Swimmer with motor neurone disease completes cold-water challenge

Alex Francis, swam in 9-degree water to raise nearly £5,000 for the MND Association

Despite being unable to walk, Alex Francis, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) in spring 2019, completed a 350-metre lap of outdoor swimming venue Vobster Quay in just over 23 minutes.

“The toughest part of the challenge today was deciding to go for it,” said Alex. “It’s probably 10 months since I swam anything like that far and my disease has progressed in that time, so I didn’t really know what was achievable.”

Alongside the physical challenge, cold water and air temperatures were an added concern. “It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and not notice how cold I’m getting,” said Alex, “plus my support team are not moving fast enough to keep warm, so we have to keep an eye on each other.”

Previously a keen runner, swimming soon became Alex’s only option for outdoor exercise. “The water came to mean freedom of movement,” he said.

Alex Francis 1

Aided by swim coach Richard Smith, Alex learnt front crawl at Vobster Quay. “Coaching Alex has been an absolute privilege,” said Richard. “He is so inspiring, and his dogged determination has meant that I have been able to set him goals like this Chilly Challenge, and he has set out on a mission to smash them.”

Swimming through winter last year, Alex learnt to embrace the cold: “I’ve come to love the cycle of preparing for the cold, accepting the shock, relaxing into it, feeling it in my limbs,” he said. “And, of course, leaving it behind to get warm again. It’s addictive and I feel sorry for those who will never realise how good it can be!”

During lockdown, with swimming venues closed, Alex lost strength and mobility. When Vobster reopened, Alex was limited to a restricted backstroke, making last weekend’s swim challenge even more of an achievement.

“I was really happy to make the distance, but more than that I was blown away by how much support there was for the event,” said Alex. “Other swimmers taking part wore white swim hats and there were a lot of them, all smiling and excited to take part. I heard from a number of swimmers on the day that they’d been inspired to swim in the cold water because of my challenge.”

Alex Francis2

Alex has had a positive effect on the local swimming community and beyond, said Richard: “It has massively lifted people in what has been a very challenging year.”

“It means a great deal to me to move people and to raise funds for the MND Association,” said Alex.

A documentary about Alex’s journey with MND is in production and will be released in 2021. “We hope it will both raise awareness and inspire many others,” said Richard, who is keen to promote more research into the benefits of cold-water hydrotherapy for those living with MND.

Click here to support Alex and the MND Association.

Stay up to date with The Dip, our free weekly outdoor swimming newsletter.

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.