Thousands take to the open water for inaugural Swim Serpentine

If you apply the house-buying adage “location, location, location” to open water racing, then aquatic real estate doesn’t get more premium than the Serpentine lake in London’s Hyde Park. Home not only to one of the country’s oldest outdoor swimming clubs, the lake was also the venue for the open water marathon at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Its setting, slap-bang in one of London’s most beautiful parks, also makes it a pretty special and appealing swimming venue.

This weekend saw the inaugural Swim Serpentine festival take place over two days: the action was split between a mass participation one-mile swim on Saturday and the British Open Water Championships on Sunday, featuring para, elite and age group races.

Myself and H2Open founder Simon Griffiths were competing on both days (see Simon’s blog on his racing experience) as well as meeting swimmers and their supporters at our H2Open stand. Conditions were perfect for swimming outdoors, as the Indian summer continued and water temperatures reached a balmy 18 degrees Celsius. More than 4,000 swimmers signed up to the mass participation event on Saturday, many of whom were taking to the open water for the first time. It was encouraging to speak to so many first-timers who exited the water completely hooked on outdoor swimming. This was in part thanks to organisers London Marathon Events, who put on a slickly organised show that ran like clockwork on both days. 

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The atmosphere at the start line as the waves entered the water (one wave every half an hour) was fun, with music and banter from the MC keeping nerves at bay, and Olympic bronze medallist Cassie Patten offering last minute advice to swimmers. Team GB’s Jack Burnell was also on hand with advice and encouragement, as well as taking to the water himself to swim a leisurely mile where he chatted with competitors as they swam. Wetsuits were optional, which was popular with more experienced open water swimmers, but the published results did not differentiate between wetsuit and skins swimmers. Skins swimmers had to wear tow floats.

I decided to swim the one-mile breaststroke without wetsuit, something I have never done in a mass participation swim before. I apologise to anyone I may have inadvertently kicked! The course was a simple loop and very easy to follow with large buoys. On exit from the water, staff were on hand to help swimmers up the finish ramp if they so needed, to cheers from the packed grandstand. There were hot tubs and a sauna if you needed to warm up or just wanted a bit of a post-swim relax and chat. Goody bags included one of the biggest medals I have ever seen.

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After Saturday’s party atmosphere, Sunday was given to more serious swimming. A cool start to the morning, however, soon warmed up and we were again treated to unseasonably warm weather. The action started with two 1.6km para elite races, the first ever open water para swimming event in the UK. The first race saw 31-year-old Mike Goody, former RAF serviceman and an eight-time Invictus Games champion, touch in 20:49, over 1 minute 30 seconds ahead of the rest of the field. In the women’s para event, 14-year-old Danielle Hartin won her very first open water swim in 24:23.

In the elite 5km races it was a double victory for Germany, with Andreas Waschburger and Isabelle Haerle claiming victory in 54:52 and 57:41 respectively.

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The British Open Water Swimming Championships also featured 1.6k races for juniors and youths, followed by 3.3km age group masters races, which Simon and I also competed in. Simon did very well, winning his age group category, while I did very badly (which I put down to being ill – oh, and not doing any training might have had something to do with it!) However, despite my woeful placing, it was a really enjoyable swim in a beautiful setting with a great atmosphere.

Let’s hope Swim Serpentine returns next year. The infrastructure is all there for this to be a really successful and inclusive annual event that caters to both first-timer and experienced open water swimmers. The location in central London and the Olympic venue make it a great opportunity to introduce new people to outdoor swimming. 

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Jonathan is a year-round skins swimmer with a particular love of very cold water. He has competed in ice swimming competitions around the world. He is a qualified open water coach with a particular love of introducing new swimmers to the open water.