Creating A Splash

Women are discovering the benefits of swimming outdoors for their health and mental wellbeing. A new gallery of portraits by Nikki McClarron for WaterAid celebrates those who are taking the plunge

By Sian Lewis

Photography by Nikki McClarron

What’s your reason for swimming? For Debbie Croydon, it’s to ‘feel free’. For Jojo O’Brien, it’s to ‘calm my mind’. For other female swimmers across the UK, outdoor swimming provides purpose, a health boost, new friendships or just a way to get through the world post-pandemic.

Charity WaterAid’s new series of portraits of female swimmers, ‘Reasons to Swim’, aims to capture women in the places where they find solace in cold water. From city lidos to shingle beaches, London-based photographer Nikki McClarron’s intimate portraits of four women celebrate the role that open water plays in their lives and in their mental and physical health, and also draw attention to the work of WaterAid, a charity providing clean water and better hygiene across the world.

Debbie Croydon (L): “I wanted to get women learning to swim and into open water.”

Charlie Hall, picture editor for WaterAid, commissioned Nikki to create the series of film portraits. “The ‘Reasons to Swim’ gallery was born out of the development of WaterAid’s very own virtual swim event, the Swim Marathon. We recognised that so many of our swimmers had extraordinary stories, reasons why they chose to get involved in the challenge. ‘Reasons to Swim’ celebrates the power of water and the role it plays in the lives of swimmers.

Through intimate portraits and stories of people from across the UK, we wanted to explore how water can help us heal, stay physically and mentally fit, offer us a purpose or freedom, help form community and challenge the status quo. We recognised the synergy between this power, and the power that access to water has for people across the globe. One in ten people around the world still do not have clean drinking water close to home, which impacts on their health, their education and livelihoods.”

“Open water cold swimming is a great way to calm the mind – it’s relaxing and it gives you a sense of freedom that makes you forget where you are.”

FREEDOM

Laurie Firth: "After an hour in the pool, I feel like I’ve really worked all areas of my body."

For some of the photographed women, swimming is also about creating a community and improving diversity in the water. Londoners Audrey Livingston, 57, and Debbie Croydon, 60, founded Soul Swimmers (https://soulswimmers.co.uk/, https://www.instagram.com/soulswimmers.uk), a community of female swimmers from Black and Asian communities bound together by a passion for wild swimming, in 2020. The group came about after the two women noticed a lack of Black and Asian women in swimming (according to Sport England, 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children in England do not swim at all.) Debbie says: “We often talked about how there were too few of us in sports such as triathlon and swimming, but that is changing, thank goodness! My idea was to set up a swim group for women like us. I wanted to get women learning to swim and into open water.”

Audrey has her reasons to swim. “I swim to keep fit physically and mentally. Open water cold swimming is a great way to calm the mind – it’s relaxing and it gives you a sense of freedom that makes you forget where you are.” Soul Swimmers’ weekly meet-ups at the West Reservoir Centre in Hackney will restart this autumn and are open for Asian and Black women to join the group for a swim or just for a chat, and to find out about getting into open water swimming. “We’re also planning something special for next year!” adds Debbie.

Audrey Livingston: “I swim to keep fit physically and mentally.”

For other women in the ‘Reasons to Swim’ series, outdoor swimming can have a healing power. When a foot injury forced Jojo O’Brien, 37, photographed at North Sands Beach in Devon, to step back from work as a ski instructor, she turned to swimming in the ocean to lift her mood. “I live by the sea, so open-water swimming was always a no-brainer. When I injured my foot, it left me experiencing a bit of a loss of identity because I couldn’t continue my usual levels of activity. I was also single at the time, so it was a double whammy of feeling sad. Swimming offered me a form of escapism and a sense of purpose.”

“Swimming in open water is so much more than just swimming,” adds Jojo. “It transports you away from your problems. They literally wash away, even if only temporarily. Every time I come out of the water, I feel better for it. It leaves me calmer, and gives me better coping mechanisms. Time in the water is a window of opportunity to give yourself time and come back and face problems with a clearer mind.”

Jojo O'Brien: “Swimming offered me a form of escapism and a sense of purpose.”

HEALING

Jojo O'Brien: “Every time I come out of the water, I feel better for it. It leaves me calmer, and gives me better coping mechanisms.”

Laurie Firth, 38, photographed at London Fields Lido, finds swimming a wonderful way to connect with nature even while living in the capital. “I’d always loved swimming in the sea and would get in at any opportunity, but the lure of a cold swim became even more poignant when I moved to the city. I swim outdoors in London – in lidos and ponds – and I think being outdoors while swimming is key. I’ve been living in Hackney for the last 12 years, and I mostly swim in London Fields Lido, although I also love to swim in the Hampstead Ladies Ponds for more of a connection to nature. Just being able to look up at the sky or be under the sun – even if you are not directly surrounded by trees, as is often the case in lidos – being outside really connects you to the freshness of the air and puts a spring in your step. I especially love and feel the need for this connection to the outdoors in the winter months – feeling the hit of the cold water is a real reminder of how we are a part of nature, and that it is not something apart from us.”

Laurie also realised how much of a community she’d found in the water when her local lido was forced to close during the pandemic. “When the lido reopened this year, I realised it was the community as much as the swimming that had been absent from my life. Swimming is such a bonding activity. It doesn’t matter if people are at very different levels in terms of strength and speed . Just standing in the shallows or the showers and talking pre- or post-swim is as important as the swim itself.”

Nikki’s images of these four women are both inspiring and calming to look at, their dreamy quality brought about by shooting on a film camera. Charlie explains why she chose Nikki McClarron for the commission: “Much of Nikki’s work is set in nature, and the elements become not just an aesthetic choice but a thematic area of exploration within her work. There’s an empowering stillness to her images, which we were keen to bring to the portraits of the swimmers. For many swimmers, their reason to swim is to create a sense of calm within themselves, so it felt natural for us to try and find a stillness in the images.”

Laurie Firth: “Feeling the hit of the cold water is a real reminder of how we are a part of nature, and that it is not something apart from us.”

The ‘Reasons to Swim’ portraits will inspire you to take to the water yourself. So what would the featured women say to anyone who wants to dip their toe – literally – into the world of outdoor swimming? Laurie: “I would suggest investing in some lessons – it’s really important to slowly build up your confidence in the water. I would then advise going with a friend if you know someone who has been swimming for a while, or finding a group of women in your local area. There are lots of swim groups aimed at women these days.”

Debbie reckons anyone can learn to love swimming. “The best place to start is to have either swimming lessons at your local pool or coached sessions at a registered open-water venue. I got into open-water swimming via triathlon, and I got into triathlon after I did a couch potato to 5k course. Who knew!” Audrey adds: “It’s not always about how far or fast you can swim, sometimes it’s just about being in the water.”

Jojo O’Brien turned to swimming in the ocean after a foot injury forced her to step back from work as a ski instructor.

If more experienced swimmers feel inspired by this celebration of the power of water, Water Aid’s Swim Marathon starts this month. The event challenges outdoor swimmers to take on their own marathon or half marathon and swim 13 or 26 miles over the course of 12 weeks to raise money for WaterAid. Money raised “helps transform lives by bringing clean water to communities around the world,” explains Charlie. Sounds like yet another great reason to swim.

l-r: Audrey Livingston and Debbie Croydon founded 'Soul Swimmers', a community for Black and Asian female swimmers.
We all have our own personal connections to water, and WaterAid’s new gallery, Reasons to Swim, celebrates the role it plays in the lives of swimmers across the UK. One in ten people around the world do not have clean drinking water close to home, impacting on their health, education and livelihoods. By taking part in a WaterAid swimming event, you can help transform lives by bringing clean water to communities around the world. Find out more here.
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