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Swimming for joy: Karen Pickering interview

Karen Pickering is best known as a pool-based 100m and 200m freestyle sprinter and for her impressive collection of 35 major championship medals and appearances in four consecutive Olympic Games. But unlike some other dedicated pool swimmers, she also loves the open water. This year she has become the ambassador for Human Race’s open water swim series. We caught up with Karen during a training day at Parliament Hill Lido.

Our first question, somewhat predictably, was: “how did you get into open water swimming?”
“I had a friend who was a rower who asked me to do the Henley Swim and try to beat the blokes,” says Karen. That was about eight or nine years ago shortly after she’d retired from competitive swimming.

“It was a great introduction to open water swimming,” she says. “Not only did I win but I received a trophy and a case of beer. It was so different to any swimming I’d done before. It was good fun and I loved swimming at sunrise.”
She enjoyed the event so much that she went back the following year and demonstrated she had truly got into the spirit of open water swimming by first attending a friend’s birthday party in Central London, changing out of party clothes in the car and driving through the night to make the 4:30 in the morning start time.
As a sprinter and pool swimmer Karen admits she finds the longer distances daunting.
“I did a 10k swim once – about three years ago – in the River Deben in Suffolk. I was all prepared with my energy gels and drinks for the break at the half-way point, but then one of the other swimmers cracked open a can of lager. You’ve got to love this aspect of open water swimming.”
In fact, Karen thinks open water swimming is the perfect way of maintaining her joy of being in the water.
“I’ve never had any interest in competitive masters swimming,” she explains, “so open water swimming is perfect. I’ve only ever had fun and pleasant experiences, and always with great people.”
We wondered whether she would have had more interest in open water during her competitive swimming career had it been an Olympic sport at the time.
“I don’t think so,” she admits. “I like the idea of racing in a lane to myself. I’ve seen some of those open water swimmers coming out with their backs ripped to shreds. It can be a bit violent! I’m also a bit of a southern wuss and I’m not a fan of cold water. I’d probably be OK once I got going. It’s getting in that’s the problem.”
That said, she did admit that one of her coaches told her she would have been a natural at open water with her fantastic sprint speed – she could have drafted for 9.9km and then raced away at the end. However, it was also the case that when Karen was swimming, open water was considered to be something to try if you weren’t making the pool team.
“Now it’s much more competitive and open water specialists are running things.”
So would she ever contemplate swimming the English Channel?
“It’s never appealed,” she says.
Nor does she have any other swim-related goals.
“Now I love that I can just swim because I enjoy it. I like that swimming is a joy. I don’t need to prove anything.”
Regarding her role as an ambassador for Human Race she says she was attracted to it because she is not known as an open water swimmer but she enjoys it and she’s had to learn a lot. She hopes other people can identify with that.
“Lots of people swim for fitness and for many these open water swims are a big challenge. There are lots of things you have to come to terms with in open water swimming but really it’s about setting goals and testing yourself. It’s about people like me.”
Karen Pickering creates bespoke swim programmes for swimmers of all ages and abilities, and these programmes are currently half-price through Human Race’s website.
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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.