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!

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.

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…

Beth French
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.

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.

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


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.


How far would you swim for a beer?

1.5km apparently…

At A Lotus Rises, we’re not afraid to put ourselves on the frontline to answer the very toughest questions in the world of open water swimming.

The Henley Club to Pub is 1.5k swim from Henley Rowing Club to the Angel on The Bridge pub. For the first 400m swimmers head upstream, then turn right around two buoys, taking them across to the other side of a little island and then downstream to the pub.


It’s a swim that has everything: Personal challenge, sustenance and kitchen utensils…

At the finish swimmers are rewarded with a bottle of commemorative ‘Two Bells’ beer, brewed especially for the event. The swimming medals are designed as bottle openers and you can pick up a Club to Pub coaster too – a stylish addition to any home décor.

The rewards of the Henley Club to Pub!
The rewards of the Henley Club to Pub!
Victoria Pendleton's favourite swimmer Helen Jenkins
Super swimming lotus Helen Dickins celebrates with a  well earned bottle of Two Bells!

There’s also a BBQ and DJ and you get to walk back to the rowing club in your swimming cossy whilst swilling beer. Standard procedure for a Saturday night out in Henley I am sure.

Enjoying a saturday night out in Henley

A real mix of swimmers took part – I met two young women for whom this was their first open water swim – and in skins – respect!

The race briefing was clear and also gave a helpful nudge for us all to consider the etiquette of a swim race start. I was particularly impressed with mine – having bumped into my mate Helen who I haven’t seen for 12 months, we managed to tread water and hug at the start line: Pretty sure that’s in chapter 42 of the advanced openwater swimming skills manual.

Helen swimming the Thames!
Helen swimming the Thames!

This swim is great fun and definitely worth repeating, only next time with  a greater emphasis on dancing at the finish.

Constructive feedback for the event organisers? The burger buns were a bit crumbly and probably need to be lightly toasted or replaced with a firmer alternative… You’re welcome.

Tom and Terry evaluating the Club to Pub burgers
Tom and Terry evaluating the Club to Pub burgers

Big thanks to Tom and Terry from Sussex Aardvarcks for inviting me to join their team!

Once more, 芙蓉出水 (fúróng chūshuǐ) Out of the water a Lotus Rises and this time we all won a beer, bottle opener and a coaster!

TEAM! Serious and focused on the objective ahead
TEAM! Serious and focused on the objective ahead



How To Feel Good [Nearly] Naked

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.

Post swim: messy hair, puffy eyes and feeling great!
Post swim: messy hair, puffy eyes and feeling great!

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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