Creating the London Marathon of swimming

London Marathon Events, the company behind the famous London Marathon, launched Swim Serpentine in 2016. We caught up with Event Director Hugh Brasher to find out how he thought the event went, and what are his plans are for 2017 and beyond.

Where did Swim Serpentine 2016 meet or exceed your expectations, and where (if anywhere) did it fall short?

We were absolutely delighted with the 2016 event and so, it seems, were the swimmers. A huge number filled out our post-event survey and 98% of them rated it as either good or excellent, which is the highest for any event we’ve organised. The biggest complaint we had was that the post-swim hot tubs weren’t hot enough, so that’s something we will fix for 2017.

How did the demographics of the participants compare to your other events?

I think swimming is probably the most inclusive sport and we saw this in the data. We had a minimum age for the mile event of 16 and our youngest male swimmer was 16 years and 2 days while our youngest female swimmer was 16 years and 23 days. At the other end of the scale, our oldest woman participant was 78 while the oldest man was 71. Interestingly, 55% of participants were women, which is the highest percentage for any of our events.

We also looked at the number of people who were swimming in open water for the first time: 27% had never done it before and 24% had only started open water swimming to train for the event. That means than more than 50% of participants were new to open water and I really love that we’ve inspired so many people to swim outdoors.

In terms of where people came from, we had two from Australia, two from New Zealand and four from the US as well as many from across Europe and elsewhere.

What will you do differently in 2017?

As an event company, we’re renowned for our relentless attention to detail at events, so we’ve got a long list of mostly minor things that we want to improve. These include adding mirrors and more chairs to the changing rooms, moving the location of the acclimatisation area and improving the entry mat and ramp, which some people reported as being too steep.

We’re also going to add a half-mile wave (which will be open to younger age groups), a two-mile wave and something called the ‘Super Six’. This will give 60 people the opportunity to swim in the two-mile wave followed by four swims in one-mile waves giving a total of six miles.

As last year, there will be an elite race, but only over one mile, and the para swimming event, which was very popular.

One big change from last year is that we will be doing everything on one day rather than two.

Hugh New Copy

What are your participation targets for 2017 and beyond?

We’ve set ourselves a target of around 7,500 to 8,000 swimmers this year, which is just about double what we had in 2016. We won’t be repeating the ballot but we will be allowing swimmers to choose their waves.

Will it ever be as big as the London Marathon? It would be a tall order as that attracts 250,000 applications in just a few days for 40,000 places but we do want it to be seen as the equivalent of the London Marathon for swimming. We want it to be a desired thing to do, both in the UK and internationally.

Our goal is to develop the event year on year. Unfortunately, at the moment, we don’t have permission to take the event past 2017. However, the Royal Parks’ authorities loved the inclusiveness of the event, that its footprint was relatively small and it had minimal impact on other park users, so we’re hoping we’ll be allowed to continue!

From my perspective, the more people we can encourage to take part, the more people will be inspired to learn to swim and to gain experience of swimming outdoors, which could be a life-saving skill.

Did you take part or do you plan to in future?

I didn’t – but I’m definitely inspired. I loved the atmosphere on the day, the music, the excitement and seeing people after they’d swum. So, I’ve decided to start taking lessons and, yes, I will be taking part in 2017. Just don’t expect me to be very fast.

The London Marathon offers participants the full marathon distance and Ride London approximately replicates the road race from the 2012 Olympics, but Swim Serpentine is only one mile, not the 10k Olympic distance: why?

Primarily it’s to do with the time it would take and the number of people we could put through. It’s not the right thing for this event at the moment but it’s definitely not a case of never. As I said, we want this event to be the equivalent of the London Marathon for swimming and it will evolve  every year. The ‘Super Six’ that we’re introducing this year goes some way to addressing this.

Swim Serpentine takes place on Saturday 16 September 2017 and will feature mass participation events over ½ mile, one mile and two miles. Find out more and enter now at

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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.