.

Sam is raising money for Leukaemia and Lymphoma research. You can donate here.

Sam’s Swimming Hat Design for the Record Breaking Swim

You’ve swum all over the world, but where is your favourite swim spot?

My favourite swim spot; gosh, that’s a tricky one –  I’ve swum in some very beautiful locations; Whale Bay sea swimming in New Zealand, Lake Wanaka in New Zealand, then the time of day or the conditions affect the experience; a midnight swim in Ullswater in the winter or an early morning swim at Windermere have their allure, river swimming in gorges in Torridon region, or scottish sea lochs in the heat of the day after a long hike or a swim in the Cairngorms in the highest loch in the UK or teaching my God-daughter to swim outdoors in a Llyn in Wales these all have their appeal and are full or special memories.

Sam Mould: Natural spirit

Sam Mould enjoying the beaches of NZ

I am definitely a fan of fresh water swimming.

The Serpentine in London in the winter months really is a little bit of wild and sanity in the city, and I am always grateful to have swum there in the before work or getting to the studio. I say this partly because I have spent so much time there and partly because of the community of friends that I swim with there, therefore it is potentially my favourite. In fact sharing the swims with family and friend adds to the liking of a place and the swim.

Sam and Swimming Friends

Sam and Swimming Friends

What is your favourite swimming cossy and why?

Favourite swim togs are my funkita sports bikini. Why? Because it feels fantastic to don a bikini that is practical, that I can move around freely in and essentially feels like my own skin.

Funkita Fly

Funkita Fly

Thank you Sam Mould! We wish you and all the Fly to France team a wonderful swim!

Sam is raising money for Leukaemia and Lymphoma research. You can donate here. You can also follow Sam on twitter and enjoy her many different projects via these blogs:

Sam Mould PaintingThe Bothy Project ; Intrepid Cycling; and She Who Dares Swims

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!