Rowan Clarke heads to Loch Tay for her favourite winter swimming event
Telling people that you’re competing in a national championship never fails to make you feel like a serious athlete. People are seriously impressed.
But, within the winter swimming world, we know that community is what makes the Scottish Winter Swimming Championships (SWSC) such a special event.
Selling out within half-an-hour of releasing tickets, this International Winter Swimming Association (IWSA) backed event brought international winter swimmers to the Loch Tay in Perthshire for the fourth time.
Part of the attraction is the stunning location: a beautiful loch backed by snow-capped mountains in what has to be one of the UK’s most glorious regions. And then there’s the indominable Alice Goodridge’s vision and organisation assisted by Becca Harvey and their team from Swim Wild, and Leon Fryer’s Swim Your Swim safety support.
But it’s the intimate feel, the warmth of the atmosphere and the swim community’s vibrancy that really brings the SWSC to life.
The event kicks off on the Friday with the serious 450m endurance swimmers and ends on the Sunday with the ridiculous Anything Goes fancy-dress relay. It includes plenty of local swimmers, but also people from around the UK and beyond, including Belgium and Estonia.
Some hope to win a beautiful carved wooden medal and a bottle of local gin for being the most rapid swimmer of the day, and some just want to dress up as naked Marge Simpson and swim in their swimming heels.
Being in the latter category, I started the event on the Friday by seconding GB Ice Swimming champion Laura Nesbitt as she swam the 450m race (and hoping to taste the gin that she won).
As SWSC’s longest race, the 450m has Friday to itself. Competitors swim 18 lengths of the 25-metre course with a friend at the end to count their lengths and support their recovery afterwards.
After an evening of talks and socialising, Saturday morning began with winter swimming’s most iconic race, the 50-metre heads-up breaststroke. This race is as much about headwear as speed; while Olev Kooskora got the fastest time, the fabulous, home-crafted hats made this event quite the spectacle.
After a brief break while the breaststrokers enjoyed the venue’s HotBox, a gorgeous hut tub and sauna, the 50m freestyle races took off. There was no special headgear here, just IWSA-standard swimwear, hat, goggles and earplugs. You can’t even wear two silicone hats, as I was told by the lovely volunteers in the muster tent as I waited for my heat to start.
The freestyle race is simply about swimming two lengths of the marina as fast as you can.
But, testament to how inclusive winter swimming is, for some this was flat-out front crawl, and for others it was breaststroke to the cheers of spectators.
The fastest swimmer in this event was ice-swimming newcomer, Olympic silver-medallist Dan Wallace who swam 50m in a staggering 28.5 seconds.
A devastating blow
But this is where the 2023 Scottish Winter Swimming Championships abruptly ended. During the lunch break, a mechanical fault in Taymouth Marina’s septic tank caused raw sewage to leak into the marina where the races were taking place. Luckily, there were no swimmers in the water at the time and Leon Fryer’s safety crew responded quickly to contain the spillage as best they could and remove all their equipment from the marina to avoid contamination.
With the health of their swimmers as priority, Swim Wild had no choice but to cancel the remainder of the event. Alice and her team then worked flat out with the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), Scottish Water and public health to ensure that they understood the level of pollution.
“We were devastated that we had to cancel the second half of the Scottish Winter Swimming Championships,” said Alice. “It was a heart-breaking decision, especially for those who travelled so far to support the event and didn’t get the chance to swim.”
The incident was a sobering reminder of human impact on the environment. Like so many isolated rural areas in the UK, there’s no mains sewage. As holiday resorts like Taymouth Marina grow and develop, septic tanks can easily become overwhelmed, and, as in this case, suffer failures that cause harmful leaks.
From Swim Wild’s point of view, where they have already paid for the event infrastructure including portaloos, warming tents, the safety crew and hire of the venue, having to cancel an event is a devastating blow. But, such is the strength of the winter swimming community that the event’s swimmers arranged their own fancy-dress parade elsewhere and Bristol’s Almost Synchro team performed their routine to the crowd.
“Our reason for putting on this event is to bring the wonderful winter swimming community together – the event exists for the community,” said Alice. “So, we are incredibly grateful for all the kind words and support we received from within that community.”
Parading as naked Marge Simpson was my only hope for a medal and I was very sad that I didn’t get that opportunity. But, there’s always next year.
While disappointment and worry for the beautiful loch’s environment sullied this year’s event, the Scottish Winter Swimming Championships still found a way to express the strength and warmth of its wonderful cold water swimming community.'Underwater' page.