This is a very important story, because it explains how a sporting adventure, satisfies curiosity and prompts a person to their next one. The hunger to do something worthwhile every day of my life leads me early December to Lake Windermere as a participant of the Big Chill Swim. An open water swimming race where no wetsuits are allowed; curious to discover what swimming in the heart of winter with only a cossie feels like. Some of us have a feeling for play that they’ve never lost, it’s fair to say this is my case and this is my winter swim game!
Before anything preparation is key to success, so I pack all the essentials: Sun cream factor: 50+, my snuggly bunny slippers and a must-have: the starfish swim goggles, after all the world looks so much prettier through yellow tinted glasses.
I reach my destination and notice people in dry-robes with their country flag proudly shown on their robes and swimming cups; Russia, Finland, Norway, Estonia, Germany; countries that breed tough people. No pressure- This is the moment when I suspect it might not be ‘just a race’ but something bigger. Turns out the Big Chill Swim is part of the International Winter Swimming World Cup.
An hour before my race I make my way to registration and collect my goodie bag. To avoid an ‘International’ embarrassment I spend a few minutes familiarising myself with the rules of Winter Swimming Association and the regulations of the World Cup.
The swim area is an outdoor made-up pool. Lanes are separated by ropes, and they are 30m long. Each lane has steps for both entry and exit.
Jumping in the water is not allowed.
Swimmers must start the race by submerging both shoulders underneath the water before the race starts.
Tumble turns are not allowed, touch turns only.
Competitors must leave the water immediately after the race.
The judges have a right to stop the swimmer’s race in case of suspecting the swim may result in a danger to his or her life.
Now that I’m more up to date with the rules I feel very optimistic, seriously what’s the worst that can happen? Death apparently-
The water temperature is 7.3 degrees. Most open water winter swimming participants describe this as ‘Mild’. They tell me this must be my lucky day as in previous years the temperature was a lot colder. My only experience so far has been racing in 15 degrees, so I feel very lucky indeed ;) My distance this morning is 120m competitive freestyle. Not a bad challenge for someone who´s not used to winter swimming.
Sharing laughter in stressful times is a powerful force, we can better cope with and view challenges in new light. Wrapped in a green beach towel and still wearing my trainers I take a seat next to a lady dressed in a red bathrobe and house slippers. We are surrounded by athletes who look the part; fancy ‘Dry-robes’, flip-flops. Ladies that appear to have done this before, a few too many times. Red-bathrobe-lady and I exchange a nervous glance and we chat about real-life dilemmas: to shave or not to shave? (the hair could keep a swimmer warm after all!) We laugh at each other’s amateur looks and exchange our theories of how to best survive this swim.
The time has come- We are asked to step outside and walk towards our lane. The wind blows causing the waves to shake the man-made floating swimming pool and making a loud noise. I stand there with the familiar feeling of anticipation of what follows next and naïve enough to think: ‘This might not be too bad after all. Look at the size of the lane; slightly bigger than a bathtub’. If ever there was wishful thinking, this was it!
A volunteer stands at the top and the bottom of each lane and some spread out across the sides of the pool. They’re dressed in a special outfit that allows them to jump in and rescue the competitors if things take a turn for the worse. I smile at the volunteer next to me and ask what his name is. ‘Jerry’ he replies. Never a better time for silly jokes, I continue: ‘You know Jerry, having thought this through I might call it a day and go home now’. Jerry is good sport and replies: ‘I think it’s too late for that now love, in you go!’
A man with a microphone commands: ‘Take off your clothes’. I place my jacket, towel and trainers slowly inside the basket hoping to buy myself some time. It’s pointless- ‘Get in the water’ is the next command. As I descend the ladder the water feels surprisingly warm and welcoming; only joking! It’s freezing cold and the tricky part is timing myself. Shall I enter quickly and go for a slow death while waiting for the rest to get their shoulders underneath the water? On the contrary the risk is I could be holding everyone else up, so I go for the first option.
‘On your marks’ announce the speakerphones and we get to the start position. We hold with one hand the Start Bar (a designated step of the ladder marked to assist us) and finally the claxon sounds, indicating the start of the race. I anticipate I’ll get a brain frost but I don’t, the first lap feels surprisingly good. I touch the end of the pool wall with one hand and happy to know I only have 3 more laps. As I progress with lap 2 I begin to recognise the distinct feeling of struggling for air, my lungs feel like they’ve suddenly shrunk to the size of a tangerine. This is the crucial point when I need both time and patience. Time to understand if this is pain or shock. If it is something I can work with or alarm bells; my body telling me it’s had enough? I count my strokes slowly and focus on my breathing, that’s how the remaining 3 laps happen. As I exit, relieved to be out, I make my way to the hard earned spot in the outdoors Jacuzzi, popular amongst the swimmers where all languages are spoken and the words ‘personal space’ do not exist. Red skin everywhere; strangers’ knees, shoulders and hands touch and all are feeling merry. No one complains, this is the fastest way to warm up. By the end of it we’re all friends :)
Having done this swim pleased me, as though I were saying ‘I can do this- Amazing!’ There is a whole new range of skills to be learned through open water winter swimming. Learning to work with cold without losing heart (quite literally!) considering tactics in order to survive, trusting when enough is enough and all this as part of learning how to live life, not read about it. The excitement and satisfaction of tolerating a swim at almost 7 degrees is enough for me to jump in the cold water once more that evening!
This time as a proud member of the ‘Arctic Seals’ (from the Chester Frosties swimming group). A mixed gender relay team, where each swimmer completes one width of the marina. We agree on our start order and again I’m on the man-made pool only this time surrounded by humans dressed as Christmas turkeys! There is a fancy dress race to help swimmers raise funds for charity. During this part of the race everything goes: Mankinis, Santa hats, reindeer horns, blinking noses and people swimming dressed as Christmas trees!
Our team didn’t win but we had fun sharing another moment of surviving triumph with each other. One thing was apparent, there are swimmers out there in equal amounts happy, crazy, enthusiastic and with a strong urge to do things. Living through our senses, through real play and sports. Finally lots of giggling followed when we were given our certificates which accidently congratulated the fully-fledged Arctic Eels relay team :)
The winter swim experience is a true revelation to me. A feel-good community environment where boasting about racing time isn’t well perceived; but having a good sense of humour is essential. A sport that welcomes all body shapes and sizes. In fact having at least 20% body fat proves helpful when tolerating lower temperatures. What’s there not to love about a sport whose training regime includes more cake indulging?
It’s always great catching up with friends and during sporting events of this kind, the nicest lot gets together. I caught up with Dianne Parrish, founder of #ChesterFrosties. Dianne asked after Athina and her generous comments were so touching I felt the need to share what she said:
'It's fantastic, all the stuff you do with Athina. Truly inspiring wish I'd had the same opportunities as a child, then I wouldn't have discovered Open Water swimming only 4 years ago. My bond was strong with my mum and I'd like to think in modern times, she too would have been an adventurer. We always enjoyed sea swimming as a family and our holidays were always based at the seaside in Cornwall and North Wales, but your expeditions and adventures are way out of this world! Athina is very lucky, her horizons will reach far and wide and you provide her with choices for her future. Well done to you both! I look forward to following your future adventures.’
I assured her the best is yet to be and that we’re full of brilliant ideas for exciting future adventures. Amongst others, in spring 2017 I return to Lake Windermere this time with Athina. We plan to canoe across the lake as part of our mission of canoeing some of UKs longest lakes.
That night I stayed in Derwentwater, Keswick. A beautiful mansion converted in a cheap and cheerful accomodation with incredible views. Very lucky to share room with a girl called Kiera from Lancashire who was going to climb Scafell Pike. We spoke extensively about our loved ones and our adventures until it was almost midnight. What stands out for me is Kiera’s independent spirit and clear thinking despite her young age. Her common sense, her passion for traveling and discovering the outdoors through sports sat very nicely with our own family values. Kiera spoke to me about her mothers’ illness and it became apparent to me that her mum had inspired her in many ways to become the beautiful and lively lady that she is.
We woke up early next morning each of us with a plan. Kiera was going climbing and I was in search of another great swimming spot. Apparently there were otters in Derwen water lake; sadly I didn’t see any. I was surprised to discovered a waterfall nearby. This is the beauty of going to places without expecting anything! As neither of us wanted to miss the sunrise we shared a quick breakfast and took our separate ways. There was memorable banter with a friendly member of staff: Pez.
-‘Are you the swimmer I heard about?’
-‘It depends what you’ve heard. But they tell me there is nothing quite like a frosty swim. I might go find out for myself at the lake down the road. You should try it out sometime’ I added.
-‘Yes of course’ he paused ‘You go first and I’ll catch you up in a minute.’
(Pez must have gone to a different lake because we never saw each other!)
Far from being shunned by open water winter swimming, I have now signed up for an even bigger challenge; how else will I learn about what I think I can do and what I can actually do? Early February I’m travelling to Scotland where the water temperature is expected to be somewhere between 0-4 degrees to swim 450m.
At long last, the weekend in the Lake District has been another great experience. Cold swims and warm hearts in equal amounts. In a world where the news bombard us daily with stories of personal suffering and violence, my weekend away makes me feel optimistic about the human kind and the world we live in.