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From Olympic trials to the Thames: finding a new direction in swimming

After taking part in the Rio Olympic trials I retired from competitive swimming, but I wasn’t done with the sport. I did, however, need a different type of swimming challenge. By chance, my dad suggested I join him and a friend to swim across Lake Geneva from Lausanne on the Swiss side to Evian les Bains in France, raising money for the clean drinking water charity ‘Just a Drop’. The challenge opened my eyes to the exciting world of open water swimming.

Then, in 2018, I spent three months working as a swim guide for Strel Swimming in the beautiful Croatian Islands. I was fortunate to work alongside long distance swimming legend Martin Strel, and his son Borut. I met so many passionate open water swimmers that it inspired me to plan my own marathon swim challenge. But before I could attempt this, I wanted to know what my baseline long distance swimming capacity was. In other words, what could I do, as a pool specialist (400m freestyle), without a lot of specific long distance training?

To find out, I set myself the goal of swimming the same distance as the English Channel in the River Thames – 24 miles from Henley to Windsor, which I attempted on Friday 13 September 2019.

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My day started at 7:30am on a quiet river bank next to Henley Bridge, the wind was light and the September sun was just peaking over the old buildings and illuminating the river: enticing conditions for any open water swimmer. My dad was pumping up the inflatable support kayak, which he would go on to paddle the entire length of the swim – an impressive feat in itself! After a few photos under the 18th century bridge, I took the first few strokes of the 25,000 I’d need to reach Windsor. My swim started well. Apart from a few close calls with the rowers, progress to Hambleden lock was smooth and fast. We completed the first 4km in 52 minutes.

After a quick drink I was back in the water, with my sights set on Hurley village. The 6km straight from Hambleden to Hurley Lock is incredibly scenic, and includes numerous shallow bays perfect for picnics, but we weren’t stopping. There was also very little boat traffic in this section. Hurley lock represented the 10km mark, which I reached 2 hours 10 minutes after departing from Henley. From here it’s another 4km stretch to the picturesque town of Marlow, which is where the Thames Marathon (Henley Bridge to Marlow Bridge) ends. At Marlow Lock I started to feel a little light headed and fatigued, and began to understand two of the big battles in long distance swimming that must be managed for success: hydration and calorie intake. As I was swimming in a wetsuit I at least avoided that third big battle with the cold.

Having replenished myself with bananas, flapjack and plenty of fluid I felt like a new swimmer along the 7km stretch from Marlow to Cookham. At Cookham I had completed 21km and was over the half-way mark. The first 3km from Cookham Lock towards Boulters felt very wild. The densely forested riverbank rises steeply and towers over the Thames. A pair of red kites stalk us along this section of river. I reached Maidenhead bridge after 26 km and 6 hours of swimming. This landmark was twice as far as I had ever swum before and my back and triceps were starting to pay the price. At this point I had moved onto using Jelly Babies as an immediate source of carbohydrate, hoping the sugar would help power me to Windsor.

The final 11km from Maidenhead to Windsor were some of the toughest miles I’ve ever swum. I made a conscious effort to focus on maintaining my distance per stroke and rotation, which helped the miles start to fall down. Finally, after 38km, 9,000 calories, eight bananas, five pieces of flapjack and a packet of Jelly Babies, I rounded a bend in the river to see Windsor Castle glowing in the evening sun. I reached Windsor and Eton bridge after 9 hours 30 minutes of swimming, a big contrast to the sub 4-minute event I used to do in the pool!

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This challenge has shown me that your body is an amazing engine that can take you further than your mind will ever perceive possible. Not only did the challenge allow me to explore some incredible sections of the Thames, it has also motivated me to extend my future goals in the world of open water swimming. I encourage anyone to set themselves a swimming challenge beyond what you think you can do, as you will be surprised at where your body can take you.

Please look me up on Instagram (georgetaplinn) and keep an eye out for my next big swimming challenge.

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Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.