A few weeks ago we reported on a fund-raising swim in aid of the prostate cancer charity The Chestnut Appeal that we came across in Plymouth Sound, the swim was 2.5 miles in open water from the Breakwater to Tinside Lido. The fact that several of the swimmers appeared to be Silver Greys piqued our interest which led us to contact a group called Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimming and its very helpful co-ordinator Pauline Barker.
She enabled us to contact the swimmers in question, several of whom agreed to take part in an email interview regarding their various and differing approaches to this adventurous sport, which we report on below. She also introduced us to other Wild Swimmers, who had not taken part in this particular swim. Interestingly, Pauline told us that our request had opened up something of a can of worms amongst the Wild Swimmers, as, for some of them, age was not an issue through which they wanted to be categorised.
The interview is below but first an outline of what Wild Swimming is. According to Kari Furre (one of our interviewees), who helped research Kate Rew's iconic book Wild Swim which created Wild Swimming as an activity in its own right, Wild Swimming is a rebranding of what used to be known as "going for a swim" but which takes place in the natural environment rather than in swimming pools - in lakes, in the sea, in rivers and any other places Wild Swimmers can find to swim.
Taking part in the interview are:-
Mary Goodacre, age 62, a world-class age-group triathlete for whom Wild Swimming is a part of her sporting life.
Jo McCready, age 52, a rock/mountain climber for 24 years who took up swimming after the onset of osteo-arthritis 2years ago and became hooked on it.
Jackie Wills, age 54, a textile artist and life-long swimmer, who tries to swim every day outdoors - without a wet-suit!
Kari Furre, age 62, as well as being a designer and silversmith, is a teacher of swimming, has a holistic approach to the enjoyment of water and learning to swim and according to the Outdoor Swimming Society is their Muse and inspiration.
John Gourlay, age 58, served in the Royal Navy, was a competitive runner for 30 years, and has always been involved in keeping fit. He took up swimming after hip replacement surgery.
Rosie Barnfield, age 55, loves swimming and surfing and the physical and mental wellbeing she gets from them.
Lynne Roper, age 51, ex-RAF, now works in the NHS, has been an athlete all her life, loves outdoor activities and keeping fit - but won't train in gyms!
How long have you been wild swimming?
Mary As far as open water swimming goes, I started when I was very young.
Jo McC I've been swimming since September 2010 - I couldn't do front crawl then and had to learn.
Jackie Most of my life.
Kari Wild Swimming is a re-branding of 'going for a swim'. I helped research Kate Rew's book 'Wild Swim' so I suppose I have been doing it since it was invented! I have always liked long swims and remember swimming around a bay in Greece when I was about 13yrs old. It seemed a very long way, and I really liked doing it.
John I could always swim but was never very good at it. I then had some lessons and became hooked on it. Last year I started swimming in the sea as I found the pool busy at times and got a bit bored with doing the same thing.
Rosie We always went to the beach as a family when I was a child, so - ever since I can remember! Last year I discovered Devon Wild Swimming on Facebook and from there found out about Kari Furre. I went to some training sessions with her and decided to do more, longer sea swims with a group. I first swam round Burgh Island in October 2011.
Lynne Most of my life, but not as a specific activity until last year.
Had you done any sport before taking up Wild Swimming? Do you do any other sports?
Mary I started to do a little running and triathlon after turning 50. I got into triathlon because my middle son Peter took up the sport and I saw older women doing it. At 55yrs old I did my first Ironman and have completed 10 Ironman including 3 World Championships in Kona Hawaii.
Jo McC I'd been a climber for 24 years but found out that I had the onset of osteo-arthritis in 2010. This explained the hip pain I'd been suffering from after climbing. I was advised to take up swimming to help but once I'd started I decided to take it further. I have taken on endurance event swimming of 1.5km to 10km at the present time but I hope to go further.
Jackie No, apart from gentle cycling - non competitive.
Kari I did my first Marathon in 2007/8 in Tromso, the Midnight Sun marathon, and still run a bit; bit of Yoga, am interested in movement theory. I have just finished a full time degree, so the sport has fallen off a bit, the creative bit of my brain seems to be the bit that makes me want to swim or run, but as ever I have plans to get really fit again!!!!!!!
John I have been seriously involved in keep-fit since 1976. This started with weight/circuit training and then I discovered running. I was serving in the Royal Navy and it was not easy to follow a training programme on a ship rocking about at sea. I ran and competed seriously up until 2006. I discovered that I had arthritis in my left hip and had to stop. I had a full hip replacement in 2009. I continued with cycling, weight and core strength training - following the doctor's advice. No more running or impact exercise.
Rosie The only thing I’ve ever enjoyed is swimming. I’m not competitive. I liked dance and gym at school, and played tennis for fun occasionally. Now I surf (both stand-up and prone). We entered the World Bellyboard Championships at Chapel Porth last year and I was amazed to come third in the Junior section (under 60’s!)
Lynne Yes, always. I was born and grew up in Devon, and lived on the Atlantic coast so we were outdoors most of the time, walking on the moors or around the coast, biking, surfing on wooden belly boards and swimming. We used to slide down the dunes on our boards standing up. I was the Games Captain at school, taking part in every sport I could; throwing discus, netball player, hockey player and tennis player. I played tennis for the RAF, but various injuries meant I couldn't play as hard as I liked any more. I used to run a lot, though never competitively - just did it for fun and fitness, cross country, with my dogs! Currently, I do a lot of hill walking, swim outdoors (I hate the pool!) and do off-road mountain-biking.
What are the benefits to you, outside the sport, of the fitness you get from swimming?
Mary I love keeping fit as I feel young and it keeps me in shape. It was also great when my 6-year-old grandson said that he wants to win as many medals as Nana, and he always wants to run with me when he visits.
Jo McC There are so many benefits - where does one start? I lead high altitude treks amongst other things and the swimming has helped improve my lung capacity and overall endurance. Being coached has been fantastic - I coach and being on the other side of the fence has been great in terms of understanding others, being aware of the power of learning and the capacity to keep on learning that we have despite getting older. I do not adhere to the adage of new tricks, old dogs rather new tricks take a little longer but are not impossible.
Jackie . . . . need to be immersed in the elements. I always feel revitalised after a swim - even if it's just a quick dip.
Kari . . . worry about some of my friends whose health is failing already . . . I am a believer in the idea that there is no such disease as old age, and that you need to use your body and your mind. I hate it when I don't have time to go swimming. It always cheers me up.
John G I always found that taking some form of exercise helped when feeling low. It makes you more alert and improves sleep. My fitness aided the recovery from surgery. I was back at work within four weeks.
Rosie . . . love the fact that I can swim well – it gives me confidence (which I lack in life generally). About 10 years ago I decided I would like to learn to surf and I knew that I needed to get fit and the best way to be fit for surfing was to learn to swim properly. Surfing is something we all do as a family – my husband learned to surf at the same time as me, our son trained to be a pool lifeguard, then a beach lifeguard and our daughter is learning to surf too – we can all have a day out together! I also enjoy the feeling of being fit and having energy.
Lynne Incalculable! Swimming is a whole-body exercise so it gives me core strength and helps with flexibility. Much more importantly, swimming outdoors has helped me psychologically to deal with a dreadful period in my life where, among other things, I had breast cancer and lost a very dear friend.
What do you like/love about it?
Mary . . . swam the River Tamar when I was 8yrs old without a wet-suit, with my mother rubbing me down with lard to keep the cold out. It was a great thrill for me after so many years to do the breakwater swim and at Easter I swam around Burgh Island. I swim from Cawsands on Saturday and Wednesday mornings.
Jo McC Wild swimming, especially in the sea, is liberating and requires huge self confidence above all when swimming solo. It produces magical experiences. Rather than feel worried about being in water, tides and currents you feel more at one with the element. I already had a love of land, crags and mountains and now I've added rivers and seas to this - what more could one want?
Jackie Having joined Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimming I am meeting up with people of my age group who are inspiring and courageous, and who are giving me confidence to try more challenging swims.
Kari My swimming is part of my creative life, I really don't care for competitive events, far too stressful. I really like being in the middle of an estuary in a strong current swimming like an Olympian!
John G The Wild Swimmers welcome everyone and I have had lots of advice and encouragement from them.
Rosie . . . in the winter you plunge in quickly, no wetsuit, not allowing your brain to catch up with your body, trying to hide the fact that it’s cold. When your brain has finally caught up – it’s too late! You’re already in! The water can feel like smooth metal, or ice-cold velvet, or frozen feathers, or silver sparkles. You feel as if you are swimming in colours….
Lynne . . . love being immersed in the environment and being close to nature and the elements. I love being in wild water and the feeling of not being completely in control. I love swimming in heavy seas; sliding down moorland rivers over waterfalls; bobbing about in natural jacuzzis; sticking my head under cascades; bashing into rocks even! I love exploring places like sea-caves, places you can't see or get to unless you swim.
How do you prepare physically for the swim? Any other strength and stamina training?
Mary I train doing one of my sports most days.
Jo McC I train 3-4 times a week, not only to maintain a good level of fitness but because I've still got a way to go to have a rock solid technique I'm truly happy with. For instance, this winter will involve more technique training both self-coached and with the aid of one or two 'proper' coaches. Also, I try to visit the sea all year round to maintain acclimatisation for the spring to come, hence a Boxing Day visit to Thurlestone and the thundering waves!
Jackie I have arthritis in one knee so am limited as to what I can do. I just listen to my body and do what I can do. Sometimes I wish I could do more.......... I am not and never will be an athlete.
Kari I do some pool sessions, but as I teach people to swim, usually in pools, it is difficult to set to and do a training session.
John (He trains regularly) . . . .to prepare for the longer swims I have tea, toast, honey and a couple of bananas beforehand. I like to swim in trunks but as I don't have a lot of body fat I wear a wet-suit if I'm in the water for more than 45 minutes.
Rosie I swim frequently, and do a few yoga/Pilates stretches. For the Breakwater swim, I went to the pool for my weekly lessons and did stamina training with the instructor. I did the odd session in the pool where I trawled up and down for a mile. I’m not good at structured training – I do what I think my body/mind needs to do. Before the Breakwater swim I swam from Lostwithiel to Golant downriver with the tide (about 4 miles) so I knew I could do the time in the water. A week or so before the event I swam round Burgh Island (about a mile) so that I could cope with choppy water/currents. These swims were with Devon Wild Swimming – we also meet every Thursday evening to swim in the sea off Plymouth Hoe – whatever the weather!
Lynne I used to train for things, now I have an anti-training ethos which has come from wild swimming. If you look at the Outdoor Swimming Society, you see a lot of talk about training, 'feeding stations' and technique, and most of those swimmers are recreational. They are so wound up by the 'fitness' ethos they forget to enjoy the swimming, and it becomes purely a challenge in the sense of a fight rather than something you do for love and to enhance your life. They can't cope with the environment then, because it 'gets in the way' of their technique and they worry so much! You see people who worry about their diet and who wouldn't be seen dead eating processed food yamming gloopy chemical preparations for 'energy'. I do consciously keep physically fit, but by doing things I enjoy like walking, biking and a bit of yoga. I won't do lengths of a pool or go to the gym because I find it intensely boring and life's too short. I do long swims, some of which are physically and mentally challenging, and I've built up to them by swimming lots. The only exception to that was that I trained for a month for the Beach Lifeguard Qualification which I did in March - I had no idea whether I was fast enough for the timed swim, but was comfortably inside the time.
Diet and food?
Jo McC Diet-wise, I try to stay away from cholesterol products as much as I can but otherwise eat as well as I can. The energy requirements are huge - I'm always hungry!
Jackie (Says that) her diet hasn't changed since starting swimming.
Kari Diet and food! I still would like to be a size ten! Addicted to sugar, know the theories, try not to go mad, but know it is unlikely I will be a supermodel, or an Olympian; the exercise helps control appetite and depression, or maybe it is just unnatural not to be using your body and that is why you overeat and get depressed.
John I was a vegetarian for 16 years and found this helped to improve my running even more. I have been eating meat again for the past four years as I am borderline anaemic. I am fussy about what meat I eat, usually organic and British. My diet contains a lot of fruit and veg. My wife is a vegetarian and the bulk of my meals at home are vegetarian.
Rosie I try and eat well all the time, no fast food or takeaways, no coca cola, I find wheat makes me fat and bloated. Thankfully I’m not prone to being overweight, although I’ve put on a few pounds during the menopause. I don’t smoke, but my weaknesses are chocolate and red wine which I struggle to do without! Before a swim I eat oat-based cereal and a 9 bar (nuts seeds carob). The day before, I eat pasta and rice and eat a lot. (I found this out on Swim websites – I’m not very focussed about it all.)
Lynne I'm mostly veggie (with the odd fish) and I try to eat healthily most of the time. Again, I don't obsess about it, and I have periods where I eat junk.
How long do you imagine swimming for?
Mary I intend to keep doing this while I can which I hope will be for a very long time to come. At 60 years old I posted a couple of personal best times so slowing down is not in my plans at the present time.
Jo McC I hope to swim now until I cannot move - we have one life, so live it to the full.
Jackie I will always swim.
Kari I see no reason to stop swimming, I have seen quite a lot of people who have limited mobility on land who can only move independently in water. You swim with your body not your arms or your legs, I think it is a way of continuing being flexible without the problems of strength and balance needed on land. Often people just go to dip in the water, I have a friend a pilates teacher who is 68, she likes to get her spine cold! but is not too keen on getting her hair wet.
John It is my intention to keep taking exercise including outdoor swimming for as long as I can.
Rosie I plan to swim forever, and I hope there are beaches in Heaven.
Lynne Till I die, and I'd like to be sunk at sea when it's all over...
Anything else you'd like to say about doing this at the age you are, and why others should do it?
Mary I remember my grandmother as someone who cooked did housework then sat in a chair. I feel like I have had so many more opportunities through sport.
Jo McC Even as we get older we can still learn and certainly keep developing - this adds a certain richness to one's life and hopefully something that others especially the young can realise. It means we have more to offer and give - this I believe is a powerful message that our society has yet to fully grasp.
Jackie Just making the effort to join an event and jump in the sea or river gives a feeling of wellbeing and happiness. The people I am meeting in Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimming are inspiring and interesting, and confidence giving. We all share the same enthusiasm and are like minded. I feel elated and enriched after a swim and never never regret jumping in the sea, however cold, raining, windy and unappetising it looks. Embracing the natural elements - I cannot recommend it more.........
Kari I like to teach a broad water vocabulary, many people just swim front crawl, but can't dive or turn somersaults, or any of the fun stuff and consequently, their relationship with what the water contributes to swimming is limited. I aim to improve people's relationship with water, and most can swim faster and longer by doing far less work and letting the water help rather than hinder their progress. Interestingly it is the social networking that has really helped develop wild swimming, you can find out where other people are swimming . . . . I think that apart from the social networking, the other thing that has accelerated the sport is the availability of cheap swimming wet-suits.
Rosie It’s important to keep fit. Our dads both died young (in their 60’s) probably as a result of stressful work lives. My husband Paul and I both made a conscious decision after they died that we would enjoy ourselves now and not wait for ‘retirement’. I want to be able to play with my grandchildren (when they arrive) and still do all the things I did when I was younger.
Lynne I'm doing this because I'm still alive, and have always loved outdoor stuff. I need excitement, and know that if I stop doing this the condition of my body and mind will plummet. I work for the NHS, and see people younger than me who can barely move purely through poor lifestyle choices. Their idea of a day out is to go shopping. It's never too late, and you can swim regardless of how unfit you are. Fitness builds, it gives you a LIFE rather than an existence, and keeps you in a mostly positive frame of mind. I have friends of all ages whom I swim with and I think of myself as a swimmer, not as an 'old' person. I know my body isn't the same one I had at 25, but it's still working and doing pretty well as long as I listen to it and keep it moving.
Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimming - www.devonandcornwallwildswimming.co.uk
Kari Furre - swimclinic.squarespace.com
Jackie Wills - www.jackiewills.co.uk
Rosie Barnfield - www.paulacramanartist.co.uk/blog/
Lynne Roper - wildwomanswimming.wordpress.com
Outdoor Swimming Society - www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com