Swimming outdoors changed my life

Angela Barnes Swim Story

Swimming outdoors helped comedian Angela Barnes combat her mental health issues


We did have swimming lessons at school, but as an expert getter-outter of any physical exertion, I think I only ever got in the water two or three times over my entire school career.

I’d been body-conscious for as long as I could remember. Even at primary school, getting changed for PE became a feat of contortionism and clever arrangement of clothing to ensure no part of my body ever be exposed. I don’t know what I was hiding, I can’t even remember what I thought was so wrong. As I got into my teens, it got worse. The thought of being seen in a swimming costume made me feel utterly sick. So, I just never got around to learning to swim. I never had a fear of the water; it was purely the fear of being judged on what I looked like.

Depression and anxiety

By the time I was in my twenties, I was pretty convinced I was a hideous monster. I became increasingly unwell with depression and anxiety and I ended up in hospital on several occasions.

Skip forward to my thirties and things were looking up. I was on the right medication, and benefitting from that thing that happens when you hit your thirties – you know, that thing where you suddenly stop giving a wotsit what anybody thinks about you any more. But I was putting on weight. I had to do something. On a whim, aged 37, I signed up for an adult swimming class at Crystal Palace Sports Centre

I almost bottled it on that first day – a 50m pool, with no shallow end? It felt utterly unconquerable, but Jill, my teacher, was so calm and encouraging, that I took to it like a duck to, well, water. By the end of my first lesson, I was swimming. Nothing mattered, nobody was watching me, nobody cared what I looked like. And something happened: in the water my brain switched off the negative thoughts and focussed on nothing but the stroke and breathing. By the end of that lesson, I had swum a 50m length without stopping. It turned out the ability was there all along. That moment changed my life

After four lessons, Jill suggested I sign up for my first swimathon, and three months after learning to swim, I did my first 1.5km. I was euphoric.

Looking for a lido

A few months later, I was working with fellow comedian Mark Thomas and we got onto the subject of swimming. He told me that his wife, Jenny Landreth, was a keen swimmer. “I have her Swimming London book, it’s brilliant!” I said. So he put me in touch with Jenny, and she took me on a chilly September morning to Tooting Bec Lido. I took the plunge, and it was incredible, as if I could feel the endorphins releasing into my bloodstream. Afterwards I was as high as a kite. There’s no feeling like being in the water feeling the open air around you. I swim in lidos as often as I can now. My kit is always in my car, so wherever I am gigging in the country, I’m looking for a lido.

It’s no exaggeration to say that swimming has saved me. My mental health has never been better, it is definitely no coincidence that I have dramatically reduced the amount of medication I am on since starting to swim outdoors regularly.
Next stop for me? Open water and wild swimming. I have been terrified of it, and have a fish phobia that doesn’t help, but I’m signed up for a course and determined to nail it. Watch out Britain’s rivers and lakes, here I come!


Angela Barnes recently completed Macmillan Cancer Support’s All Out Swim challenge. To take on a Macmillan swimming challenge of your own visit www.macmillan.org.uk/yourswim

01 Cover September

Issue 42 September 2020

  • Celebrating Challenges Overcome and Dreams Fulfilled
  • Pioneer Swims
  • Safe Sea Swimming
  • Reviewed: The Best Open Water Goggles
  • The Right to Swim? Examining Trespass Law

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