The Cold Fix
When Sara Barnes was robbed of her active lifestyle, open water swimming became her saviour. In her own words, she details how she took the plunge and why she wants more women to do the same
By Sara Barnes
Take one skinny, taller than average, girl out of warm Caribbean waters and plonk her in an ice hole in a frozen fjord. Add in 55 intervening years of being a primary school high jumper, a university oarswoman and a Lakeland triathlete and you have me.
Over the years I have been an enthusiastic participant in many different sports. I know my body inside out (or so I thought) and enjoy pushing myself to achieve personal goals. Until, in 2017, after months of debilitating and excruciating pain, which had gradually robbed me of my active lifestyle, I had major surgery. Osteotomies were performed on both legs, which meant breaking my tibia and inserting bone grafts to realign the load bearing.
The operation was not particularly successful and I was left with the Herculean task of relearning the basics, such as walking. To overcome physical and emotional pain I took dramatic action. I hobbled on crutches into Crummock Water in a wetsuit. It was a transformative experience. Hope was sparked that day and I whispered a prayer to the mountains as I floated. It has been a long road back to a semblance of my former self. Albeit accepting that certain things are now beyond my capability, I still dream of cycling up an alpine col and jumping into a mountain tarn at the top.
The unusually cold winter of 2020 spoiled us with temperatures of around 3C in the lakes and even my Japanese bathtub froze over. I grew to love the intense feeling on immersion, which I liken to chilli pepper oil being smeared all over you, especially in those sensitive places! All your thoughts become focused on what is going on inside your body as you accept and submit to the pain of the cold.
I swim every single day no matter what the weather and often plan it in advance, depending on time available, weather, my mood and what I need from the swim. Choices include mountain river pools and becks, lakes with jetties for jumping off and lakes that are more remote, high tarns and even the Irish Sea. This sounds idyllic, but some days it is extremely lonely and hard to motivate myself to go. Dedication to the cold fix is non negotiable though and even if I only go and sit in the beck for a few minutes the benefits are tangible. When I have company, the shared planning, journey and joy create a wonderful dynamic, which is exactly why I enjoy being part of the cold water swimming community online and in real life: we share common experiences and dreams.
It’s now become a part of my life to travel to meet other swimmers, although I admit I still feel apprehensive about swimming somewhere new. It was therefore a natural decision to include other people in my book, The Cold Fix. The most complicated element in the early stages was to divide the book up into archetypes: Mother, Warrior, Child, Panther and Thinker. These all relate to qualities I have within myself and see in other people too. Out of 16 people interviewed, I actually met and swam with 12 in real life, the remaining four I interviewed via Zoom. Each one of them lived up to the archetype I had assigned them. One of the most exhilarating experiences was ‘the walk of death’ in Norway, with one of my Panthers, Elli. I flew into Kristiansand, southern Norway, in a snowstorm and, after an afternoon of chatting and sipping cocoa, Elli suggested we go for a swim from her dock in the dark.
Winter days are short this far north and it was dreadful weather: with sleet being blown horizontally. I really couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do less. But if you are in the throes of writing a book about the joys of cold water immersion, I guess you’ve got to immerse yourself in truly cold water at some point. So, off we went, across an icy, treacherous, wobbly wooden jetty sticking out into a stormy Norwegian fjord. By the light of our smiles we managed to find some balance and strip down to just neoprene socks and gloves and climb down a ladder into scarily big waves. I don’t know whether I was more petrified of my clothes blowing off the jetty or being consumed by whatever creature lurked in the water. Loud swearing, howls of laughter and squeals of joy burst through the screaming wind that night and a friendship was forged. My portrait of Elli is testament to the healing power of cold water and I spent the next couple of days listening and talking, sharing and investing emotionally in her story and she in mine. She is a collector of moments and believes that whatever our sadnesses and tragedies there is a moment each day that we can call beautiful.
One of my Warriors is a lady called Elaine. Her photos had caught my attention partly because of her very long red hair, but also because she always seemed to carry herself tall and proud, like a warrior. During lockdown she lifted weights in her garage and I found it fascinating that someone so feminine and slight could lift such heavy weights and be so powerful. As a pole dance instructor core strength is key, along with a passion for 8 inch heeled platform pole boots! She intrigued me and I wanted to meet her. In The Cold Fix I describe my first ever wild campervan experience, parking up in a public car park for the night by a loch. It turned out to be pretty life affirming, built my self confidence and allowed me to experience sunrise at the loch with all the birdlife and early morning rowers. Listening to Elaine talk while we swam together in a tiny reservoir I understood more deeply what the cold means to her: she has the place to herself. In winter she wears a wetsuit so she can swim for longer. One positive for her of braving the cold is being part of nature unlike any of the other sports she enjoys, even SUP. Swimming is a moving meditation; she doesn’t expect anything of it. With weights, she vents against the bar, but she brings no anger or frustration to the water.
While writing the book I visited some great swim locations, such as Norway, where I did more sea swimming than I am used to. Winter sea swimming is an amazing experience, especially if there is snow on the beach and ice in the water. This was, in fact, one of the reasons to write the book: to document taking my own swimming experience to the final destination, or what I considered to be the final destination in terms of coldness: the iconic ice hole.
One of the most challenging and yet rewarding parts of writing this story has to be convincing family and non-swimming friends that this book is about something deeper than being brave or yet another hair-brained dream of mine. To have my voice heard by others after years of writing thousands of words that are only read by me has also been an incredibly humbling experience. It has taught me that determination and self belief pay off eventually.
Then, to see both my children try cold water swimming comes even higher up on my list of reasons why this journey has been so rewarding. Even though my son finds it horrible I believe it is a question of time and maturity. These things evolve as and when you need them in your life. My daughter is now a fairly experienced cold water swimmer and she and her boyfriend enjoy a cold plunge in the Peak District where they live.
I have been doing a personal challenge called 60/60/60 where I am swimming with 60 different people in 60 different places in my 60th year. Underpinning it is a desire to encourage younger women not to be afraid of growing older. I have swum with all sorts of people, one inflatable flamingo in Spain and a jumping dog in the Lake District. My number 24 appeared out of nowhere. A walker who stripped down to her undies and slipped into the river pool where I was cooling off.
Elizabeth was 83 and had just completed her fifth round of Wainwrights. She started when she was 60. Our conversation lasted for well over an hour, both in the water, while getting dressed and on the way back to our cars. The strange thing is that Elizabeth appeared in the water on the anniversary of the day my mother had fallen so ill after lockdown and it felt as if she’d been sent to be with me and look after me.
I hope you can sense some of the threads that run through my world and The Cold Fix: to not be afraid of life or the obstacles it throws in your path. To find the key to unlock your full potential and release creativity, love, friendships, performance and happiness.
My intention was to create something more than another wild swimming book, or a guide on how to swim in cold water. I see it as a wish list for people who know there’s something precious inside their beings, something other sports haven’t quite reached. It’s about being eager to peel back your own layers, to support other people doing the same thing.
Finally, to quote from The Cold Fix: ‘A beautiful combination of spiritual, science, emotional and physical, the cold water provides safety in the depths of risk, comfort in the arms of discomfort and pleasure amidst pain. We are not masochists; we are ordinary humans who have found a way to live while we’re alive’.