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Henley Swim celebrates 15 years of open water swimming in the Thames

Henley Swim started, as these things tend to do, over a beer, when one person suggested a crazy idea and someone else said, “let’s do it!” That idea was to swim 2.1 miles up the Henley Regatta rowing course at 4:30 in the morning, just as it was getting light but before the rowers took to the water. In this interview, co-founder Tom Kean reflects on 15 years of growth and change since that life-changing evening in the pub.

Image: Tom Kean (left) and Jeremy Laming (right) with Henry Plewes and Vicky Cunningham, male and female winners of the 2018 Henley Classic at the prize giving ceremony at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley on 8 February 2019.

How did Henley Swim get to where it is today?

Passion and more passion! Who would have believed it, all those years ago when Jez Laming and myself (and our silent witness Andy Thomas!) had this stupid idea of swimming the Royal Regatta course in Henley, that I’d be here, trying to capture what has happened, 15 years later?

A lot has happened in that time, and yet in some respects nothing has changed. We are clearly older, and certainly much wiser, but happily we both still swim – lots.

It’s safe to say that the journey has been bumpy at times, testing our collective resolves, friendship and marriages; although happily both wives seem to be just as supportive now as they have ever been. Unpaid and often unnoticed, they have been there, and this above all else is the factor that has kept us going.

Tell us about the challenges you have faced

I often hear from the uninitiated how hard can it be to run events. Well, ask any person who runs events and they will all say that it’s really, really hard work. Surely each year is the same as the last, I hear you say? I can confirm that is not the case.

It was the third running of The Classic when, after some heavy rain, the river suddenly became this slightly ugly shade of grey and was running a bit too fast for comfort. As we reversed the direction for the first time (never since), it dawned on us that other people’s lives were literally in our hands. We had to do this properly or stop. We both devoted huge amounts of time and energy, often in the evenings and most weekends, to making this as safe and as enjoyable as we reasonably could.

The low point for all of us must be 2012 when heavy rains once again turned our placid bit of England into a Whirling Dervish – The Classic had to be called off just hours before its scheduled start time of 4.30am! Two weeks later and our newer event, The Mile, also had to be cancelled at the last minute. There are some pretty exclusive event T shirts kicking about for a swim that never happened. Various brave/hardy/foolish people swam anyway, unofficially, and the consensus was that we were definitely right to cancel.

Tell us about event day?

On the day it is sheer exhaustion that surprises people. Events need setting up and striking down. It’s the packing up that really kills though. We’ve often been up for well over 30 hours by the time the last swimmer has gone home, hopefully with a smile on their face. But it’s then that the really hard work starts. Physically and emotionally drained after the actual swimming has ended, we need to pack up and leave the venue in a better state than when we found it. When it’s time to go home, we can barely stand, and over the years I’ve learned to take the next day off work.

What do you think is the wider impact of open water swimming?

We are blessed with a great bit of river, and if we all swim in our rivers, lakes and seas it has to follow that they will all become cleaner. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy we think. Birds and fish do their business in the river, we all know that, but that is natural. What is not natural is uncontrolled discharges, or littering… anywhere. How can anyone these days deliberately pollute our waterways when they know for sure that swimmers are present? All of us, collectively, are the best way to make sure things become cleaner by joining the various open water clubs springing up, and by entering events, to give us a louder voice. And look out for clean water campaigns like our friends over at London Waterkeeper.

Find out more

Henley Swim are running four events in 2019: The Classic, The Mile (at the Outdoor Swimmer Henley Swim Festival), Club to Pub and the Thames Marathon. Full details on their website: henleyswim.com

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.