When I started a winter swimming group for newbies, I had no idea how it would pan out. As the winter season draws to a close, it seems that it has been more than I imagined.
Cold water adaptation through winter swimming has been one of the biggest revelations of my life. Sounds dramatic. But it has turned winter from a season of seemingly endless dark, dreary days that laid me low into something to enjoy. I hate the cold normally, but the tingling cold of the water is a tonic for mind, body and soul, kicking into touch my winter blues and life stresses.
Pass it on
This therapy is something I wanted to pass on to others. This and the camaraderie that comes from being part of a group. And so I started my winter warriors group at the end of September with the intention of giving people the confidence to swim through the winter.
It wasn't without difficulty. A couple of people questioned my judgement taking responsibility for new winter swimmers. And after someone was taken ill from the cold water at an event I attended, I questioned my own sanity.
Cold water swimming is risky. It puts a huge stress on our bodies. But if it's done safely, those risks can be reduced if not mitigated, and the benefits outweigh the risks. With a robust risk assessment, emergency action plan, health questionnaires for everyone who takes part and my knowledge and guidance, it's safer for swimmers to dip together in a controlled way than to try it by themselves.
Some winter warriors came to a few sessions before breaking off into small groups to swim in their own time. This makes me happy. It means that they got what they needed from my group and it gave them the confidence to go it alone. It's what I expected when I started the group.
But, it's what I didn't expect that makes me even happier. A core group have continued to join me on Mondays and Fridays, forming the loveliest, most bonded groups I've had the privilege to know. Some of us also swam as a relay team at an ice gala!
These people, all from very different backgrounds, are a wonderful example of how the winter swimming community pulls together and bonds over this slightly bonkers activity.
Highs and lows
We began the season swimming in water that was 14 degrees centigrade. Actually, as is the case with open water in the UK most of the year round, this was cold. But those who flinched getting in at 14 degrees have amazed themselves by swimming in water that dropped right down to a painfully cold 1.5 degrees.
I know that it has helped individuals with a variety of physical and mental health difficulties. It has also become a high point of many warriors' weeks.
We will continue to swim until the beginning of April, at which point we will break for the spring and summer before reconvening next September. As one swimmer said, "it's just dawned on me that winter won't last forever!" How wonderful to find a silver lining to the darkest months, and I'm delighted that Winter Warriors has panned out better than I could have hoped.
Huge thanks to MARLENS, the charity that looks after Clevedon Marine Lake, for their support with this group, and to my own winter swimming friends for their advice and encouragement. Central photo by Rich Johnson.