Outdoors: The Bluetits
Meet Sian Richardson, founder of The Bluetits, whose journey from a non-athlete to a passionate advocate for cold-water swimming has inspired thousands around the world
Photography by Ella Richardson
Sian Richardson’s battle with depression led her to reluctantly take up running, eventually completing her first half marathon and inspiring her to tackle ultra-marathons. But her journey didn’t stop there. She learned to swim and entered the challenging world of triathlons and Ironman competitions. Intrigued by the idea of swimming in freezing temperatures, Sian formed a supportive community known as The Bluetits. We chat to Sian about this amazing community which connects 120,000 members worldwide and how it has been built on kindness, courage, and a love for cold-water swimming.
Glorious: Have you always been an outdoors person, what led you to cold-water swimming?
Sian Richardson: I was born on a farm in Pembrokeshire, surrounded by water. Despite not considering myself an athlete, I enjoyed water sports with my family. When I faced depression, I was advised to take up running, which I did reluctantly because it didn’t come naturally to me and initially I ran at night because I was very embarrassed by the fact that anybody would see me. My mental wellbeing did improve, I overcame self-consciousness and this led to my first half marathon. Motivated by my half marathon achievement, I decided to push myself further and embarked on 52-mile ultra-marathons. Although I was always among the last few finishers, I celebrated every accomplishment, grateful for completing these demanding races and being alive. I became the person at the back of the pack who conversed with fellow participants, thanked the marshals, and allowed faster runners to pass. It amazed me that I, a non-athlete, was now running marathons! It didn’t end there – I learnt to swim properly so I could join my daughter in triathlons and I also entered Ironman.
Glorious: Wow! You certainly enjoy a challenge, so what came next?
Sian Richardson: As I entered my late 40s, training for an Ironman became physically demanding. On the day of the Ironman race, standing at the starting line, I already believed I wouldn’t finish, but I held onto my motto of bravery, acknowledging that starting was the most courageous act. Though I was pulled off the bike course due to my pace, I wasn’t disheartened. Initially, I declared that I was retiring from challenges, but someone mentioned the term Ice Mile to me. I only heard the word mile, so thought that doesn’t sound very difficult, it’s only a mile! Curiosity led me to Google it and I decided to take on the challenge.
I started swimming every day, initially unaware of the significance of swimming in temperatures below five degrees Celsius for an ice mile. Ice swimming was still considered an unusual and niche sport, but I noticed a stark difference in the people involved compared to other sports. They were supportive and encouraging, regardless of the distance I swam or any nervousness I felt. They didn’t dismiss my concerns with an “everything will be fine” attitude. Instead, they fostered a spirit of togetherness, promising that someone would be waiting at the end with a robe and towel. It was a unique atmosphere for me, and it fuelled my determination to continue training. I had initially assumed that becoming an Ice Mile swimmer would be easy, but it proved to be more challenging than expected.
Glorious: That’s amazing! So, how did this lead to The Bluetits being born?
Sian Richardson: As I entered my second winter training for the Ice Mile, I had gained considerable interest from people in Pembrokeshire. They would eagerly wait for me on the beach, asking about my motivations and questioning my sanity. Despite their remarks, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Some individuals started joining me, not specifically for the ice mile, but for the experience of cold-water swimming. One day, my husband suggested that I give myself a name. He pointed out how incredibly happy I was after my swims, contrasting with my initial grumbling and whining about the cold before leaving the house. When I returned, I would talk non-stop for half an hour, my skin glowing, and my enthusiasm overflowing. He jokingly said, “You should call yourself The Bluetits because you come back with blue tits.” I burst into laughter and thought it was a wonderful name.
Glorious: How did you develop The Bluetits community?
Sian Richardson: Well, it all started quite informally. We called ourselves The Bluetits, but there was no official status or anything. As people visited during the summer, they heard about the group and expressed their interest in starting their own group to be a part of it. More and more people started joining because I enjoyed using social media and creating videos of my swimming adventures with my dog and friends, emphasising our identity as The Bluetits and the word started spreading rapidly.
Then came the lockdown, and I thought it would be the end of it because nobody could swim anymore, but surprisingly during the lockdown people were desperate for social interaction and although they couldn’t swim, they joined the groups that had been set up just to connect with others. By the end of the lockdown or during the phases when swimming became possible again, we had thousands of people eager to talk to someone real and to engage in exercise, we experienced an explosive growth during that time.
Glorious: That’s amazing! So, how many Bluetits are there now?
Sian Richardson: It’s incredible, really. We now have 120,000 Bluetits from all around the world. It became overwhelming for me in 2021 with the flood of emails and media requests. I couldn’t handle it all by myself. That’s when I enlisted the help of my friends—an accountant, a social media expert, and someone experienced in adventure activities. Together, we established The Bluetits Chill Swimmers Limited, a non-profit company. With their support, The Bluetits community skyrocketed. Nowadays, I focus on the enjoyable aspects, such as swimming, media engagements, creating videos and reels.
Glorious: How does The Bluetits operate?
Sian Richardson: Each group has an admin responsible for managing the page and ensuring its smooth operation. Additionally, we have a Community Manager based in Pembrokeshire HQ who acts as a point of contact for admins, assisting them in resolving any issues that may arise. We actively produce safety videos and conduct webinars on topics like RLSS (Royal Life Saving Society) guidelines. Our approach is informal, and while the 21 swim coaches we have now operate their own businesses, they offer affordable lessons and safety sessions to Bluetits members. Moving forward, we intend to have trained Bluetit water safety officers, who will not dictate what you should or shouldn’t do but will organise water safety sessions, either online or in person, on a monthly basis. I want to point out that we are currently not generating any profit and for the first time we are seeking grants to sustain the core operations of Bluetits. Once established, any merchandise revenue can be reinvested to create profits and further enhance our offerings.
Glorious: The Bluetits clearly has such a strong sense of community, how do you foster this?
Sian Richardson: We’ve all been through it—the fear of meeting new people, the fear of exposing our bodies, the fear of the cold water, the fear of humiliation. But we’ve overcome those fears. And as time goes on, we start feeling like a part of the group, those fears no longer hold us back. We remember this, and when new people join us, we want them to experience the same transformation. The amazing thing is, they do. All they need to do is be kind to one another. There’s no need for intense breathing exercises or chakra balancing. You don’t have to pay anything to participate. Someone will provide you with a swimsuit and a towel if you don’t have them. Personally, I have a collection of swimsuits that I can’t even count. What I love about this is its pure simplicity. It all boils down to people being kind to one another, coming together to support and uplift each other, and saying, “You can do this!” You don’t need anything else.
Glorious: Can you give us an insight into how members of the group support each other?
Sian Richardson: People who call themselves avid swimmers often look down on us because we’re just casual splashes, mere dippers. But when you make the decision to join us, despite feeling nervous, self-conscious about your weight, age, or any other reason, it’s a massive step. You show up to a group of strangers, exposing your body to the world in a swimsuit (or wetsuit, if you prefer). Then, you take the next courageous step of entering the sea, even in the summer, where the cold and chill hit you immediately. But you do it. For many who join us, it’s a significant amount of exercise.
I remember one lady who couldn’t put her own shoes on, so she always asked someone else to help. After six weeks with us, she could put her shoes on by herself. She was so excited that she shared this achievement with her practice nurse. She’s in her late 60s, and while some may see it as insignificant and ridiculous, we all laughed, clapped, and cheered for her. We were all there with her, supporting her journey. She had undergone dreadful knee operations and was generally unfit, but she became a wonderful example of someone who initially believed she couldn’t do it but eventually took the plunge. This is how the term “dry Bluetit” came about because she didn’t swim for quite some time, but eventually, she did.
Glorious: In what ways has The Bluetits utilised social media platforms to connect with members and share their swimming experiences?
Sian Richardson: When you browse through our social media, you’ll come across numerous pictures. I encourage this because there was a time when someone joined the Pembrokeshire Bluetits, but they never attended the swims, and I couldn’t understand why. I eventually approached this woman as I had noticed her swimming and I asked her if she would like to join our swims, and why she hadn’t done so already, to which she replied, “Oh, yes, I would, but I don’t know if I’m ready.” She revealed that she was waiting to see a picture on the group page that she could relate to, someone that looked like her.
Now, seven years later, I’ve heard similar stories hundreds of times. People browse the page, wondering if there are others their age, if they share similar experiences, if they have the same wrinkles or body type, or if they’re as adventurous as them. They examine the pictures and comments until they find the one that makes them think, “Yes, this is me. This is my community.” So, when a new group starts up, and someone expresses their doubts or hesitations, we reach out to them. We let them know that we’ve had 20 people on the page for six months without them swimming. We advise the group organisers never to remove or ask people to leave. We encourage them to keep posting pictures, and one day, those individuals will come across a picture that resonates with them, and they’ll finally join us.
Glorious: What is an exciting achievement for the group that stands out for you?
Sian Richardson: There have been many, but most recently, 31 of us participated in the World International Winter Swimming Championships in Slovenia. This moment held significant meaning for me as I recalled standing alone at events in years past. This time, we had 31 Bluetits representing us at the prestigious championships, where 29 countries were present. Our group, with an average age of 58, stood out as most teams typically comprised individuals in their 20s and 30s. Looking ahead, Estonia will host the championships next year and there will be 60 of us. We’ve chosen to name ourselves the Global Bluetits team, or GB for short. We proudly declare, “Here we come, the over 50 swimmers!”
Glorious: Where do you see The Bluetits heading in the future?
Sian Richardson: Our current primary objective is the water safety officer role because as our community continues to grow, it’s crucial to demonstrate to the public our commitment to water safety. My perspective on many things is that people will inevitably engage in various activities, therefore our best approach is to provide them with sufficient education to inspire them to seek further knowledge. One of the key messages we emphasise is the enjoyment and safety that comes with swimming in a group. There is always someone keeping an eye on you, and there’s always someone who possesses valuable knowledge. There will always be individuals who think they know better, but that sparks discussions and debates, leading to learning experiences. I believe that The Bluetits community needs to be more explicit in clarifying that we are not a group of crazy older people that throw themselves willy-nilly into cold water, but we approach cold water swimming with care and consideration.