On Monday this week, television celebrity Davina McCall swam across Windermere as part of a Sport Relief fundraising challenge. Her fear before the swim was palpable; her struggle to keep going during her swim, unbearable to watch; and her semi-conscious state as she was removed from the water, shocking. The fact that she struggled to breathe or to lift her arms out of the water are fairly normal responses for an inexperienced swimmer plunged into cold water and almost certainly could have been avoided with more training and preparation. Despite assurances from Davina’s team that she was fine and in no real danger, independent observers disagreed (see Dramatic end to Davina McCall’s swim stirs emotions among swimmers). Fortunately Davina recovered quickly and was soon on her bike.
But what will Davina’s drama do for her perception of open water swimming, and what will it do for the thousands of people who saw her carried from the lake?
On one hand this is a timely reminder of the risks in open water swimming, especially in extremely cold conditions. Even with a wetsuit, boots, gloves and neoprene hat you can still get very cold and hypothermic. A wetsuit is some protection against the cold but it doesn’t prevent all heat loss, nor does it stop cold water shock, which causes breathlessness and (in the unprepared) a sense of panic. With cold water swimming growing in popularity and increasing numbers of people swimming the same distance as Davina in colder water and without a wetsuit there’s a danger we become blasé about the risks. Don’t be.
On the other hand people could extrapolate from what they saw to conclude that all open water swimming is at best unpleasant, at worst extremely dangerous and requires superhuman abilities and mental resilience.
In our view, making your first open water swimming experience a winter one is a little foolish. Swimming in Windermere should be a wonderful and life-affirming experience. For most people it is. We wonder if Davina had any opportunity to savour the majestic surroundings and the beautiful, clear water. Did she, at any point in that swim, experience, notice and enjoy the electric tingle of fresh, cool water against her skin? Did she delight in the weightless calm that only swimming can give you? From what we saw, her experience was bad from beginning to end. Other people will have seen that and conclude open water swimming is not for them.
If you haven’t yet tried open water swimming, please prepare properly and consider when and where you first do it. Make sure it’s a positive experience that brings you back for more.
Davina, if you happen to read this, we would love to take you back to Windermere in the summer for a swim you’ll remember for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.