When her local swimming pool closed during the lockdowns in 2020, 16-year-old Jessika Robson didn’t despair – she turned to the open water
Jessika Robson, from Lisburn in Northern Ireland, has always loved being in the water. She joined her first swimming club at the age of six, and was soon taking part in local pool competitions.
When the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, Jessika, aged 14 at the time, found herself no longer able to access local swimming pools. As for many other young people during the pandemic, she was suddenly deprived of doing the one thing she loved.
Inspired by a surge of outdoor swimmers sharing their adventures on social media, Jessika turned to the open water. At first she went for short dips with her mum, before reaching out to her local open water group. It was while swimming with this community that Jessika developed a passion for the open water and started competing in events, including the Pickie to Pier Swim in Bangor. She recently completed her first solo swim in Carlingford Lough.
We caught up with Jessika, now aged 16, and her mum Kelly to find out more about her inspirational swimming journey.
Jessika, tell us about how you first got into swimming.
I lived in Cyprus until I was three, so I was always in the sea and the pools with my family. I can’t remember not loving the water – Mum said I had no fear. I joined my first swim club when I was six after having lessons for a few years. I was a really, really shy kid. Swimming definitely helped me overcome that. I loved being in a team and the atmosphere of the galas.
How did it feel to no longer be able to access swimming pools during the lockdowns?
Before the pools closed I was training up to around 18 hours a week with my club, Lisburn City Swimming Club. All of a sudden that stopped and I genuinely didn’t know what to do with myself. It was really hard. I missed the water so much.
What inspired you to try open water swimming?
I saw lots of people trying open water swimming on Instagram, saying it was good for mental health. So Mum and I decided to give it a go. I won’t lie, I didn’t like it initially because it was so cold, but after a while I really enjoyed it and wanted to go all the time. We just dipped to start with and messed around in the waves. My mum suggested I try swimming after a while and bought me a wetsuit. It felt great – more open and free and I loved it.
You then joined a local open water group – how did that go?
One of the groups Mum and I got in touch with was the Lough Neagh Monster Dunkers. Mum explained to them that I was desperate to swim, as just bobbing around with her wasn’t enough anymore. They invited me to come down to Oxford Island in Lough Neagh and meet one of their coaches, Dorothy Johnston.
Through Dorothy I met some incredible swimmers, including Chris Judge, who holds multiple world records, and Jordan Leckey, who at the time was training for his North Channel crossing. I spent hours and hours training with these guys and we had an absolute blast. It wasn’t long before I decided to ditch my wetsuit and swim skins, like Chris and Jordan. I definitely preferred it and soon realised I had a bit of a knack for it.
Tell us about some of the open water events you’ve taken part in.
My first open water competition with the Dunkers was the Pickie to Pier swim in Bangor in July 2021. It was 800m but I was so nervous! I ended up winning it overall and I’ll never forget the atmosphere at that race – that’s when I fell in love with racing open water.
That summer I competed in quite a few events, including the Battle of Carlingford Lough Swim, where Jordan asked me to be his support swimmer for his North Channel crossing.
How was it being Jordan’s support swimmer?
Jordan’s swim was amazing! We met at silly o’clock in the morning and the day just disappeared. I was allowed to swim with Jordan for three 1-hour slots but I only got to do two because he was too fast and we ran out of water!
There were rules that I wasn’t allowed to go in front of him or touch him so I was a bit worried about that, but it was great and we had so much fun. He went on to smash the world record – it was amazing to be part of it. I definitely decided that day that I wanted to do my own big challenge. With the help of Infinity Channel Swimming and my coach, we started planning it.
Tell us more about your big solo swim.
I swam from Victoria lock gates, down the length of Carlingford Lough and out to the Irish sea, finishing at the Helly Hunter Buoy. A total of 22.5km in 5 hours and 2 minutes, which is 56 minutes off the current record.
The weather was beautiful – my mum basically marinated me in suncream.
At first I was swimming against the tide but it felt OK because it was flat calm. For the middle part I was with the tide but the wind was against me, which caused a bit of chop. I had an amazing finish as it was back to being so calm, but it was slightly scary because the amount of jellyfish was unreal – I was dodging them for about 40 minutes. I only got stung twice though so it wasn’t too bad.
I’m so pleased with the time I got. When I was in the water, it just flew by and I didn’t realise the time I did it in until I got back on the boat and everyone was going mad.
Now that swimming pools have re-opened, are you using them again?
Yes, I went back as soon as the pools opened and managed to work out how both the pool and open water can work hand in hand. My pool training, especially during the winter months, has been a huge help. I still train with Lisburn City Swim Club, under head coach Stan Sheppard.
Kelly, you must be so proud of your daughter. How does it feel to watch her in the open water?
I am ridiculously proud of Jessika. She has such a quiet confidence and determination. She puts so much time into her swimming as well as studying for her GCSEs (she will find out the results next week). She just gets on with it, with such a wonderful attitude.
I love watching Jessika in the open water. Sometimes it’s terrifying, seeing her going off into the distance during an event or with her training buddies. Even with my trusty binoculars, I may not see her again for a while and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that! But seeing how happy she is doing what she clearly loves makes it all OK.
I was lucky enough to be on Jessika’s support boat for her Carlingford Lough swim. It was beautiful. She made it look effortless and finished with the biggest grin. I felt so privileged to watch it first hand.