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Swim London

According to the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA), 22% of women and 20% of men in England are unable to swim. Alice Gartland meets inspirational Swim London coach Harley Hicks, whose mission is to ‘rip those statistics apart’


Eighteen months ago Hicks was

asked by BBC TV presenter

and swimming world record

holder Ayo Akinwolere whether it would be possible to take a group of adults from being aquaphobic non-swimmers to completing their first mile in open water at the Great Manchester and Great London Swims.

“I don’t know” said Hicks, “Let’s try


From January to July 2015 Hicks

and his colleague Danielle Ballaram

ran weekly training sessions for

participants in the Swim Dem Crew

Swim Challenge, helping dissolve the

fear of water among participants

and leading to 12 completing

Great Swim events, including

one swimmer who went from

only being able to stand up in

the 0.8m deep children’s pool,

to completing a mile in Salford


Alongside the formal tuition

provided by Hicks, Swim Dem

Crew, a community of swimmers

focused on participation and trying to

encourage those who don’t normally

swim to get into the water, provided

the social side and mentoring for the


The Swim Dem Swim Challenge was well documented on social media, connecting with, and inspiring, a new audience for outdoor swimming and breaking through traditional parameters of a swimming club to create a swimming community.

“On the back of that, Swim London was created to target

adults who don’t have swimming as part of their family ritual, would like to learn to swim but have not had the chance to, or who’ve had a go in the past and it’s not worked out for whatever reason,” says Hicks.

The absence of the word ‘club’ is deliberate. “If it was a club, people would think they have to be able to swim to join, but this way people know that they can participate at any point.”

Swim London

Harley Hicks began his working life as an apprentice lifeguard with GLL in

2009 and designs and leads the project.

In summer 2016, Swim London got 225

people who didn’t swim participating

in 12-week learn to swim courses,

across six different centres in London –

Greenwich, Hackney, Waltham Forest,

Newham, Tower Hamlets, and the

Olympic Park.

The programme was funded by

Sport England and the GLA (Greater

London Authority) from community

engagement funding coming out of the

European Championships, held at the

London Aquatics Centre in May 2016,

and the courses culminated in a team

relay hosted by the London Aquatics

Centre in the Olympic pool, with

participants from each of the centres

competing against one another.

On the first course, the team relay

event was held during the London 2016

European Aquatics Championships – where the pool was set up in full

official competition mode, in front of a

crowd of family and friends.

Not only did the project teach 225

adults to swim, but 16 of those are now

qualified swimming teachers and will

be helping Harley to teach the next

batch of adult swimmers in 2017, and

introducing them to open water.

It’s a fantastic collective swimming

journey and in 2016 Hicks was the

ASA’s Swim Teacher of the Year for his

work with young adults from non-

traditional swimming backgrounds.


The course begins not in the pool, but

in the classroom, so that everyone can

share their experiences of swimming

in the past and the reasons behind

not being able to swim. As Hicks

describes, it’s “often because of negative

learning experiences as a child – being

introduced to swimming with a ‘just

throw them in’ approach and learn to swim environments that were very individual rather than social.”

Once in the pool, the first milestone is to be able to swim 25m with good technique, so that people are swimming efficiently. “It’s easier to build up stamina from that point,” says Hicks, and organised social events help build the supportive community both in and out of the pool.

Swim London Harley
Harley (left) at the Great Newham Swim


Transition to open water

The opportunity to try open water as

part of the course is introduced later

on, when swimmers have built up

their confidence. Swimmers try out

wetsuits and practise open water skills

like treading water before heading to

Hackney Reservoir.

Participants start by building up

to 80m swims from one pontoon to

another, and then venture out to the

full circuit.

As Hicks explains: “The contrast

with the pool can be really challenging.

The murkiness of the water can be very

unsettling and can impact on breathing

– those are the two things people

struggle with the most.”


By supporting participants to go on to

train as swim teachers, the programme

is not only helping to change statistics,

but also creating a legacy that helps

ensure the lasting impact of London

2012, the Aquatics Centre and


“My only limitation is fear” – CANDY HOANG, 39, SWIM WALTHAM FOREST

Swim London Candy

How did you hear about Swim


My younger sister introduced me to

the programme.

What motivated you to take part

in Swim London?

My 19-month-old little girl; I want to be there for my daughter, so that she can have fun and feel safe in the water.

What was your experience of

swimming before participating in

Swim London?

Twice in my life I have almost drowned. I have always had to use swimming aids and was previously too scared to swim in the deep end.

What did you learn on the Swim

London course?

I realised that my only limitation is

fear. Taking part in the programme

took me out of my comfort zone

and now I really enjoy being in the


How is Swim London different

to your previous experiences of

swimming lessons?

I’d had some very basic instruction

from friends, but never thought of

taking swimming lessons until now.

There were a lot of times when I

was doubtful of my ability, but with

the guidance and encouragement

of the instructors and other

participants, I learnt to believe in


What were the highs and what

were the lows during the course?

The low was my initial doubt in my

ability. Participating in the relay and my team (unexpectedly) winning was the real high point.

Please tell us about the relay

swim at the end of the course?

What did it mean to you?

Taking part in the relay was

tremendous fun and a test of my

abilities; winning was a bonus! I have

never won any medals or trophies in

my life and 2016 was my best year

for such achievements by far.

What impact has the Swim London

course had on your life?

I had felt I’d lost my direction in

life and all I could think about was

my little girl. However, because of her I was motivated to learn to swim and now I want to train as a teacher, so that I can help her to be safe in the water. Swim London and particularly the positive energy of my fellow participants has allowed me to find myself again.

Will you participate in open water

swimming in the summer and


Absolutely! I went to Australia a

few years ago and fell in love with

surfing and diving, but because of

my limited swimming ability back

then, I never thought I’d be able to give it a go. Taking part in openwater swimming will help give me the confidence to realise that dream.

What are your swimming ambitions now? 
I would like to continue improving my skills, and, more importantly, I want to contribute back to society, by passing my new-found skills onto others through teaching.

“There was no fear, just fun” – RENAY RICHARDSON, 32, SWIM HACKNEY

Swim London Renay

How did you hear about Swim


My housemate took part in the first

Swim Hackney group and highly

recommended it to me.

What motivated you to take part in

Swim London?

I’ve wanted to learn to swim for

years, but every time I tried to find a course, they were full. This was a chance for me to really get involved.

What was your experience of

swimming before participating in

Swim London?

I couldn’t really swim. I never went to

swimming pools in London.

What did you learn on the Swim

London course?

I learned how to swim! We learned

great technique and I feel like I swim

like a pro now! The goal of my course

was to swim 25m and by the end of

the 12 weeks I was able to swim 50m.

How is Swim London different

to your previous experiences of

swimming lessons?

There is a social side to Swim

London that I don’t think you get

from other courses. It was a very

supportive environment. The

instructors were with us in the water.

Having them there at your own level

is really important, particularly at the

beginning, when you feel like you’re

about to sink every couple of strokes.

What were the highs and what

were the lows during the course?

The big high for me was when my

breathing technique for front crawl

finally clicked. My low was not being

able to do breast stroke. I just find it

really hard – although some people say it’s the easiest of the strokes!

Please tell us about the relay swim

at the end of the course.

I took part in the final relay that

was held during the European

Championships. It was in the

Olympic pool and we were treated

like pros. There was no fear, just fun.

Not many people can say they’ve

taken part in an event like that, when

12 weeks before they couldn’t swim!

What impact has the Swim London

course had on your life?

I swim a mile three to four times a

week now. Sometimes when I swim

I think wow, can you believe just

months ago you couldn’t do this! It’s a way to keep fit, but also fun, so not like the gym. I’ve also made some great friends and done things like swimming in the Thames which is just not something I ever thought was possible – I don’t think there’s another course like it!

Did you participate in open

water swimming as a result of

the course? If so, what was the

progression like from pool to open


Yes, and pool and open water are

so different! I find swimming in

a wetsuit quite restrictive even

though it helps you float, so I chose

to do the Great Newham Swim

backstroke, which isn’t the usual


What advice do you have for

swimmers new to open water?

I’d say, don’t be afraid of not being

able to touch the floor as you forget

about that once you are in the water.

Use your favourite stroke and have

someone you trust swim with you.

Transition from pool to water: Hicks’s top tips

  • Work on technique over small distances and look to

    improve your stamina separately. Building stamina

    with poor technique can be detrimental to your

    overall stroke.

  • Work on sighting in the pool before you attempt your

    first open water swim. Effective sighting will keep

    you on track and stop you from swimming double the


  • Keep your wetsuit lubricated by allowing water in

    through the chest at the start of your swim.

  • Don’t panic at any point during the swim, the key to

    long distance swimming is to relax and find a rhythm.

  • Make sure you can swim 125% of your race distance

    in the pool before race day!

Swim London Participants


Participants in the Swim London scheme

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