How an open water swimming club changed my life

Kate Madigan found joining an open water swimming club enabled her to achieve her swimming ambitions, and boosted her social life at the same time

Coming from the west of Scotland I practically grew up in the sea, but I hadn’t done any ‘formal’ open water swimming until summer 2013, when I started to swim once a week at Queenford Lakes in Oxfordshire. I’d never swum in a lake before, and although I was a bit unnerved by the less than perfect visibility and regularly convinced myself that a whole shoal of piranha fish were about to sink their greedy little fangs into my ankles, I loved it straight away and couldn’t wait for the next year, when I had the vague idea that I might like to train for a 5K.

Annoyingly, however, the imaginary carnivores turned out to be the least of my worries. Over the winter I developed a balance disorder. I started to get vertigo attacks; I fell over a few times, and every time I swam freestyle I felt dizzy and sick within a couple of lengths. And suddenly, completing that 5K felt massively important to me.

So I started to train. I worked on my dodgy freestyle. I sprinted myself stupid in an attempt to build fitness and stamina. And then I developed a chlorine allergy. I tried everything I could think of, but it got worse and worse until eventually I couldn’t get in the pool at all. From now on, all my training would have to be done in open water. 

Spring came, and I went back to the lake. I didn’t know many other swimmers because the chlorine issue had prevented me from joining my local triathlon or masters clubs, and I still hadn’t signed up for a 5K event because I never knew how my balance would be from one day to the next. So when Jeremy Laming and Katia Vastiau launched the Oxford open water club pilot at Queenford it was perfect for me.

I didn’t need to worry about a race date anymore. I was able to work my way through the club’s distance award scheme, and my 5K wristband, which I gained at the beginning of September, literally only comes off when I go to bed. I found a great swimming teacher, Adam Walker, through a club coaching event, and the transformation he’s brought about in my stroke, and my confidence, has been epic. And the club’s winter sessions on Sunday mornings mean that I won’t have to endure a six-month drought before I can get back in the water again.

I’ve met so many wonderful, kind, inspirational people. I’ve swum in places I’d never have heard of otherwise, from the sunset-tinged waters of the Thames at Hurley to the silky black depths of Lake Bala. And the best thing of all about the open water club is that it’s for everyone. It can be whatever you want it to be. From Channel swimmers to beginners aiming for their first triumphant 200m beneath an open sky, we root for one another and draw inspiration from each other’s achievements. The open water club hasn’t just been good for my swimming. It’s been good for my life. 

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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.