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They are all mad in Doncaster

Sarah Hicks underwent a swimming conversion in South Yorkshire

On a warm Friday in July last year I travelled a nightmare 9 ½ hours on gridlocked motorways from Pembrokeshire to Yorkshire. I was enrolled on the first ever STA Level 2 Award in Open Water Swimming Coaching qualification course at Hatfield Outdoor Activity Centre in Doncaster.

Now, I admit to not knowing the north of England very well, but I did wonder why a landlocked area of Yorkshire was holding such a prestigious event. That was, until I got to the venue. Hatfield Outdoor Activity Centre is renowned for Ice Miles (swimming a mile in water of 5 degrees Celsius or less. In only a swimming costume and thin hat. For fun). Piers Morgan was once quoted as saying: ‘They are all mad in Doncaster.’ I had to agree with him!

There were eight of us gathered in the classroom overlooking Hatfield Lake. Leon Fryer was our inspiring course tutor. His introductions began and to my amazement most of the attendees were successful Channel, marathon or Ice Mile swimmers. I have a background as a club swim coach but the maximum distance I had swum before was 5km, in a wetsuit, in 14 degree water at its lowest. I suddenly felt very insignificant. I sat for the next hour in awe listening to my comrades sharing their extreme experiences, thinking: ‘Still with Piers!’

Introductions over and we get down to business. Armed with my wetsuit, two hats and a new found fear of showing myself up I trundled off to the changing rooms. Eventually and suitably rubber clad, I make my way to the lakeside. I am greeted by my fellow coaches and not one of them is wearing a wetsuit.

“The water is 20 degrees,” says Leon. It was at this point that doubt started to creep in. The water where I swim is usually a maximum of 17 degrees. Do I ditch the wetsuit? But my comrades are all experienced distance swimmers so my wetsuit at least gives me improved speed to possibly keep up with them. So I decide the wetsuit stays on, for the moment anyway…

I don my Tenby Penguins club hat and unmajestically enter the water, slipping on mud and tripping over pond weed until I am fully submerged. Next challenge: swim two laps around four yellow buoys. The first lap went well but I definitely felt the unusual warmth of the water – I actually felt I was sweating!

At the end of the lap we gather like foals who have been given the freedom of an open meadow for the first time. There is excitement, laughter and chatter. This is where I made my first ‘mistake’. I mistakenly mentioned how warm the water was and within a minute I was removing the security of my wetsuit to the delight and cheers of my new friends. And so the second lap began with the new experience of feeling cool water prickling on my skin. What a gem I suddenly discovered in skins swimming! The wetsuit was dried and put back in the car for the remainder of the course. So, with my eyes fully opened, my skins journey began.

Sarah Hicks Image 2

This image: Sarah’s first skins open water event; main image: Sarah sea swimming in Tenby with Tenby Penguins Open Water Swimming Club.

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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.