Earlier today dramatic footage emerged of Davina McCall being carried from Windermere after a 1.5 mile swim in water of around six degrees. She appeared to have no control of her limbs and at one point looked to have lost consciousness. While some reports described her as exhausted her condition looked more like hypothermia.
Both McCall and her team indicated there was nothing to worry about. McCall says: “'I’m completely fine, I was just cold! I’ve warmed up now.” Her coach, Greg Whyte, who swam with her said: “It was very tough and very cold, but I can reassure people that she was safe throughout and never in any real danger.”
However, other observers were less sanguine. Dan Graham, who runs a swim holiday business (Gone Swimming) in North Wales and has extensive experience in aquatic safety and rescue believes McCall was in more danger than has been admitted.
“In the video, it is VERY clear that Davina McCall has a significantly altered (lowered) level of consciousness. She requires physical support for the entire duration of the video. I hesitate to say she was unconscious, because at 0:18 she actively lifts her right leg onto the step. Although, after viewing and reviewing in HD on a 28" screen, I believe she loses consciousness at about 0:26 after she realises she has made it to land. This would be in line with current science around circum-rescue collapse.
“Personally, I believe ‘safe’ would be when the swimmer has a sufficiently high level of consciousness that they are able to maintain their own airway for the duration of the swim. I do not believe that McCall was capable of this - evidenced by the support from the kayaker in the opening frames, and the ongoing support by the safety team.”
Nuala Moore, another experienced cold water swimmer who last summer took part in a swimming relay across the Bering Strait in similar temperatures (but without a wetsuit) was similarly concerned.
“Once she indicated that she needed assistance she is a casualty. As a casualty there SHOULD have been a plan in place to support her airways and to elevate her from the water, maybe using two buoyancy aids. It would have been a standard in-water rescue. Instead her head is tilted downward and she is being towed and supported in the water as a semi-conscious swimmer. At any point here she could have become unconscious, her epiglottis could have closed and she could have died.”
McCall clearly had to overcome significant fears about open water swimming and commentary on social media suggests swimmers recognise and applaud this but are concerned about the damage this high profile swim will do for a sport they love.
“Training for a cold water swim is a long and gradual process. Only those that train all winter should even attempt it. Although she was in a wet suit the acclimatization should take at the least four months, twice a week. This undermines all those that train hard,” says one swimmer.
Cold water swimming need not lead to having to be carried semi-conscious from the water but can be an exciting and challenging sport. Around 100 people have swum an Ice Mile, which is swimming a mile, without a wetsuit, in water of less than five degrees. It can be done, but needs significant training and preparation. Many more, such as members of London’s Serpentine Swimming Club enjoy shorter year-round outdoor swimming. The concern is that McCall was under-prepared for taking on this swim today and everyone who saw it is undoubtedly relieved that she was able to make such a rapid recovery and continue with her adventure.