These Girls Can…Swim With Seals!

Jane Hardy  set up an open water swimming initiative to introduce twelve women to open water swimming, culminating in a fantastic sea swim with seals.

“Open water swimming is not a traditional mainstream sport, so the girls didn’t have a history of failure which often stops young women taking part in activities.

Sometimes young women have poor body image, low self esteem and bad experiences from PE at a younger age, so they simply give up on the idea of participating in sport and that is desperately sad.

This is new and exciting (swimming with wild atlantic grey seals has a wow factor, doesn’t it?); Perfect for #thisgirlcan

Here’s the inspiring film about the project; A Lotus Rises spoke to Hardy to find out more…

Why did you set up this initiative?

I’m a community Sports Officer for ActiveNorthumberland and my job is to break down barriers to participation in sport and to encourage 14-25 year old females who are inactive to take part in exercise to develop healther lifestyles, mental wellbeing etc.

Was it easy to organise? How did you get support and funding?

It wasn’t easy to organise. It took hours of planning behind the scenes – in particular considering every risk or hazard and making the correct decisions to maximise the girls safety. As far as I’m aware, I’m the first to organise such a programme.

I am a level 2 British Triathlon Coach qualified to coach in open water. I’m also a volunteer Coastguard so I have excellent local knowledge which I could incorporate into my planning and share with the participants.

I’ve also completed the RLSS National Open Water Safety Management Programme Supported by my employer and funded by Sportivate I was able to deliver the programme.

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These Girls Can! Credit Jane Hardy

How does the project relate to #ThisGirlCan and what does that mean to you?

I’m passionate about open water swimming so to have the opportunity to share this with 12 young women was like all my birthdays came at once.

Open water swimming is not a traditional mainstream sport so the girls didn’t have a history of failure which often stops young women taking part in activities.

Sometimes young women have poor body image, low self esteem and bad experiences from PE at a younger age so they simply give up on the idea of participating in sport and that is desperately sad.

This is new and exciting (swimming with wild atlantic grey seals has a wow factor, doesn’t it?); Perfect for #thisgirlcan

These Girls Can. Credit Jane Hardy

These Girls Can. Credit Jane Hardy

One of the seals. Credit Jane Hardy

One of the seals. Credit Jane Hardy

Please tell us about the participants? What were their motivations for starting in open water and what did they gain from the experience?

The participants varied in age from 14-25 and were all female. Most were taking to the open water for the first time. Some were at school, some had just left and were waiting to go onto further education and some were working.

They took part for a variety of reasons : To conquer the fear of the unknown (what’s lurking beneath the surface), to get fit, to make new friends, to gain confidence, to try something different, to progress from pool swimming….the list was endless.

These Girls Can Swim With Seals

These Girls Can Swim With Seals

How did the seals react to a whole load of excited swimmers in their neighbourhood?

The seals on the Farne Islands are unique in that historically dive boats visit the islands daily all year round. They are used to divers and so we weren’t unusual or a threat.  Having the paticipants in the water was no different from any other day. Seals are naturally curious and inquisitive so they swam around the girls confidently – we were in their waters and they are much better swimmers than we are so they simply came as close as they wanted as and when they wanted.

I’m a volunteer marine mammal medic for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue. I am trained to assist with marine mammal strandings (including seals) and I was able to educate the girls about seal behaviour and ensure there was mutual respect between human and seal. We didn’t climb onto the islands where the seals were resting. We didn’t approach them. We didn’t swim in the mating season or the calving season so we ensured minimal disturbance to their natural behaviour.

 

These Girls Can Swim With Seals - And so can you!

These Girls Can Swim With Seals – And so can you!

What advice do you have for any women thinking about getting into open water?

I would encourage anybody interested to look for a local social open water swimming group.

If they post on the Outdoor swimming Society and share there location, then there is always a friendly swimmer willing to share the love of the open water. There are usually tri clubs who offer open water swimming coaching too.

I would advise to absolutely never swim alone. Find someone who can read the tides and who knows the local waters. The waters in the UK are cold so I would suggest hiring a wetsuit intially too.

These Girls Can Swim with Seals

Will you be running other courses like this? If people want to create their own initiatives around the UK, where is the best place to start?

Given the success of this initial programme I would love to be able to deliver again. Ideally not exclusively to 14-25 year olds and inclusive of men too. I’m not sure about the best place to start – insurance will be an issue and I obviously had that covered through my employer.

Social meets where folk swim at their own risk are possibly best which is why I suggested the outdoor swimming society.

The thing I liked best about the programme is the fact that it was not for profit.

It would be sad to see the growth of folk charging for something which should be wild & free. 

Wild swimming, not expensive swimming, that’s my vision.

And finally, where’s your favourite swimming cossy and what is your favourite swim cake?

I love zoggs. I’m a bit busty and tall and they have cossies which suit my shape.

Favourite cake has to be lemon drizzle any day 🙂

A Lotus Rises is dedicated to women who love 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!

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

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!

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

First In Your Own Category

The clocks have sprung forward and a summer of sporting adventure awaits… A few weeks ago at swim training, I was chatting to two wonderful women who are both undertaking exciting personal challenges (on land and in water) in the next few months. I don’t think either of them fully appreciated this, but they are embarking on amazing challenges. One is simply ‘Going for a run’ and the other, ‘A bit of a swim’. I found it totally inspiring. And yet somehow, we managed to navigate our conversation into that classic realm of never being quite ‘good enough’. Thankfully we also had the self awareness to catch ourselves and laugh at our ability to get swept up in the narratives of others and ‘do down’ our own achievements:

“I will probably come last…”, ” My friend has been doing X hours of training. I haven’t even started yet…”, “I only came in X place in that ultra marathon…” “I should have been faster in that triathlon…”, “everyone is going to be thinking ‘why are you here?'” Because whoever the audience is you think you are performing to, completing ultra marathons, triathlons and wonderful swims whilst juggling the challenges of everyday life, is not enough.

I was grateful for the self-check of my peers in that conversation. We were falling into the trap of the kind of helpful discourse that enables you to single handedly ignore any sense of enjoyment and pride in your training journey and completely overlook the awesomeness and reward of the objectives you have achieved.

It’s sometimes worth remembering that even trail running and ski-mountaineering phenomenon Kilian Jornet doesn’t always come first in his races. And, as inconceivable as it may seem, Beyonce told me that back in 2013 she came third (behind Kelly and Michelle), in a Destiny’s Child egg and spoon race. Tough times, but she bounced back.

Human beings love to compare: who is fastest, strongest, furthest, toughest etc? And of course if none of those superlatives apply to you, you’re probably not trying hard enough.

Fortunately there’s always the opportunity to claim a ‘first’ in order to give an achievement real meaning.

‘Everyone climbs Everest nowadays’, but if you’re the first person called Colin from Paraguay to successfully ride a unicycle to the summit and back (without supplemental oxygen), then in some circles that achievement may just be credible.

I am pretty confident Colin would be setting a world record ‘first’, however I also sense that within this cunning plan, there may be a level of unnecessary exertion. Why? Well, although Colin is free to fulfill himself with whatever unicycle challenge he feels necessary, I hope he will also realise that even without the unicycle, he is already first in his own category.

The race of life

Tortoise and Hare Face Off, or is it?

How do I know this?

I recently undertook a scientific review of my sporting performances since birth, and the level of consistency is incredible; Second to none in fact. And I am confident that if Colin, or anyone else for that matter, undertakes a similar review of their own performance, the result will be the same.

For example, at first glance the official results of the 2013 Traversee de la Ramaz 7.5km cross-country ski race indicate I was second to last. However, I reviewed the performance thoroughly with my adjudication panel, and it turns out I actually came first in my own category: The first and only girl to cross the finish line from South East London with about 4 hours cross country skiing experience in her life, who loves avocado and who had been given unwaxed skis to ‘race’ on.

Sadly there are no photographic records of the epic 7.5k TraversePre Epic Race Training. Learning to skate with the wonderful Tania Noakes and the added bonus of waxed skis.

Sadly there are no photographic records of my literraly ground breaking performance in the 7.5k Traversee de la Ramaz  However here is a pic of me learning to skate for the first time with the wonderful Tania Noakes. As you can see I am not enjoying myself. Not enjoying myself at all…

Unlike normal skis, cross country skis have to be waxed before each use, otherwise, as I can testify, they get stuck and at best it’s like skating across sand paper, in what turned out to be pretty hilly terrain: I was (unintentionally) riding a unicycle up Everest. As Tania said before the start, “It’s not going to be easy, but you’re here now, so you might as well get on with it.” Suffice to say I put in a performance the likes of which I am confident the cross-country skiing community is unlikely to see again. Somehow I actually managed to finish.

Of course it wasn’t the performance I had hoped for, but I embraced the situation and was first in my own category and I was delighted.

This weekend I enjoyed the handicap races at the Serpentine and Tooting Bec, as well as a cheeky training session at Charlton Lido. Did I come first in any of the races? No. Did that matter? No. Was I training in the slow lane? Yes. Was I a bit p*ssed off that once again I found myself back at not quite square one with training? Yes. Overall did that really matter? No. Did I have wonderful conversations about the relationship of humans to water, film festivals, social change, bravado and winter swimming, the power of dogs and the importance of saunas for the human spirit? And was the water delicious? Yes.

It was all lovely and a big thank you to my unknowingly inspiring peers!

But back to those all important challenges… I am still hedging my bets over plans for the summer. There’s a fair few things pencilled in, but they all come with the asterix *subject to injury. Fingers crossed.

Happily, whatever happens, I, like everyone else, will be first in my own category.

The starting line up for the first heat of a Saturday Morning Serpentine Race. No-one has started swimming, but already everyone is first in their own category.

The starting line up for the first heat of a Saturday Morning Serpentine Race. No-one has started swimming, but already everyone is first in their own category.

 

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

Get in touch:

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

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!