FEATURES,  Readers' Swims

Frostbite Challenge: 12 outdoor swims over winter

School Chaplain Sami Watts shares her journey to open water swimming and her experience of taking on the Frostbite Challenge: 12 swims between November and February, where you can’t avoid the cold snaps. 

Organised by the Wiltshire Wild Swim Network, Frostbite Challenge invites swimmers to commit to 12 swims between 1 November and 28 February. Swimmers choose whether to take to the water in skins or with a wetsuit. The only rule is that you must complete at least one swim per month – so you can’t do them all when the water is warm!

Julie Harrington created the Frostbite Challenge in 2020, aiming to create a network where people could raise money for their own personal causes and chat with like-minded people to aid their mental health. Julie first swam through the winter after her son’s cancer diagnosis, finding that it helped her cope while enabling her to raise funds for cancer charity for children, CLIC. The challenge encourages people to set achievable goals and posts fun weekly challenges on its Facebook page.

School chaplain Sami Watts took on the challenge this winter, intending to raise £800 for two local youth work organisations in her area. We caught up with Sami 11 swims into the challenge… 

Please can you tell us more about your journey to open water swimming? 

From my earliest childhood, my family holidayed in Pembrokeshire, South Wales and I learnt to swim in the sea there. My mum was a teacher and we would go there for pretty much every holiday, so I grew up with a love of sea swimming, which has stayed with me.

Living in Buckinghamshire, sea swimming isn’t an option but a few years back I discovered a local lake, Westhorpe, was open in the summer months and so I started to swim regularly even when I was not on holiday. This year was the first year Westhorpe stayed open through the winter so I decided to try and keep on swimming.

What is the Frostbite Challenge and what makes it unique?

The Frostbite Challenge is organised by Wiltshire Wild Swimming Network. The challenge is to complete 12 swims between 1 November and 28 February. The length is up to you; but it has to be a swim, not just a quick dip. You must complete at least one swim in each month so that you can’t do them all in November when the weather is still relatively warm. Skins or wetsuit, it’s up to you. There are a few other options, but that’s the basis of it. I thought it sounded sufficiently challenging to stretch me, but also achievable.  

Please can you tell us about the swims you have done so far – about your highlights and any unexpected challenges. 

I have completed 11 out of 12, so I am nearly there. A highlight was the day I swam in the Thames with a friend and we spotted a kingfisher; you’d never see that in a leisure centre. My worst experience was the one day in mid-December when I decided to wear my wetsuit. I’d been unwell, so I thought it would help. Whereas, for me, it meant I wasn’t as aware of my body’s response to the cold water. I stayed in too long, and then felt really faint and sick afterwards. I have stuck with skins ever since. I don’t swim very far or for very long, but I can gauge what is right for me.  

Is there a community around the Frostbite challenge – have you met like-minded people?

There’s a really good Facebook group where people share photos and experiences. That’s been really inspiring, especially when people have gone ice swimming, or swimming in unusual places. Because I’m not in Wiltshire, I haven’t met up with any of them in real life. However, the local swimming communities where I live are always super friendly and I find it a very easy atmosphere socially. 

Are you planning anything special for your final swim?

Although officially I only need to do one more swim, I have two planned. One in the Thames next week and one in the sea in Pembrokeshire as I will be there in half term. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to persade some of my family to join me for the sea swim, but we will see about that! I can’t wait. 

How does it make you feel to swim outdoors, particularly in the winter?

I love it. I am a ‘heads-up-breastroke’ kind of swimmer and I love being out in nature, even when it is bleak, cold and grey. The quietness, watching the sky, the birds, and being in such cold water is very life affirming and I always feel amazing afterwards – completely alive.

Please can you tell us a little about your role as a School Chaplain?

I work part time in a girls’ school. The role is quite varied, including leading chapel services, teaching a little bit of Religious Studies, running clubs, supporting staff and some pastoral work with students. 

I imagine supporting pupils’ mental health is a strong element of what you do – please can you tell us about your thoughts on outdoor swimming and the benefits it can have for mental wellbeing?

Mental Health is such a big issue for our young people, and I see some of the challenges they face every day, both in school, but also in my own family and in my local church and community. I’ve encouraged my daughter to get into cold water swimming and I can see that it lifts her. I also see the good effects on my own mental health and wellbeing. It’s such an all-consuming experience, I think it causes other issues to recede, at least for a while. 

Finally, please can you tell us about the organisations you’re fundraising for and why they are important to you. 

Both my causes are youth and children related, and local to where I live in Marlow. The first is for my local church, the Lantern, raising funding to employ a part time children’s and families worker. The second is a local Christian holiday club, Lighthouse, which gives great provision for a free week of fun activities led by volunteers. Both of these causes seek to bring a positive message of peace, hope and light into the challenges faced by children and young people. So far I’ve raised about £1,300, which is amazing. 

Find out more about the Frostbite Challenge, and read more about Sami’s fundraising efforts. Read more Readers’ Swims.

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Jo is the Gear Editor for Outdoor Swimmer and also writes news and features for the website. A keen open water swimmer and long-distance walker, she loves seeking out lakes and lidos close to her home in the Mendip Hills, Somerset. She is the author of The Slow Traveller, editor and founder of independent magazine, Ernest, and has previously tested outdoor clothing and kit for BBC Countryfile Magazine, BBC Focus and Ernest Journal.