Into the wild… the rise of open-water swimming
by Arlene Harris
There is nothing more inviting than crystal blue water shimmering in the midday sun - not a sight too often seen in Ireland.
While we may not have the warmest climate in the world, a growing number of brave souls are plunging our rivers, lakes and seas on a daily basis as the trend for open-water swimming rises. For most of us, the idea of jumping into a freezing cold lake at dawn would be akin to torture, but thousands of swimmers of all ages are doing just that in the hundreds of locations around the country which are suitable for what has become known as 'wild swimming'. Here, we meet some die-hard swimmers to find out what motivates them to jump out of bed and into the ocean.
Carolyn and Rachel Hayes are 27-year-old twins from Dublin. Carolyn is currently living and studying in Limerick while her sister is working as a solicitor in the capital. The girls were introduced to swimming by their dad, and with three older brothers, they had to work to keep up if they wanted to take part in the fun.
"I first swam open-water for fun as a kid in Sandyford and the Forty Foot," recalls Carolyn. "We were all water babies and would have literally been thrown into the sea. Having three big brothers also helped because if you couldn't swim to a cave or tread water to play ball, you weren't allowed in the game - it was tough love."
Her sister Rachel, who swims with Piranha Triathlon Club in Clontarf, also says she has been swimming all her life: "My parents are very relaxed in the water - we were in the deep end of the pool without arm bands when we were three," she says. "We swam competitively when we were young and I stopped for a while but I've been back in the water for almost a year now. I love open-water swimming because there's such freedom and no two days are the same.
"It can be amazing swimming in the sea when it's calm but there are also days when you don't know if you are over or under a wave as the swells are so big - it's a great challenge."
Carolyn, who trains with Killaloe Triathlon Club, says while jumping into the cold water can be difficult at times, the feeling afterwards makes it all worthwhile.
"Having the confidence to get into any water and know you can swim safely is one of the greatest things anyone can learn to do," she says. "It's also one of the few sports you can keep doing up to any age because of the low impact it has on the body. Sometimes I wonder what I am doing because I know it is going to be freezing and I'm not great with the cold, but once I dive in and start swimming, I'm always glad that I did and grateful that I can - it definitely provides the best start or end to a day."
Rachel agrees: "Sometimes I think it's madness, especially when the water is freezing and I can see seals or fish," she admits. "But always at the end of a swim, I'm really glad I've done it - even when it is Baltic."
Bernard McCullagh (25) from Tyrone has been swimming with the Omagh Triathlon Club for several years and says the appeal of open-water swimming is the beauty of the surroundings and the challenges involved with swimming in the wild.
"The appeal of open-water swimming is the freedom and the sense of accomplishment after a race," he says. "This is what first spurred my interest and after you've completed the first event, you want to compete again and improve your swim times the next time around.
"Also, the sights are much more interesting than anything you could see going up and down in the pool. I don't think there is really any other physical activity where you feel as though you're actually a part of nature."
Bernard swims in different locations all over the country and says it involves a lot more than the indoor equivalent.
"During the summer I would predominantly swim at Loughmacrory Lough - a beautiful lake in the hills of Tyrone, it's where I first really got into open-water swimming and it still remains my favourite location," he says. "This summer I took part in the Galway Aquathon national championships and it was some of the toughest conditions I have ever swam in - but it was hugely rewarding to have completed it.
"Open-water swimming is much more of a craft than pool swimming - it takes some time to develop the necessary skill set to swim effectively in open water so it takes some time to transition from the pool - but it's definitely worth it."
"There is very little appeal to open-water swimming at first, but the more you do it the more you realise the fun of it," she says. "I am a self-confessed poolie, but there's nothing better than the feeling of open-water in front of you and lots of scenery. Whether it's going around Sandycove Island, swimming point-to-point in Lough Derg or up the Blackwater River, no matter how many times you do it there's always something new.
"Although it appears to be a relatively lonely sport as you can't exactly yap away to the person beside you, there is great camaraderie at training sessions and events, with lots of tea and chats afterwards.
"I swim open-water twice a week in Twomilegate, Co Clare or Yoghalarra Bay, Co Tipperary. I've been out of my wetsuit since the end of June and the water has been great. It's a great way to stay fit, get out of the house for a few hours in the fresh air and for those who are competitive, it's a good way to challenge yourself."
Maeve Ryan (29) lives in Tipperary with her husband Martin. She has been open-water swimming for the past four years and trains with the Go Tri team and Nenagh Triathlon club. Although it is a solitary activity, she says there is great camaraderie after swims.
Stephan Teeling Lynch is the founder and head coach with Go Tri. The 32-year-old has two children with his partner Jennifer and while he has been swimming for most of his life, didn't get into open-water until he was 19 and hasn't looked back since.
"I grew up counting the tiles of my local pools, racing against the clock, friends, rivals and other clubs, until eventually that took its toll," he says. "I loved it, but it was costly and involved a lot of stress for my parents having to drive me about, so open-water meant re-finding the joy of swimming, new places to dip my toes and new sights and feelings.
"I go at least twice a week in various locations around Clare, sometimes for just 1km and sometimes 4km. It's great for mental health - it's like yoga for brave people as it's only you, your thoughts and the continuous movement of your body."
The triathlete admits to a dislike of cold water but says it's all worth it.
"I suffer with Raynaud's (lack of circulation due to cold) in my hands and feet and in general I'm just a wuss in the cold," he says. "So there are many mornings I question what I'm doing, but the coffee-fuelled drive to meet good company in great locations always answers the questions.
"Open-water freedom with a no-chlorine promise awaits and our club Shannon Masters will be hosting a swim memorial in the memory of a great local coach Sean O'Sullivan on September 6 - so if anyone wants to join us for training or fun, just get in touch."
Linda Uhlemann from Bray is 65 years old and swims in the sea every day with a small group of like-minded people. Married to Anthony, the retired nurse says that she doesn't need a wetsuit - even in winter.
"I grew up in Blackrock and spent most of my summers in the old Blackrock Baths which were filled from the sea and were unheated," she recalls. "When I was working as a nurse, I didn't have much time to swim, but now I am retired I can swim whenever I please and have replaced my early morning work with a swim - it has become a passion.
"My sister Deirdre, who is also retired, swims with me every morning, unless it is too dangerous or unsafe. I also swim with Les (who is nearly 80) and our group has grown to five people. During the summer months it's really beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable. However, sometimes in the middle of winter with frost or ice coating the stones I do question my sanity - but I feel so energised and alive when I get out of the sea that I know it's worth it."
Unlike many of Linda's younger counterparts, she doesn't wear a wetsuit and credits open-water swimming with her continued good health.
"We don't wear wetsuits even in winter," she says. "My only concession to the cold in winter is a pair of neoprene gloves. All of us are convinced that sea swimming is the best medicine for anything that ails us - be it coughs, colds, aches and pains, it can all be cured by a swim.
"To say that I love it is not an exaggeration. It has become an integral part of my health regime and my life."
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