The modern era of open water swimming is generally recognised to have begun in 1810 when Lord Byron – the grandfather of open water swimming – swam across the Hellespont from Europe to Asia. In the UK it wasn't until 1875 that Captain Matthew Webb completed the first successful swim across the English Channel (a feat that wasn’t repeated for over 30 years). In 1896 the Olympics of the modern era, held in Athens, included several relatively short distance open water swims.
By the beginning of the 20th century things start to really take off, especially in the U.S., with open water swims taking place in Boston, New York and San Diego. It was also a great moment for open water swimming ladies as Gertrude Ederle, American swimming pro, became the first woman to successfully swim across the English channel in 1926 in a time of 14 and a half hours, smashing previous records by two hours! From the 1950s onwards more marathon open water swims, generally over 10km, became established all around the world developing into the circuit we have today which includes exotic locations such as Hawa’ii, Spain, New Zealand and Japan.
Nowadays in popular culture open water swimming is less niche than it used to be, as thousands of enthusiasts travels huge distances to compete in Ironman and half Ironman events. Popular figures such as David Walliams, who swam the English Channel in 2006 and the Strait of Gibraltar in 2008, have further helped to raise the profile of open water swimming.
Why open water swimming? For me the answer is simple. It’s different. While the rest of the class would get ready for school athletics, a select few of us would don our swimsuits and head to the local pool. On the weekends instead of competing with other schools on the track and field, we would be throwing ourselves into sub 160C water in Dover harbour. Like nearly all sports a great deal of mental strength is needed if you are to achieve your goals. In open water swimming however, your greatest competition is not those who may be swimming around you, but rather the water itself. The countless hours spent wet and cold, with only the voices inside your head for company, and the changeable conditions – incomparable to pool swimming – mean this sport is not for everyone. It will push you in ways you never expected and the suffering is great, but so too are the rewards, though perhaps not in the traditional sense. Sure there are records to be broken and prizes to be won, but open water swimming began as and remains a sport of non-professionals. Far from being a lightweight sport, open water swimming is as challenging as any other, perhaps even more so. Rarely do you meet such people, able to overcome such challenges and achieve so much, and yet remain so down to earth – without pretence or celebrity. Nor is there a greater sense of community as when open water swimmers come together, even though they may have never met and come from other ends of the world. It is this strong sense of community, rather than the promise of any reward, that has bred a culture of ‘giving back’ in open water swimming. In this sport it is the people that make it great.
Whether a English Channel aspirant or simply trying something new you can always find friendly and welcoming faces, every weekend on Dover beach from May onwards. There is also a wealth of useful information on the CS&PF and the CSA websites. Similarly the British Long Distance Swimming Association (www.bldsa.org.uk) have dozens of fun, organised swims for people to come and dip their toes.
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